This is only my second attempt at this 500-words-or-less film-review format. What can I accomplish within stricter constraints? This will be give me practice in saying more with less — good exercise for any writer.

A few thoughts on
Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water

[Watched on Criterion’s Essential Arthouse DVD edition.]

My recent preoccupation with Rian Johnson’s Knives Out has me thinking about movies that cultivate suspense and then consistently deliver solid surprises. And — speaking of knives being out — I’ve just caught up with Roman Polanski’s legendary 1962 breakout thriller Knife in the Water, which does exactly that.

I’ve seen other thrillers set on small boats at sea. 1989’s Dead Calm comes to mind as a memorably jarring jaunt, even though I haven’t seen it in more than 25 years. But Knife in the Water has got to be the gold standard: A drifter thumbs a ride from a couple on their way out for a day of leisurely sailing in their swimsuits, and eventually — in perhaps the film’s most implausible turn — he gets himself invited aboard.

I’m not usually interested in watching two men try to out-man each other to impress a pretty girl, but this gets much more complicated than that. Every single scene ratchets up the suspense for… what? Will the stranger kill the man? Will he seduce the woman? We expect the hitcher’s knife to end up in somebody’s throat. We expect a hostage situation. But what we get unfolds slowly in a dance of brash boasts, subtle insults, and uncomfortable silences.

Striking visual composition, like this over-the-shoulder shot, amplifies claustrophobia and tension in Polanski’s groundbreaking thriller.

Testing our patience as Andrzej, the overbearingly arrogant alpha, Leon Niemczyk’s huge face and fearsome teeth are asking to be punched. As the twitchy, wounded wanderer, Zygmunt Malanowicz gives a sensually unsettling performance; it’s a role a young Ewan McGregor would have rocked in a remake. Jolanta Umecka makes the alluring Krystyna quietly fascinating — she seems at first to be a blank-headed passenger, a willing audience for Andrzej’s abrasive vanity; but as the film progresses, we wonder if she’s trapped and eager for an escape. Whatever the case, the stranger seems like he might just seduce them both.

I won’t give away the film’s sudden turns, but by the end I’m uncomfortable with Krystyna’s character. She seems a little too content to play a trophy, a little too willing to endure abuse as men compete for her attention. Checking Rotten Tomatoes, I’m disappointed that all of the linked reviews are by men; I’d like a woman’s perspective on this one.

Still, it’s a thrilling brain teaser, boldly crafted. Jerzy Lipman’s cinematography is full of surprises, sometimes as detail-oriented as a primer on how to manage a sailboat, sometimes startlingly artful. (Watch for the God’s-eye shot that turns the stranger into a religious icon.) Editor Halina Prugar’s juxtapositions are brilliantly subversive, calibrated to make us brace frequently for shocks, shocks that rarely arrive. It’s easy, with all of the visual cleverness, to overlook the subtly affecting sound design. Shifts in weather and waves amplify the characters’ isolation and vulnerability. Then, at the peak of tension, well… sometimes, the soft rustle of wind in a sail is the only musical score you need.