Knife in the Water Review

Roman Polanski’s feature debut, Knife in the Water retains the narrative economy of his earlier shorts despite its longer length. Essentially, a couple (older man, younger woman) heading out for a one day boat trip pick up a young male hitchhiker and invite him along. Within the next 24 hours however, a power struggle begins to take place between the two men.

Despite its early placing in Polanski’s filmography, Knife in the Water still remains arguably his finest work. The only film that comes close in my mind is Chinatown, though it’s difficult to compare the two. Whereas Chinatown is remarkably complex, Knife in the Water favours a more simple approach. Indeed, the film is a perfect model of economy; not only do we only have three characters throughout, but also only one location: the boat. Polanski and his co-writers (including Jerzy Skolimowski, who would go on to direct Deep End and Moonlighting) use these tiny elements in order to truly focus on what is happening onscreen, making the ensuing power games fascinating.

It is this element which ties Knife in the Water to the Polanski shorts that immediately preceded and followed it, The Fat Man and the Thin Man and Mammals. Both those films dealt with master-and-servant relationships, as well as touching on the theme of class. However, despite Polanski’s penchant for showing humiliation, both shorts were essentially comedies. Knife in the Water, on the hand, is incredibly serious, yet told with a lightness of touch so that it never becomes your stereotypical “arthouse bore”. Indeed, Polanski sets up his situation by incredibly simple means, so much so the audience doesn’t immediately pick up on them. Take, for example, the contrast between the two men: here Polanski uses such simple facts as their age (young versus old), their hair colour (blond versus brunette), job (“bum” versus sports writer) and class status to emphasise their differences. Of course, none of this is overtly paid attention to, rather the details gradually come together to form the bigger picture.

Where Knife in the Water truly succeeds in this respect however, is the simple fact that with so little to play around with, Polanski is unable to get distracted; a problem readily apparent in both Dance of the Vampires and Pirates. Instead, he has to concentrate solely on the visuals and the dialogue, and with both does a truly remarkable job.

Making fine use of deep focus photography, Polanski is able to gain a huge amount of dramatic weight from even the tiniest of gestures. As is apparent from the opening scene, the couple’s marriage is on the verge of disintegrate and the motivation for brining along the hitchhiker is purely to allow the husband to show off in front of his much younger wife. Of course, her age also allows for some sexual tension between her and her guest, a tension will builds throughout the piece. Yet, as said, Polanski never communicates this is an overt way, rather a series of glances and clever framing (this is where the deep focus comes in) do the job for him. Indeed, whilst the film’s set-up may seem theatrical, it is instead a true cinematic joy.

The dialogue works in a similar way; whilst only sparsely, used each sentence speaks volumes. Of course, this does mean that the film requires full attention, yet when dealing with a film this remarkable, that’s hardly a problem. It goes without saying though that the dialogue is nothing without the right actors to deliver, and the three present are remarkable. Offering contrasts in both physicality and attitude, Zygmunt Malanowicz and Leon Niemczyk (as the hitchhiker and husband, respectively) are pitch-perfect. What’s remarkable is the fact that, as noted, so many character differences are required, yet Polanski hasn’t gone for the easy option of just finding two actors with the right looks; he’s found two actors with the right everything. What truly astounds, however, is that fact that Knife in the Water serves as Malanowicz’s acting debut.

The final achievement of this film that requires a mention is the way in which it avoids the pitfalls of the sub-genre it almost belongs in. From The Hitchhiker to The Hitcher (to use just the two most obvious examples), the invited stranger has always proved to be a psychopath and in many cases (though not the two listed, both are which are fantastic films) the film descends into a hell of cliches. What’s interesting with Knife in the Water’s approach is that it never even remotely suggests that Malanowicz has serial killer tendencies, rather he merely serves as a catalyst for events which were bound to occur at some point in the future. Of course, if he wasn’t present then the resulting film would unlikely be so powerful.

The Disc

Picture and Sound

The black and white visuals look truly stunning. As mentioned, the photography is an important part of the film’s strength, and Anchor Bay have done everything to ensure that their audience isn’t let down.

The sound, however, is a little more complex. The disc offers three choices: the original mono soundtrack, a 5.1 mix and a DTS mix. Whilst both the latter two still use the front central speaker for the most part, their mixes do offer a little more clarity (and, indeed, the DTS is slightly superior to the 5.1). That said, the original mono works fine too and Krzystof Komeda’s jazz score sounds just perfect.

Special Features

The major extra is a 30 minute featurette entitled 'A Ticket to the West'. Interviewing the majority of the film's cast and crew, the documentary traces the film's history from pre- to post-production, detailing the casting, the difficulties making the film and censorship problems. It also covers some of Polanski's early films, as well as placing the film within the context of the Polish film industry of the time.

For the most part, this is fascinating stuff. My only complaint is the lack of Jolanta Umecka's presence. However, the interviewees offer enough anecdotes regarding her performance to smooth over this minor quibble.

The featurette is also backed up with brief biographies of the cast and major crew members, and a photo gallery containing the film's wonderful poster designs as well as numerous production stills.

No hard of hearing subtitles are provided for the featurette; English subtitles only appear during the Polish speech.


A stunning film given a wonderful presentation by Anchor Bay. Whilst the extras may not be numerous, the featurette alone offers enough background information to justify the lack of a Polanski commentary. All in all, an essential purchase.

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