Monday, October 1, 2012

A Dull Blade: "Knife in the Water" (1963)

Roman Polanski's debut film is an excruciating exercise in suspense...if you have never seen a suspense film before.

Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk) is a control freak with hot little wife Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka) on his arm. The pair rarely talk, knowing their roles in the relationship. On the way to the marina for a day of sailing, they pick up a young hitchhiker (Zygmunt Malanowicz).

On the spur of the moment, the couple invites the man to go sailing with them. He cannot swim, and Andrzej delights in needling him. The stranger begins bantering back, and holding his own. Common problems turn into a battle of wills with Krystyna being both an observer and a prize in the psychological contest.

Over the decades, "Knife in the Water"'s reputation has overshadowed its reality. Polanski gives us the eye catching visuals we expect from a Polanski film. The tiny cast is good. The black and white photography is beautiful.

I feel a suspense film should be suspenseful. This is not. The first two-thirds of the film grow tedious, as the two men butt heads over a woman who comes off as more than a little disinterested. The viewer loses interest, too. The jazzy musical score is unintentionally funny, and completely wrong for the film. By the time things came to a head, I kept watching for something shocking, or a major change in the characters, or anything. I got an unsatisfying ending, the characters leaving me cold.

Much like Polanski's "Repulsion," "Knife in the Water" disappoints. Film purists might watch it for kicks, but Polanski's best work ("Macbeth," "The Pianist") was yet to come. (* * *) out of five stars.