Knife in the Water (1962)

Like Hitchcock’s Lifeboat and Spielberg’s Duel, Knife in the Water is a film that takes very little in terms of premise and plot and stretches it into a compelling suspense piece. However, Roman Polanski’s debut lacks those moments of the turning of the screw, the scenes that ratchet up the moment in palpable and dramatic moments. Instead, it’s an ever-flowing series of moments, any of which could lead to a descent into chaos.

Husband and wife Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk) and Krystyna (Jolanta Umeck) are driving to another sailing holiday when they pick up a young hitchhiker (Zygmunt Malanowicz). While at first they simply leave him at the docks, the young man ends up joining the couple on the boating trip, but perhaps not for the best of reasons.

The trip quickly turns into a battle for male supremacy as Andrzej and the hitchhiker try to assert their prowess. Andrzej uses his skill and experience to try to humiliate the hitchhiker at every turn, whether it’s by making the hitchhiker foolishly fail at steering the boat or reducing him to do some work which the hitchhiker deems cruel and unnecessary. But he presses on, especially in the presence of a female who is more than willing to help if the hitchhiker will not.

The hitchhiker, for his part, employs his virile youth to show how he is still agile and the more physically desirable of the two. While there aren’t many displays of acrobatics he can perform on the ship, he does climb and hang from the mast of the small sailboat as well as hang off the side of the boat as proof of his daring. He also carries around a switchblade, which is used more as a display of phallic power than a practical tool.

The film taps into the all too common truth that as long as there is a female around to be impressed, men will do the crazies things and attempt the most retarded feats in order to impress a woman. Whether or not Krystyna is an object of desire makes little difference and she herself often seems indifferent to their actual displays, more worried by the consequences of the men’s brash behavior.

Therefore, there’s something suspenseful about the entire piece. It’s not an overbearing sense of dread, but a slow series of events that build into the inevitable clash that is to result. It’s not inherently nail biting or edge of your seat suspense, but the audience goes through the entire film waiting for that one moment, anticipating the inevitable clash of violence.

Yet it’s not all suspense and egocentric male battles, but also a quite relaxing film at times. After all, the entire trip is intended as a vacation and there are plenty of lulls and moments of idyllically floating in no particular direction. These much needed respites make it a less relentless and merciless film as most of Polanski’s work and also end up being just as enjoyable as watching the men make fools of themselves.

Roman Polanski’s debut is an impressive feat and displays the thread of what would make the director so great. While it doesn’t achieve the high standard of his later classics, it certainly is a strong feature, which fans of Polanski will enjoy.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing