Tuesday, September 18, 2007

DVD of the Week: "Knife in the Water"

By Mike Gillis

Directors who navigate early success over troubled waters -- Steven Spielberg with "Jaws" and Phillip Noyce with "Dead Calm," for example -- are rare. Waterborne productions are hard on cast and crew, and for fledgling directors, such films can jackknife a career. (Has anyone heard much from Kevin Reynolds since "Waterworld?")

That makes Roman Polanski’s first feature film, "Knife in the Water," so much more impressive.

Polanski would move on to helm masterpieces like "Rosemary’s Baby" (1968), "Chinatown" (1974) and "The Pianist" (2002), but in many ways, "Knife in the Water" remains his best.

On a trim budget with three little or unknown actors, Polanski’s nautical thriller about a squabbling married couple who pick up a hitchhiker and invite him sailing is a stark and tense dissection of jealousy.

The three set sail in the couple’s small yacht on a cold and desolate Polish lake. The husband, Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk), is a cocky sportswriter who brings the young hitchhiker (Zygmunt Malanowicz) on board to unsettle his peeved wife (Jolanta Umecka).

Instead, the wife, Krystyna, is merely accommodating, if not disinterested. The two men begin vying for her attention. Her husband boasts often of his own proficiency at sea. The young hitchhiker has only his good looks to flash and an uncanny affinity for a switchblade he carries at all times.

When Andrzej begins to treat his guest as a subordinate, the relationship begins to sour and grow reckless.

Although Polanski carefully frames each shot to build tension, he doesn’t anticipate the conclusion prematurely. If you have never seen "Knife in the Water," the ending is a remarkable and unexpected twist.

Polanski is always at his best when navigating the tattered fringes of relationships. Without set pieces or melodrama -- not to mention a rigorous shoot that involved strapping crew to the side of the boat -- the director captured what remains his most intense psychological thriller. By the way, the new digital transfer from Criterion is gorgeous.

"Knife in the Water" was nominated for an Oscar but lost to Fellini’s "."

Included on a second DVD are eight of Polanski’s short films.

The DVD also includes an insightful video interview with Polanski and co-screenwriter Jerzy Skolimowski; a collection of rare publicity and production stills; and an English subtitle translation by Polanski.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this review appeared in Foster's Sunday Citizen.