Knife in the Water (1962)

“On the water, you need to have reflexes.”

An aggressive sports writer (Leon Niemczyk) and his wife (Jolanta Umecka) pick up a young hitchhiker (Zygmunt Malanoqwicz) on their way to a weekly boating trip, and invite him to accompany them — but tensions and rivalries continue to mount as the two men show off their prowess in front of bikini-clad Umecka.


Peary writes that “Roman Polanski’s first film, his only Polish film, is an enigmatic three-character piece he wrote with Jerzy Skolimowski and Jakub Goldberg”, which “concentrates on the stiff competition between the two men [Niemczyk and Malanoqwicz] at sailing, at pickup sticks, at knife playing”. He points out the “sense of claustrophobia (heightened when they go below) that dramatically builds tension; just as the wind determines the boat’s movements, fate seems to control the characters” — and while “we expect that in this natural setting the characters will lay bare their deepest emotions”, they “never really strip off their defenses and totally reveal themselves”. Peary further notes that “Niemczyk desires to show off for his wife and to himself by humiliating the younger man; but while he wins his small victories, he seems increasingly infantile” — and ultimately, the “immense problems in the relationship between Niemcyzk and Umecka… come to [the] surface” and must be confronted. Other than pointing out Jerzy Lipman’s “excellent hand-held photography”, however, Peary’s review neglects to highlight the visual strengths of this unusual and surprisingly potent chamber piece — including and perhaps primarily its camera angles, strategic blocking of characters, and highly effective editing. While this isn’t a film I would choose to return to repeatedly, it should be seen at least once for its technical brilliance.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Solid direction, cinematography, and editing throughout

Must See?
Yes, as Polanski’s worthy debut feature.



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