Knife in the Water (Roman Polanski, 1962)

**SPOILERS throughout, I guess, but I’m not really giving away the plot per sé, more like the nature of the film…**

…which I thankfully knew very little about when I started watching, instead diving in knowing only that it was about a couple who picks up a hitchhiker, and the three go on a sailing trip.  That, coupled with an ominous title like “Knife in the Water,” naturally made me assume that it’d be a thriller, incorporating at least some of the now-familiar crazed hitchhiker, damsel in distress, in-danger-in-the-middle-of-nowhere tropes, but with Polanski’s massive directorial skill there to nevertheless make those clichés rise above familiar dullness.  Yes, it turned out to be a thriller, but not nearly of the type I was expecting.  For most of the 90+ minute run-time, we see little more than the cocky man, his beautiful wife, and the young and brash hitchhiker at sea, eating or discussing mundane things or the man teaching the hitchhiker how to steer the boat.

And yet, there’s an undeniable tension.  A knot was slowly but surely developing in the pit of my stomach as the goings-on of this little sailing expedition grew more and more…mundane.  Could it be that something as simple as an ominous film title was enough to plant that knot in my stomach and train me to feel that tension that possibly wasn’t even there?  If the film was called, I dunno, “Sailing” or something, instead of “Knife in the Water,” would I not have felt that tension?  I probably would have, Polanski knows exactly what he’s doing, but it was certainly at least something of a factor.  As we watch the beautiful Jolanta Umecka walk around the tiny boat in her very revealing bikini (and Jolanta Umecka is unbelievably beautiful, by the way ), how odd that the boy rarely even so much as shoots a glance that that tempting-as-hell body, even with her husband in eyeshot.  And yet, it’s as if Polanski is tempting we the viewers to ogle this beautiful woman, as the boy should be doing but seemingly isn’t.  And that’s one of the most commendable things about “Knife in the Water,” that it never takes the easy way out of signifying sexual tension, through some obvious-as-hell moments of the men drooling over the woman or something like that, and yet, the sexual tension eventually becomes nearly unbearable, just by these three people being there.  After a while of watching the shirtless, good-looking kid climbing the phallic mast and using his just-as-phallic knife to play knife games with his and the man Andrzej’s hand, it becomes pretty apparent where things are headed.

When a lazy, windless day where lethargy begets sexual tautness gives way to a rain storm and a move to the boat’s cabin, we’re treated to what has to be the tensest game of pickup sticks ever committed to film, as Andrzej (feigns?) apathy by listening to a soccer match on his radio while Krystyna and the boy play for stakes (even though the stakes amount to nothing more than singing a song and reciting a poem, the sexual possibilities abound in the back of one’s head).  Yes, the tension is eventually relieved in a shocking way, as you’d expect in a thriller with this basic plot structure, but even that isn’t that shocking, and certainly not a violent, knife-involved bloodbath or anything.  As Andrzej’s cruel mocking and treatment of the boy builds to its crescendo, there’s really no basis for that cruelty as the boy and Krystyna’s relationship to that point never gets past the boy looking away, embarrassed, as she changes out of her bikini.  And yet, they may as well have been eyefucking each other while downright taunting Andrzej, as his behavior builds towards a jealous rage and a massive superiority complex over both his wife and the boy, both of whom seem like little more than his property by the end.  With no false notes of tension or outright sexuality – Krystyna’s merely enjoying the trip while she happens to be wearing a revealing bikini, after all, leaving the viewer to fill in the blanks with his or her own level of attraction – and little by way of plot cliché as the dialogue and plot developments are both banal and what you’d expect in a real-life situation, the tension feels completely and utterly natural, and for that reason, so does its release.  When Krystyna and the boy finally have a moment alone together, when talk leads to a sudden moment of action, it feels like the most natural thing in the world – completely predictable, but for all the right reasons.  After all, they’ve been through a lot the past day or two, lounging on a boat in a dead-calm sea, playing pickup sticks, eating dinner – hell, the climax and the jealousy that builds up to it may’ve been the result of nothing more than these three people beingso bored that that boredom naturally instills in their heads a possibly nonexistent sexual conspiracy, and when you’ve got an arrogant man, his smart and incredibly sexy wife, and a good-looking, impulsive, and mysterious stranger stranger (SO mysterious that he’s never even given a name.  See what Polanski and writers Jakub Goldberg and Jerzy Skolimowski did there?  Do ya? 😛 ) stuck on a tiny boat in the middle of nowhere, can you really blame them?

I’m sure there’s lots of hidden meanings and symbolism strewn throughout “Knife in the Water,” like the aforementioned phallic symbols whose purposes and implications I don’t even need to spell out, and the story of the seaman’s bleeding feet that Andrzej keeps returning to at times, and it’ll take a while for me still to wrap my head around all that and what it all means, but for now I look at this movie as a massively surprising and even more massively unconventional thriller -unconventional in, of all things, its relative verisimilitude.  Thank goodness I knew so little about what to expect going in…which I’ve just ruined for the poor soul who reads this, so my bad 😦 .  Just know, though, that Roman Polanski’s first feature may very well have been his best.

9.5/10

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2 comments so far

  1. always win on

    Tja, das Leben kann so scheisse sein, mann muss sich nur mühe geben.

  2. roulette spiel on

    Tja, das Leben kann so einfach sein, mann muss nur glück haben.


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