I love a good old black and white foreign film. There is just something about them that really makes me happy. They touch me in a way that a modern film just can’t. They seem more visceral, more able to capture that ideas of the time they were made than movies can these days. Knife in the Water is one of these great old black and white foreign films. It is also the first major film Roman Polanski ever made and the only one made completely in his home country.
Like most Polanski films, this film is deceptively simple. A couple pick up a hitchhiker on their way to their sailing trip. The hitchhiker is an angry and naive young man who chooses to take on the sailing trip with them. The husband is a burly athletic man eager to show his superiority to the young man. The wife is a detached and beautiful presence. Throughout the course of the day and night, the husband and the young man play a verbal tug of war that results in some dire situations. The woman seems to be in the middle and yet above it all. That is until the knife goes into the water and the final scuffle starts. Everything quickly comes to a head.
What is great about this film is the characters resistance to being pigeon hold. Take the wife for instance. She is silent for most of the first half of the film. She says things that she feels should reign in her husband’s stories and diatribes, but they always fail. But towards the end she does a 180. She becomes a person full of vitality and confronts her husband directly. In a way the action pushed her to become so direct, but in another way she seems to be bursting through her evading ways with a sigh of relief. The husband and the hitchhiker both end up the same way. Due to the situation in front of them, they are able to realize who they truly are. And because Polanski is a cynic person (delightfully so, sometimes) what they see is usually something they don’t like.
I would be kicking myself if I didn’t say something about the look of the film. Almost completely shot on a small yacht and with only three actors, the film could have easily become visually boring. But even from the beginning, Polanski was a master. During the fight that is the climax of the film, the husband uses his ability to move the sails rapidly to his advantage. The hitchhiker is about to strike him and he throws the sail so that it picks him up and swings him over the edge of the yacht. He dangles above the water. This results in the most iconic image of the film. These sails had been present in several shots before but were not seen in such a dangerous way. Now this sail could be as deadly as the over large knife the hitchhiker carries. That is just one example of how Polanski twists the images around him in order to create an intense atmosphere.