Roman Polanski seemingly emerged from the womb understanding the art of filmmaking. Or, rather, understanding the art of wombs -- diseased, depraved, disordered and of course, provocative wombs. Cruelty, violence, twisted sexuality, madness, absurdity -- many of Polanski's hallmark obsessions -- are almost always confined to one space. The director loves nothing more than trapping his characters in devil worshiping apartment buildings, phallic, knife-wielding boat trips and unhappy, unsound houses. And water continually means something.
The superb Cul-de-sac (1966) is his bats in the belfry, bat shit crazy house picture (not a Rosemary, Trelkowski apartment -- with evil prying neighbors who holler at you when you attempt to take the garbage down the stairs), and what weird, sexy, subversive, screwy fun it all is. Party at this twisted abode? I'm there. Even if The Tenant's Shelley Winters shows up (she doesn't, of course). But Lionel Stander sure does.
A precursor to themes he would continually study: tortured relationships, bizarre, often charming alarming blonde woman behavior, infidelity, cross-dressing, even a bit of film noir, aided by the stalwart, gravel voiced Stander (alas, best known to some for his role in Hart to Hart -- "Mrs. H, she's goooorgeous!" -- but who should also be remembered as the blacklisted, veteran hard-boiled American character actor) Cul-de-sac is stunningly, at times, brilliantly unhinged with a Pinteresque touch while remaining pure Polanski.
Donald Pleasence is the odd fellow (a grand understatement) who lucks out (or not) with a gorgeous, beguiling wife (the ever poignant Francoise Dorléac; sister to Catherine Deneuve, and an actress who left the world too soon), whom he keeps in an enormous, isolated house on a tiny island off the northeast coast of Britain. Playing like an especially kinky Desperate Hours, the couple will be forced to host two escaped criminals (Stander and Jack MacGowran) after the thugs land at their nutty abode. And then things get...really interesting. But it's not just crime and entrapment that make the story compelling, it's all of the Polanski touches, particularly when he observes the idle activities of Dorléac.
I love her character. Her feral nature mixed with mischief and intelligence and some other quality that might be a bit crazy but... no... she's not crazy. Some may dismiss her as merely childish, but this is a woman -- a woman who can revert to a girl (and what man hasn't ever reverted to a bratty boy?) Dorléac is cheating on her husband (who takes to wearing ladies clothes a la Roman's tortured Tenant Trelkowski), she's also perpetually bored, stuck in the house like a more spirited, extra primal Virgin Suicide sister, and engages in childlike activities to amuse herself. She tears around the house barefoot, applies exaggerated eyeliner (or helps her husband with his), messes with rifles and, the best, most hilarious, lights a sleeping Stander's feet on fire with burning pieces of newspaper between his toes ("It's called a bicycle" she taunts). Oh...you just don't do that to Lionel Stander. Or perhaps, you do. Between these two mismatched misfits, it's disarmingly sexy. Stander with a... belt. She bolts. Oh, what a moment. Polanski so expertly builds up to it, taking his time for us to observe. And listen. And laugh. And flinch. And laugh again. And then feel a little... sexually unnerved (in a good or bad way -- or both). He's good at that.
These characters don't establish things like "safe" words nor do they understand the concept of such a thing, so the perversity, stark beauty, the isolation, the bleakness, the menacing sexuality and the insanity make the whole experience a black humored good time. A romp, in fact. It's oppressive and ominous, of course, but a special kind of Roman romp.
If you haven't already, go get yourself a beautiful copy of Cul-de-sac from Criterion.