From the first moment we slide into the driver’s seat, we’re warned of the dangers of the road, not the least of which is to beware of hitchhikers. However, when the hitch is on the other end and we find ourselves stranded, forgive the pun but the other rule of thumb is to be ever so careful of the people from whom we accept a ride. This is infinitely more suspenseful when the car is replaced with a sailboat and one finds themselves in the middle of nowhere on a picturesque yet eerily quiet lake, unsure wherein the ultimate jeopardy lies whether it’s in the perils of the voyage or in neglecting to follow the rules of stranger danger ingrained in us as children.
In most films, it’s the down-on-their-luck loners we find ourselves most concerned with whether it’s Billy Zane terrorizing Nicole Kidman in Dead Calm or the kill-you-with-kindness menace lurking just below that bland smile in the brilliant French thriller With a Friend like Harry. However, upon revisiting the gorgeously remastered cinematic debut from Polish filmmaker Roman Polanski with his anxiety laden, three-character stunner Knife in the Water, we’re never sure if the danger lies within the hearts of either the mysteriously nameless, young, blonde hitchhiker (Oskar Werner look-alike, Zygmunt Malanowicz) or the bourgeois couple with whom he finds himself traveling, including the aggressively boorish and antisocial Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk) and his visibly younger wife Krystyna (Jolante Umecka).
The film opens in sheer cinematographic bliss as Krystyna drives her husband down a deserted road as the shadows from the leaf-filled trees dance peacefully upon her windshield in crisp black and white punctuated with a sultry jazz score from saxophonist Bernt Rosengren. The tempo changes with a jolt as her husband demands his chance at the wheel. Obviously while one foreshadows the subtext about emasculation and male rivalry given the film’s title, possibly our first indication that Krystyna’s domineering husband is in an irrational, virility-driven midlife crisis occurs as soon as he gets into the driver’s seat. Soon the exquisite beauty of the film’s photography switches to cool, masculine, straightforward lines with a subtle, classical, old-fashioned score that is quickly forgotten when he slams on the brakes, nearly hitting the nameless deserted Young Man (Malanowicz) precariously standing in the middle of the road.
The fact that he refused to slow down earlier, preferring to wield his lethal power over a harmless, ill-equipped stranger says a lot about our wealthy lead. Trained by the predictability of suspenseful dramas, we worry that the Young Man will soon receive his comeuppance when he’s not only offered a ride with the two but also—with no particular place to go and an even vaguer timeline—is impulsively invited along for their overnight sailing excursion so that he can ride with them again in the morning. However, he’s not as naively innocent as one would assume. From the moment his rucksack hits the backseat of their car, he and Andrzej engage in petty male rivalry and one-upmanship subconsciously more to challenge one another than to garner the attentions of the female in their midst; the Young Man agrees to come along, noting that his elder wishes to continue “the game.” Dismissing this charge with a snobbish, “You’re not in my class, kid,” Andrzej doesn’t heed his own warning, proceeding to do everything in his power to toy with the lad.