University of Toronto’s CINSSU opened its 2013 winter season with Roman Polanksi’s debut Knife in the Water. What’s striking about seeing the film today is just how confident and restrained a film it is. The plot is simple–a bourgeois couple pick up a hitch-hiker on their way to their sailing boat. Alternatively annoyed and intrigued by the hitch-hiker, the husband invites him along. For the remainder of their journey, the youthful hitch-hiker and the husband trade barbs, show off, and vie for the wife’s attention, in a battle of youth versus experience, poverty versus plenty. Limiting the film to three characters, the boat, and a single day, Polanski develops his characters organically and sustains a rigid, inescapable tension between the three.
Of the film, Peter Cowie writes:
Knife in the Water, Polanski’s maiden feature would define his maverick status once and for all. Polanski’s personality stamps every frame. As one critic noted at the time: “The weapons are glances, words (very few and always exactly chosen). Polanski is a holy terror of intelligent restraint––detached, ironic, playful as a cat with a mouse, encompassing with ease his alternations of the deathly serious and the dead-pan comic.” One should not, however, forget the contribution of Jerzy Skolimowski, who worked on the screenplay and urged Polanski to compress the action into twenty-four hours
From the outset, Polanski creates neat visual ruses to reveal a strength or weakness: the youth’s display of agility as he shinnies unexpectedly up the mast, for example, sends an erotic message to the wife. Much has been written about the phallic symbolism of the hunting knife carried by the youth. The knife lurks not merely as a sign of virility, but also as a metaphor for psychological force in the duel between the two men for the attentions of the woman. Polanski’s rare gift for trapping emotions in imagery rather than exclusively via dialogue aligned him with a fresh, more subtle brand of cinema that swept through Europe in the early 1960s––with Michelangelo Antonioni, Claude Chabrol, Louis Malle, and with Central European directors like Miklos Jancso, Jan Nemec, and Ewald Schorm.
Cowie’s essay is worth reading in whole and can be found here on Criterion’s site.