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The Criterion Collection presents
Knife in the Water (1962)

"If two men are on board, one's the skipper."
- Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk)

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: November 18, 2003

Stars: Leon Niemczyk, Jolanta Umecka, Zygmunt Malanowicz
Director: Roman Polanski

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:34m:29s
Release Date: September 30, 2003
UPC: 037429149324
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A B+A-A- B

DVD Review

Roman Polanski's first film has to rank with the most startling debuts of all time—that's surely a list headed by Citizen Kane, but Knife in the Water probably isn't too far behind. You can see not only that it's an auspicious first time out of the box, a sure-handed, well-told story; there are also obvious intimations of the greatness to come, in Hollywood and then back in Europe, ranging from Rosemary's Baby to Chinatown to The Pianist. Yes, there were some missteps along the way (Pirates, anyone?), but that doesn't lessen the heights of his finest achievements.

Knife in the Water is a simple, deliberately claustrophobic story: Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk) and Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka), husband and wife, are off for a weekend sail, but on the drive to the pier, they nearly run over a hitchhiker. (Played by Zygmunt Malanowicz, he's identified only as Young Man.) The couple invite him along for the trip, and almost all of the movie takes place on their sailboat.Despite being on the open water, the movie has a reined-in, almost prison-like sensibility. (It's not an overtly political piece, but there's no mistaking that this was made in a Soviet satellite at the height of the Cold War.) And the story is largely the playing out of the different sides of the inevitable triangle—the two men in a tacit battle for supremacy, for the woman's attention; the rifts in the marriage exposed and widened by the interloper; the uneasy alliance between the Young Man and Krystyna, in opposition to her older husband. The aura of danger pervades just about every interaction; there isn't much overt violence, but the atmosphere is unmistakably sinister. Polanski has an extraordinary ability to invest the most mundane activities with a sense of psychological mayhem: a child's game of pickup sticks, for instance, becomes a battle over which of the boys will be the alpha male.

The title refers to the Young Man's prized possession, a weapon always at the ready; the Freudian implications of this are all too obvious, and the film is much more successful when it's not leaning on props like this. One of the principal questions, of course, is: just why did they ask him along? There's no ready answer to that—in large measure, they did so because it was the Sixties, and without the Young Man, the existential angst so characteristic of the time and place couldn't be explored quite as fully. The real star of the piece is Polanski—the actors are fair enough, but you sense that they're there principally to be manipulated by the man behind the camera. But that works, as right away, we're confident that we're in very capable hands. Polanski can sometimes almost lull you into complacency with the minute details of an event—he labors lots of attention on the business of operating a sailboat, each knot and hook deemed worthy of mention, that you may start to feel that you're watching an ancient Navy training film. It pays off, though, when our trio is out in the middle of nowhere—who can handle the boat (and who can't) is full of story and thematic implications. (Sometimes in Polanski's work this isn't the case, though—cf., Frantic, in which we're forced to suffer through every last detail of Harrison Ford and his wife checking into their Paris hotel.)

Especially notable too is the saxophone-heavy, jazz-inflected score; it's not the kind of thing that Polish audiences would have been used to hearing from films produced in their own country, and it surely anticipates the moody period music of Chinatown.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: This is one of the most extraordinarily sharp and beautiful transfers I've seen, especially given the time and place of the film's production. The images glisten, and the clarity is truly remarkable. Only an occasional reel change indicator detract from the visual presentation; and every now and again, late in the movie especially, skin tones seem a little hinky. Polanski's participation was integral to Criterion's success with this disc; and for reasons that aren't exactly clear, according to the liner notes, "at [Polanski's] request, the step function has been disabled during the playback of the feature film." So you can freeze frame, and skip from chapter to chapter; you can't fast forward to a particular moment, though.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: There's a real fullness to the mono soundtrack, which must have been labored over back in the day; it's got nuance and ambience frequently lacking from mono films of the same period. The transfer here is pretty much without interference, and you can luxuriate in the sounds of the waves lapping up on the shore.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 14 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Documentaries
Packaging: Double alpha
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. eight early short films directed by Polanski
  2. photo gallery
  3. accompanying booklet with an essay by Peter Cowie
  4. color bars
Extras Review: What's billed as a video introduction (26m:41s) is really an extended series of reminiscences on the film by Polanski and Jerzy Skolimowski, one of the screenwriters on the project—they were shot talking about Knife in the Water in 2002, and lead us through the project's development, production and reception. They're especially interesting talking about operating within the confines of the old Communist state-run Polish film business; when the commissar was unhappy with the script, the filmmakers had to add what they refer to as "the usual bulls**t" to get it accepted. The first disc also includes color bars, and a gallery of stills, with a chapter for Polanski, one for each of the three actors, and one devoted to publicity and production shots.

Disc Two offers a glimpse into Polanski's creative evolution, with eight short films he directed between 1957 and 1962, just prior to Knife in the Water. In them you can see his hand growing surer and steadier, along with the seeds of themes that would pervade his work in features.

Murder (1957; 01m:24s) simmers with violence, as a hitman does a job on a sleeping victim; Teeth Smile (1957; 01m:49s) shows us a peeping Tom going about his business. Break Up the Dance (1957; 07m:50s) shows a bourgeois party, with its limited bit of rebellion: the band plays When The Saints Go Marching In at a time when jazz was frowned upon. Soon, though, a group of hooligans scale the fence and make good on the film's title, with lots of mayhem.

Two Men and a Wardrobe (1958; 14m:15s) is more whimsical, and demonstrates more of the absurdist sensibility we associate with the Second World during the Cold War. It begins with the odd apparition of the three nouns in the title coming out of the ocean; the two men take the enormous bit of furniture onto a streetcar, into a bistro, for no apparent reason. They're done some dirt by a bunch of hoods, the smallest of whom is Polanski himself, in a cameo that anticipates a similar one by the director in Chinatown. The Lamp (1959; 07m:19s) is more surreal still, with a sort of Polish Gepetto assembling dolls in his workshop; the disembodied, humanoid parts soon go bonkers.

When Angels Fall (1959; 20m:46s) may be the best of these—its main character is a little old lady who works as a men's room attendant, spending her days watching the backs of men as they urinate, or stumble in drunk, or meet up in the stalls for gay assignations. We're privy to her fantasy life, though, and to her memories, which are quite moving—these are tales of the war, and, as Peter Cowie points out in his smart accompanying essay, not until The Pianist did Polanski deal again directly with the ravages of war. It's full of arresting combat images, and is really quite moving.

The Fat and the Lean (1961; 15m:01s) features Polanski, as the latter, a jester of sorts ministering to the needs of the former. There are obvious affinities to Beckett here, and to slapstick—as part of the jester's torture, for instance, the fat man chains Roman to a goat. Past the rundown farmhouse and beyond the town is an image of the Eiffel Tower, the dream place of escape. Finally, Mammals (1962; 10m:20s) shows two more men doing battle, in the snow, pulling one another on a sled, their individual quests for supremacy undoing them both.

Given Polanski's participation in the production of this set—he provided a new translation for the subtitles and sat for an interview—commentary tracks on either the feature or the shorts (or both) would have been very welcome, but there's still plenty of fascinating stuff here.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

A taut and well-told tale, supplemented with an instructive gallery of Polanski's early works. A smart and stylish movie that will make you appreciate the director's accomplishments here and elsewhere, and a cautionary tale about picking up hitchhikers.


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