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FILM – looking back at KNIFE IN THE WATER

“One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” Those are Anton Chekhov’s wise words from 1889, but they still ring true today. And it goes not just for theater but for literature and film – and knives, namely the sharp one brandished early on in Roman Polanski’s KNIFE IN THE WATER (1962). Shot in black and white with just three actors, two of whom had never acted before, Polanski’s first feature film is often referred to as one of the best directorial debuts in history, right alongside Orson Welles’ CITIZEN KANE and Jean-Luc Godard’s BREATHLESS.

The title refers to the large pocket knife carried by an unnamed hitchhiker who gets picked up by a man, Andrezj, and his wife Krystyna after they nearly run him over in the street. The couple is on their way to a marina where they keep a boat. Instead of leaving the hitchhiker at the docks, they take him on board with them. A power play for the role of alpha male quickly ensues between the two men, culminating in a fist fight that sends the aforementioned knife flying into the water. The hitchhiker is then thrown in after it and is soon presumed to be drowned (he mentioned earlier that he can’t swim). After a rudimentary search of the area, Krystyna accuses Andrezj of murder and, after telling her off, he decides to swim for shore. She’s then left alone on the boat, presumably contemplating her next move when the hitchhiker, who had been clinging behind a nearby buoy the whole time, climbs back onboard. After a brief tryst she sails back to the docks, careful to drop the hitchhiker off along the way. Andrezj is waiting there for her and it appears his mood hasn’t lifted. They drive away from the marina, stopping at a crossroads where Andrezj decides he’ll go to the police. Krystyna reveals that the man was alive after all and that she even cheated on Andrezj with him. He either doesn’t believe her or pretends not to, and the film ends with the car stalled at the intersection. But the power has shifted now and for the first time Krystyna has the upper hand and Andrezj is unsure of what to do.

Polanski treats the subtle changes in the relationships of the three characters with a deft hand, building the tension seamlessly until it reaches the breaking point. For most of the film, things teeter on the verge of going wrong but they never actually do. The stakes are high, too. After all, they’re on a boat, completely at the mercy of the weather with only each other for company. At one point Krystyna and Andrejz go for a swim, leaving the man (who can’t sail either) alone on the boat. The wind picks up and sends the boat flying through the water away from them, but they manage to catch up to it. At another point a storm breaks, harkening potential disaster. Instead, the three of them laugh it off and duck inside the boat to drink and wait it out. Polanski teases us with a series of situations in which everything seems poised to go wrong, but they don’t. So by the time of the fist fight we’re still not sure if it’s really going to lead to anything dire.

KNIFE IN THE WATER was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar and won the Golden Wolf at the 1963 Bucharest Film Festival. More importantly, it launched Polanski’s career and readied audiences for a slew of even more finely crafted, high-tension, seat-gripping films like REPULSION (1965), ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968) and the decidedly more complex CHINATOWN (1974), which many consider his masterpiece. Polanski is currently in post-production on CARNAGE, starring Christoph Waltz, Kate Winslet, Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly. Based on the play of the same name, it’s the story of two couples who meet after “their sons are involved in a schoolyard brawl.” If anyone can take a seemingly innocent storyline like this and turn it dark, it’s Polanski.