Knife in the Water [subtitled]

Knife in the Water

Knife in the Water is Roman Polanski’s first movie, made in Poland in 1962.

One odd thing is that only about 80% of the dialogue is subtitled. Often a character will say a whole sentence, but there will be no subtitles. I doubt I missed much due to that though. It’s not that hard to fill in the blanks and figure out approximately what the person said. But I just find it puzzling it was done that way.

It’s a very talky movie where the action is about 90% psychological and 10% actual most of the way, though it shifts a bit more toward the actual in the last maybe twenty minutes.

There are only three characters. A middle-aged sportswriter and his younger wife are driving down a country road toward a lake where they intend to go sailing. A youthful (apparently college student) hitchhiker boldly flags them down by standing in the center of the road as if daring them to run him down.

The husband is initially irate, but decides to offer him a ride, seemingly for some kind of psychological reason involving his wife, like he’s showing off that he can overcome his anger, or he wants the youth in the car so he can tell him off and dominate him to impress her or something.

When they get to the lake, he even invites the young man to join them on their little sailboat. The youth is not all that keen on the idea, but ultimately agrees.

Again why the offer is made and why it is accepted is unclear. I would guess it has something to do with each wanting to stick around the other so he’ll have a chance to best him in some way in front of the wife, but I don’t know.

For me at least, things play out in a surprisingly subtle way when they’re on the boat. It looks like it’s set up for the newcomer to flirt with the wife or her to flirt with him or both, and for the two males to become increasingly competitive and antagonistic in her presence. (Or I suppose for all three of them just to be nice people who get along and become friends, but it doesn’t feel like the kind of movie destined to move in that direction.)

And I’m not saying those things don’t happen at all, but they’re very, very slow to develop, and mostly ambiguous when they do happen. It’s especially odd that for the longest time the wife barely opens her mouth. Pretty much all the dialogue and all of what little action there is takes place between the two males, and she’s like a largely forgotten extra in the film.

She barely acknowledges they brought this stranger on their boat, and the youth seems to have little or no interest in checking her out. (As opposed to the camera, which takes every opportunity to check her out. She somehow seems to be right up close to the camera whenever she needs to move to another section of the boat in her bikini. Quite a lot of close up bare leg shots. I’m guessing this movie goes about as far as one could in that direction in a 1962 Eastern Bloc country.)

Maybe it’s more a violation of movie conventions than reality that the tension, the flirting, the competitiveness doesn’t develop more quickly and more blatantly. Eventually there is indeed a decent amount going on psychologically among these three characters, but the movie takes you through a lot of small talk and inaction to get there.

Maybe for some viewers that makes it all the more intriguing and ominous, the way it builds so slowly and stays so subtle for so long. And I can kind of see that, but for me a lot of this movie is quite boring.

The events toward the end, when things do pick up a bit, are handled quite well. I won’t give away any of the specifics, but at the close the husband isn’t quite sure whether to believe the wife about a certain ethical dilemma they find themselves in, and the wife isn’t quite sure she wants to convince him.

It’s not a boffo action ending, but it’s a thought-provoking ending.

That raises the movie a bit in my estimation, but other than that last portion I can’t say it drew me in all that much. It’s all very smooth and professional and well-acted with some interesting camera shots and such—so it feels like the work of a skilled director—but I’m finding it hard to say that overall it was better than just OK for me.

Knife in the Water does make sailing look quite enjoyable though; that’s one reaction I had watching some of the scenes on the water. It depicts sailing as challenging enough to be interesting but not so much as to be miserable and frustrating. It looks like plenty of fun zipping along, taking a dip in the water, lying on the deck in the sun relaxing, etc. I could easily see spending a day doing that stuff, especially if I were accompanied by a cute Polish girl in a bikini.

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