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:
KnifeintheWater, 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.
If you haven’t already, you ought to check out the new Criterion release of Plein Soleil / Purple Noon. Rene Clement’s 1960 film based on Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley is very impressive indeed.
For those who haven’t seen the film, read the novel, or seen the more recent Hollywood version, the plot is an intriguing one—Tom Ripley, a young man of no visible means, is hired by the father of his childhood friend Philippe Greenleaf to travel to Europe. There, he is to convince his childhood friend to give up his playboy existence and return home. Arriving in Europe, Ripley reveals the true purpose of his trip to Greenleaf and the two co-conspirators travel Europe together. Ripley is openly enamoured with Greenleaf’s charisma and wealth; Greenleaf is alternatively amused and sickened by Ripley’s infatuation. The friendship ultimately sours as the easily bored Greenleaf tires of Ripley and begins mocking him for his monetary ambitions and lack of worldly experience. Ripley appears the victim as he endures Greenleaf’s taunts.
Too self-absorbed, Greenleaf realizes only too late that Ripley has been scheming to murder Greenleaf and assume his identity. Following Greenleaf’s murder, the film changes directions, as the plot focuses on Ripley’s ingenuous efforts to maintain two identities, both as himself and Greenleaf. The film has a number of twists and at least one more murder as Ripley seeks to avoid detection by both the law and Greenleaf’s friends. The film maintains a taut, suspenseful tone perfectly until it reaches its flawed end. Without saying too much, Clement chooses a moralistic ending that is less satisfying than Highsmith’s original novel.
There is more to the film than a great script. Alain Delon delivers a pitch-perfect performance as the amoral, reptilian Ripley. His performance is remarkably subtle–in a number of scenes, he lets his eyes do all the acting. Maurice Ronet is no less impressive as Philippe Greenleaf, making vividly apparent his callousness, sadism and entitlement. Marie Laforet who plays Greeleaf’s lover Marge is also striking, believably portraying Marge as her feelings for Ripley shift, from distaste to hatred and from sympathy to love. The cinematography skilfully captures the film’s beautiful Italian and Mediterranean summer landscape. Adding to it all is Nina Rota’s superb score. Highly recommended.