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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Review: Knife in the Water (1962)

* * * *

Director: Roman Polanski
Starring: Zygmunt Malanowicz, Leon Niemczyk, Jolanta Umecka

You would think that a premise as simple as this could only be really effective once. Yet, I've seen three films that center on two men and a woman on a boat that range from good to excellent (to wit: this film, Purple Noon and Dead Calm), so obviously the closed and isolated location offers a wealth of possibilities. Knife in the Water, the feature debut of Roman Polanski, isn't really a thriller like either of the other two films, but it's a tense character film that often plays like one.

Knife in the Water begins with a married couple, Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk) and Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka) driving to a lake to go sailing. They encounter a hitchhiker (Zygmunt Malanowicz), who Andrzej passive aggressively invites to ride with them as he fights with Krystyna. When they get to the lake, Andrzej once again invites the hitchhiker to join them, this time on their sailboat. The hitchhiker accepts the offer, though he knows little about sailing, and the three set off on what proves to be a less than relaxing sail. For one thing, Andrzej and the hitchhiker enter into a macho contest of one-upmanship, and for another tensions between both Andrezj and Krystyna and Krystyna and the hitchhiker steadily rise.

The afternoon sail ends up becoming an overnight trip when a storm hits, locking the three in even closer quarters below deck. During this passage, the tension between Krystyna and the hitchhiker starts to become even more pronounced, and in the sequence that follows the competition between Andrzej and the hitchhiker also intensifies. The turning point of the film comes about when Andrzej takes the hitchhiker's knife, challenges him to take it back, and the knife ends up in the water. The hitchhiker, who says he can't swim, orders Andrzej to go retrieve it and the two end up in a physical fight which results in the hitchhiker falling off the boat. Andrzej and Krystyna both jump into the water to search for him, but become convinced that he's drowned. Returning to the boat, they fight about the hitchhiker and what they should do next (she wants to go to the police; he wants to get rid of the hitchhiker's things and pretend it never happened), and Andrzej jumps back into the water to make the long swim back to shore. After Andrzej swims away, the hitchhiker, who has been hiding behind a buoy, returns to the boat. Now he and Krystyna are all alone.

A no thrills film with only three characters and basically one location, Knife in the Water exists entirely on tension. It quickly establishes the characters as archetypes - Andrzej is the older man, aware that he no longer possesses the sexual appeal of the younger man and determined to prove that what he does have is more valuable; the hitchhiker is desperate to prove that he's transitioned from boyhood to manhood and the only real way to do so is to displace the nearest alpha male; Krystyna is "the woman," the prize to be won, the object that affirms the manhood of the winner - but begin to gain dimension as the story unfolds. The marriage is a troubled one, and the film gives the sense that this isn't the first time they've picked up a third so that Andrzej can prove his dominance and, as a result, Krystyna isn't impressed so much as annoyed by the head games being played around her. The hitchhiker, meanwhile, has secrets of his own and makes himself appear weaker than he actually is through his lie about not being able to swim.

There's a lot of ambiguity in the film, particularly towards the end, and the characters (especially Krystyna) remain something of an enigma throughout. Polanski uses this sense of mystery to build scenes of magnificent tension, tension which sometimes dominates a scene and sometimes acts as a mere underscore to it, but which is present from beginning to end. The premise of the film is simple, but the craftsmanship allows it to become complex and highly engaging. Although this was Polanski's first feature film, he already demonstrates a steady command over the material and ability to shape the story into its most advantageous form. As a result, Knife in the Water isn't just the first, it's also one of his best.

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