Knife in the Water (1962)

D: Roman Polanski
S: Leon Niemczyk, Jolanta Umecka, Zygmunt Malanowicz

Overrated but very interesting low budget drama from first time Polish director Roman Polanski. A middle aged man and his young wife pick up a hitch hiker on their way to their yacht. A battle of wills ensues between the older and younger man, a clash of political and social values which also contains a strong element of sexual antagonism. When the older man invites the younger to join them on their expedition, the three are isolated in an enclosed space which heightens the tension to an inevitable breaking point.

Absorbing and very well put together under the circumstances, the film is most notable as a sustained variation on a theme. It doesn't quite fill every moment of screen time with useful information, and one gets the feeling that it could have been done as a short with equal success. Yet Polanski has done a solid job of extending the physical action and breaking up the limited space into manageable settings within which the characters do battle.

As a first feature, it is very accomplished. There are a few moments of directorial indulgence, but on the whole Polanksi succeeds in using the camera to enhance the story. This is quite essential given that most of the drama is beneath the surface, or revealed in a series of small actions which add up to a large confrontation only in hindsight and with careful attention to detail. Its denouement is a moment of political hesitancy best understood relevant to the political climate in which the film would originally have been received, and draws attention to the fact that there is a strong underlying political component to a film which might otherwise have been made in Hollywood.

Its major selling point for a contemporary audience is of course the curiosity value for fans of the director's subsequent work. This reveals a number of thematic and stylistic concerns which would continue to occupy him throughout the 1960s, and which resurface even later in the likes of Bitter Moon, albeit in a more exaggerated and explicit form.

Knife in the Water is a worthwhile viewing experience, though it has been perhaps elevated by critical exaggeration to a point where it becomes impossible to appreciate its simpler pleasures.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.