Inspired directors oftentimes do not make themselves known in grandiose flourishes but in the smallest of touches, and in his debut, Polish newcomer Roman Polanski does something interesting with the opening of Knife in the Water. Perhaps it’s not that unusual, but it’s also hard to remember the last film where the camera was on the outside of a driving car, looking in. We see shadows of faces overlaid with credits and then finally the faces are revealed only to be shrouded by the reflections of overhanging trees glancing off the windshield.
Only minutes later do we hear their first words and actually get inside the car. From that point on it’s a jaunt to remember, but Polanski seems to be toying with us a bit. Getting us a little on edge for the inevitable that awaits us. And the beauty is that the film continues to be a story of intricacies rather than overbearing bits of drama and action. It works in the minutiae.
Our narrative is incited by the fact that the couple picks up a young hitchhiker, or rather the husband almost runs him over, getting out to berate the man’s stupidity, before relenting and allowing him to join their escapade. Soon enough, they are about to board their boat for a day out on the water and in this premise, it feels a little like Purple Noon. People in close confines inevitably leads to conflict, all it takes is time. Knife in the Water’s silver shades of black and white serve as a contrast to the other film, and while Alain Delon eventually leaves his sea legs behind, for all intent and purposes this is a chamber piece.
Thus, it becomes an exercise of technical skill, much like Hitchcock in Lifeboat or any other film that limits itself to a single plane of existence. Polanski’s framing of his shots with one figure right on the edge of the frame and others arranged behind is invariably interesting. Because although space is limited, it challenges him to think outside the box, and he gives us some beautiful overhead images as well which make for a generally dynamic composition. That is overlaid by a jazzy score of accompaniment courtesy of Krzysztof Komeda, a future collaborator on many of Polanski’s subsequent works during the ’60s.
Although this was Polanski’s first film, as viewers we have the luxury of hindsight, knowing at least a little about his filmography from Repulsion to Rosemary’s Baby to Chinatown to The Pianist proves enlightening. Thus, he automatically conjures up elements relating to psychological duress and personal misery. The tragic murder of his beloved wife Sharon Tate and his turbulent life following that act are obvious touchstones.
However, at this point, as a young director, he is simply sharpening his teeth and getting acclimated to the genre a little bit. Knife in the Water builds around the three sides of a love triangle, creating a dynamic of sexual tension because that’s what tight quarters and jealousy do to people. This is less of a spoiler and more of a general observation, but the film does not have a major dramatic twist. Instead, there are heightened tensions, a bit of underwater deception, and finally a fork in the road.
A husband must decide what his conscious would have him do. Call the police or ride away with his toying wife, who he thinks is playing mind games with him. It’s less of a biting melodrama and more of a slow stew, which is admittedly far more interesting in this case. Because, again, Polanski shows his prowess in working in the minutiae. A game of pick-up sticks even becomes entertaining, and the eponymous knife does not play the type of role we expect. It’s a testament to a director not giving way to convention, but finding inspiration to subvert the established order and do something with a new level of ingenuity.