Sketchbook notes from the drifting spaces

Silver skies and open water – looking at two early Polanski films

The delightful Glasgow Film Theatre has been showing a series of ‘Classic Polanski’ films, going back to his early works. The first was ‘Knife in the Water’ (1962), Roman Polanski’s debut movie, on in a half full Cinema 2 on a Friday afternoon. I didn’t expect to be so enthralled, and was mesmerised by this powerful feature right through the one hour and thirty-four minutes. A Polish psychological drama set mainly on a small yacht with three characters, this is one of those slow burning black and white noirish classics where everything is just right with no unnecessary elements, simply but expertly shot and edited. The modern, catchy jazz score by Krzysztof Komeda runs through the film and echoes the characters’ emotions and the isolated lake vistas, while limiting the need also for much dialogue, of which there is little.

The film starts with this rolling score and a long shot of the comfortable couple driving out to their yacht – but their faces are obscured into dark fluctuating silhouettes by the passing trees reflected in the windscreen, their tense lack of body language suggesting an air of discomfort. After they make a sudden stop and are compelled to pick up a seemingly reckless, free living young hitcher (Zygmunt Malanowicz), husband Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk) encourages him on on board the boat and tensions brew as the culture of both men increasingly conflicts and draws in his wife Krystyna too (Jolanta Umecka). The viewer becomes torn between allegiances for each of them as petty acts combine and unfold with the further isolation from dry land.

The movie takes a limited setting and uncomplicated editing, with clever sound and scene changes, to engulf the viewer in the experience of being trapped on the boat, drawn in to the feelings of threat, attraction and discomfort that Polanski is known for in later films such as Rosemary’s Baby. Every detail counts, especially the choice of lens to zoom in on the knife for instance when the story starts to turn perfectly conveys the new level of vehemence. Silver skies and the texture of water ripples, long sharp reeds and the undecorated minimal shapes of the yacht deck stick in my head after this, a really strongly visual piece comparable perhaps with Kurosawa’s Red Beard for strength of composition. Good stuff coming from a thread of serious film-making, but this is not overly heavy either nor boring at all. Not everybody in the cinema seemed to agree at the end of the film though!

After getting plenty of inspiration from the understated and intense ‘Knife in the Water’, I was a bit disappointed with Cul-de-sac (1966), a surreal comedy following the mishaps in an eccentric couple’s English island castle retreat when held hostage by bungling criminals. A lot more complication comes into the editing and sound, plus more characters and 60’s culture, but the high contrast shots of Northumberland and ironic, twisted ending are still worth checking out. Looking forward to see more of Polanski’s early films.

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