Knife in the Water
Two men and a woman isolated on a boat. Bickering,
sexual tension, power games. Weapons are ominously glimpsed, provisions run
low, and the weather threatens to overthrow the last shred of the fragile
status quo on deck. It sounds like the situation of Sam Neill, Nicole Kidman
and Billy Zane in Phillip Noyce’s Dead
Calm (1989) – which is a good clue as to the international impact and
influence wielded by Roman Polanski’s debut feature, effectively launching his
global career after the shorts (Two Men and a Wardrobe  and The Fat and the Lean ) that so
strikingly mixed surrealistic and Absurdist conceits with the cool, brooding
unease of the existentialist ‘50s.
As an art movie of the early ‘60s, Knife in the Water certainly recalls Michelangelo
Antonioni’s disquieting portrayals of what Raymond Durgnat termed the “skin
games” going on among beautiful people. But the film also hints (somewhat
vaguely) at an undercover allegory of daily life in communist Poland. Indeed,
the film was condemned within its homeland by the Communist Party First
Secretary Gomulka; he disliked its fixation on the bourgeois element of society,
and probably rightly sensed a critique of the Party’s more privileged members.
But Polanksi has always been, as well as a keen social
satirist, a pop culture entertainer. Knife
in the Water (co-written by the great Jerzy Skolimowski) stands up today as
a suspenseful, intriguing tale of cat-and-mouse between a writer, Andrzej (Leon
Niemczyk), his bored wife Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka), and a blond, unnamed hitch-hiker
One optimistic commentator suggested that the value of
1998’s version of Psycho was in its pinpointing of a
large tradition of films influenced by Alfred Hitchcock’s original. Fortunately,
Gus Van Sant will not have to arduously remake Knife in the Water for anyone seeing it today to realise that, in
it, Polanski virtually set the template for the modern thriller genre.
As in many intimacy thrillers of the Cape Fear (1991) ilk, this married couple is presented, from the first frames, as being
in the grip of a tearing malaise. Once the stranger is introduced, the film
ceaselessly plays on tensions arising from social and class difference – especially
the boy’s rough manners, lack of culture and fiendishly attractive spontaneity.
Polanski in 1962 was still a “promising” director, and
not quite yet the master of image, sound, performance and storytelling that he
would become, once and for all, with Rosemary’s Baby (1968).
But Knife in the Water is a film that
still impresses with the variety of visual perspectives (those plunging overhead
shots taken from the mast!) and the proliferation of micro-intrigues that it
engineers within a small, cramped space. On this level, it can serve as a fine
model for any low-budget filmmaker today.
See also the audiovisual essay Roman Polanski: A Cinema of Invasion made by Cristina Álvarez López and me for an ACMI retrospective in October 2016.
© Adrian Martin February 2000 / April 2001