Knife in the Water (1962)

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Criterion Collection #215

The story of Knife in the Water is, on its surface, very straightforward: a well-to-do couple takes a 19-year-old hitch-hiker along for a weekend jaunt on their sailboat. Criterion describes it as a “psychological thriller”, which led me to expect something more sinister (I have seen Rosemary’s Baby, after all), but the emphasis should be firmly placed on “psychological”. Which is not to say the movie does not have its intense moments (it does), but it’s well, different. Anyway, the aforementioned couple is comprised of a middle-aged journalist and his younger, hotter wife. They don’t seem particularly excited by each other’s company, but are used to it. Both the men in the movie, the husband and the hitch-hiker, are kind of jerks and less intelligent than they suppose themselves to be. The husband nearly runs the hitch-hiker over showing off his driving skills, the hitch-hiker daringly (i.e., stupidly) hitches by standing, unyielding, right in the middle of the road.

What ensues is a petty, macho battle between the two men; one would guess for the wife’s attention, but she is barely spoken to. She is a trophy wife (did they have that term in 1962?), a sex object only in the sense that she’s attractive to other men; the husband couldn’t seem less interested in her personally. All the male posturing, hyper-competitiveness, and one-upmanship is less a way to attract mates, as it is popularly supposed, than it is a way to impress one another, and might even be slightly gay. Women, in much the same way, seem to obsess over their bodies and wardrobes and generally make themselves miserable more for the approval of other women than anything.

To speak too much more of the plot will spoil a lot. There are only three characters in the entire movie, most of which takes place in the confines of the sailboat. That this was filmed mostly on water by a first-time feature director by a small crew on a small budget is, needless to say, impressive. There are a couple spectacular shots–the boat beached in a rainstorm, the boat sitting motionless in the reeds in the early morning–that, as far as I could discern, involved no special effects. They just went out there and filmed it. I like that.

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I could mention how this was Roman Polanski’s first feature length film, and open up the whole Polanski can o’ worms, but I’ve really got nothing to add to that debate. But speaking of Poland, my one big concern is regarding the subtitles. It is obvious to even the non-Polish speaker that entire lines of dialogue go routinely un-translated. I can’t say for sure how this affects the movie (though everything that happened seemed pretty clear) but it is distracting in any case. I viewed Knife in the Water on Netflix’s Watch Instantly, which shows the Criterion cover on their site. Criterion’s page says the subtitles are a new translation by Polanski himself. So either (a) the Netflix feed was not Criterion’s version or (b) the director thought a lot of the dialogue was unimportant. You decide.

The final shot at first made me a little angry that yet another film was indulging in gratuitous ambiguity, but I soon realized that what happens next doesn’t matter: the central contest in the movie has already been decided. The rest is another story.

I couldn’t help but imagine what this movie would be like if Hollywood made it today (and since they are officially bereft of ideas, they are liable to remake just about anything). The sailboat would become a yacht, the series of Polish lakes Miami or Honolulu, the trophy wife a bevy of bootylicious hip-hop video extras; Flava Flav would be the ship’s captain; a CGI dolphin would be involved; the titular knife would be the murder weapon of countless skinny-dippers; Shia LaBeouf would be the hitch-hiker; and at some point a speedboat would be forced to make a daring jump over the yacht. Finally, Morgan Freeman’s soothing voice would wrap up all the loose ends. But I digress.

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