KNIFE IN THE WATER — CLASSIC FILM PICK
For his debut feature film — after graduating from Poland’s famed National Film School in Lodz — Roman Polanski set out to break several golden rules of academic filmmaking. Conventional wisdom at the time dictated that setting a filmic narrative on a boat was akin to artistic suicide. These were the days before “handheld” anything-film-related after all. With the aid of a brilliant minimalist script by Jerzy Skolimowski, Polanski not only flouted cinematic tradition, he efficiently laid the groundwork for many of the films he would make over the next decade. Indeed, in “Knife in the Water” (1962) you can see elements and themes that Polanski extrapolated on in psychological thrillers such as “Repulsion” (1965), “Cul-de-sac” (1966), “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968), and “The Tenant” (1976). Polanski’s haunting use of Krzysztof Komeda’s straight-ahead jazz score creates an atmospheric leitmotif — something crucial to many of the filmmaker’s later movies.
Stunted virility and the male ego come under close inspection in Polanski’s camera-microscope in a story with just three characters. A well-to-do couple — Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk) and Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka) — drive their sports car through the Polish countryside on their way to a weekend sailing trip aboard Andrzej’s yacht. He isn’t happy with her driving. They stop to switch places. Andrzej is considerably older than his female companion. Their age difference becomes a simmering issue after the couple picks up a young blonde roustabout (Zygmunt Malanowicz) hitchhiking in the middle of the road. The car almost hits him. Andrzej tempers his fury at the young man’s dangerous behavior as a way of challenging Krystyna’s callow sense of propriety. Both men are looking for trouble. Krystyna is a poker-faced object of desire, more confident than either of the men.
Once on the sailboat, the trio’s voyage becomes a multi-layered metaphor for ideas and motivations related to notions of one-upmanship, sexual attraction, and ulterior motives.
Polanski works closely with cinematographer Jerzy Lipman to build tension and suspense in every camera shot and Dutch angle the team use to tell the linear story. The unpredictable hitchhiker has brought along a large switchblade of the most dangerous variety. Its phallic blade ejects straight out from the handle, so that if the user were to hold the knife against a person’s stomach and press the release button, the spring-loaded mechanism would instantly impale the victim.
Character traits inform the suspense. The hitchhiker doesn’t know how to swim. That doesn’t stop him from climbing to the top of the boat’s high mast, or hanging off the side of the yacht to mime running across the water’s surface. A cuckolding scenario gradually becomes a mutually imagined objective in spite of the obvious hatred between the two men. A storm sends the trio into the hull where they play a game that involves relinquishing items of clothing. Before the voyage is over, each person will achieve his or her consciously, or subconsciously, informed desires.
“Knife in the Water” was the first Polish movie to receive an Oscar nomination for best foreign-language movie.
Not Rated. 94 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)