The Pianist aside, Roman Polanski has spent the last couple decades directing tepid Euro-flavored thrillers and ill-conceived period pieces while dodging statutory rape charges in the United States.
Once upon a time, however, he was considered the most promising director of his time. Though Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown and Repulsion are true cinematic classics, 1962's Knife in the Water first landed the Polish filmmaker in the spotlight. An economically crafted and remarkably unnerving psychodrama, Polanski masterfully wrung suspense from a tale confined to three characters on a boat. One has only to look at Phillip Noyce's Dead Calm or Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr. Ripley to see the long reach of Polanki's influence.
Husband and wife Andrzej and Krystyna impulsively pick up an attractive 19-year-old hitchhiker and invite him to spend the weekend with them on their lake boat. Slowly, sexual tension leads to a subtle game of one-upmanship between Andrzej and the blond beefcake hitcher as they each vie for Krystyna's attention. It goes horribly wrong, of course, and the day ends in a horrible burst of violence.
Polanski is in his misanthropic glory here, depicting the complacent corruption of the middle class while exploring the paranoia that fuels macho male posturing. Emasculation and bravado are recurring themes in the director's work, and Knife may very well be his greatest distillation. It's an acidic view of humanity that reduces every behavior to domination and fear of humiliation.
Cinematically, Knife is a masterpiece of style and restraint as the young Polanski slowly winds the tension to the breaking point, juxtaposing the characters' banal conversations with ever-growing hints of violence. Jerzy Lipman's gorgeous black-and-white photography only heightens the claustrophobic confines of the yacht.
Knife In The Water signals the beginnings of a major film auteur that briefly delivered on his promise then descended into disappointing and irrelevant cinema. No cinephile should miss it.
Screens Thursday, Feb. 8, at the Art Gallery of Windsor, 401 Riverside Dr. W., Windsor; 519-977-0013.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.