The Films Of Roman Polanski: Knife in the Water (#1)

Unlike other directors who needed take baby steps in hopes of building towards future success, Roman Polanski seemed to start his career with the knowledge and experience of a seasoned filmmaker.  His film, Knife in the Water, is one of the most subtle and intelligent film debuts I  have ever seen.  Polanski’s godlike ability to create tension and claustrophobia was clearly present in him from his very first venture into film.

At its heart, Knife in the Water is about a fight for supremacy – two men both posturing for the same woman.  One of the men, an educated and well off writer,  is the woman’s husband.  The other, a young student hitchhiker who enters the equation when the writer picks him up, not out of kindness but to prove a point to his wife.  When he realizes the situation might be an opportunity to show his alpha male status, he invites the student to go sailing with them for the day.  What proceeds is one of the great psychological duels of cinema.

Once on the boat there is a feeling of complete isolation.  It is as if these are the last three people in existence.  Polanski’s framing always has land on the horizon but never seems to get closer or further away, as if they are in some sort of limbo until one man can prove dominance over the other.  The tension is then crafted with a series of glances, stares, and suggestive comments, one character having the upper hand and the other always trying to win it back.  The husband uses knowledge and maturity to try to impress his wife while the hitchhiker uses romanticism and his youthfulness.  It becomes more and more obvious that the wife is not entirely thrilled with either one of them which only adds fuel to the fire.  When their egos have both taken a hit too many, the playful game turns into a matter of pride and the men start to crack.  As they revert to an almost primal state, Polanski’s signature playfulness shines as even the films dramatic climax is riddled with humor.

Throughout the film Polanski masterfully weaves shots together that create a feeling of claustrophobia, something that is not easy to do when you can see for miles in all directions.  He constantly keeps one character close in the foreground of his shots and the other two characters or parts of the boat in the middle ground obstructing a clean view of the shore. This not only makes the film feel claustrophobic, but it also allows Polanski to effectively show who currently holds the power in any given situation.  Polanski’s eye for composition leads to some breathtaking black and white shots.   Knife in the Water demonstrates how he went on to be one of the worlds finest filmmakers.

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