Tag Archives: 1962

Knife In The Water (1962)

Knife In The Water (1962)

Aside from some earlier short films, Roman Polanski‘s debut Knife In The Water (1962, 93 mins) is unique amongst his work in that it’s the only one in his native Polish. Well received, it became the first Polish film to be nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Academy Awards, although Federico Fellini‘s eventually secured the prize. While both may start in cars, the roads they travel along could not be more different, as Polanski keeps his story grounded in reality.

Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk) is a sports writer who, in so far as one can in post-war Poland, appears to have it made; a car, a boat, and Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka), a wife many years his junior. One day, when driving out to the boat, they come across a young hitchhiker (Zygmunt Malanowicz). While Andrzej would happily drive on, he suspects that Krystyna would have shown more compassion. After an ill-tempered rant, Andrzej cedes to his wife’s sympathy, although only because he senses an opportunity to play a game. The hitchhiker first joins them in the car, then on the boat.

The journey that follows sees the two men play a macho game of oneupmanship, which devolves into a serious battle for Krystyna’s affections. For all his physical feats (e.g. shimmying up a mast), the young man is naive and unskilled. Matters maritime lead to derision from his challenger. Conversely, what Andrzej lacks in youth, his experience compensates. His practical, patronising approach is his way of impressing.

In more intimate moments, we see the trio come together, eat, talk, and play more simple games. One of these sees Krystyna perform a song as forfeit to losing. Andrzej concerns himself with the radio, listening in to a boxing match, while the lyrics she sings capture the essence of their marriage (“Joy has faded and our love’s gone sour.”) His lack of interest in what she has to say underpins the unhappiness of their relationship.

Such subtlety is at the core of how Polanski works in Knife On The Water. What the characters lack in verbal interaction, we learn so much more from body language; a quick glance here, a smile there. Even a dearth of subtitles does not detract from what’s being said due to both context and the physical actions that accompany. For the two younger stars, who were new to acting, their turns are well-played (although Malanowicz does appear less youthful than is suggested) and Niemczyk’s older Andrzej flits between smugness and authoritarianism that, by the end, has slipped into confusion and fear.

Away from his actors’ performance, the cinematography is beautiful. Shot in black and white, the composed images capture so many shades of grey. Even on a small boat, where one would expect limited flexibility for a film crew, Polanski manages to provide shot after shot of unique angles; sometimes overly crowded and claustrophobic; other times open and empty. Beyond the trio, we see clouded skies, hints of land on the horizon, but no other glimpse of nature. No fish in the water, no birds in the sky. At times the boat sailing through this barren world is accompanied by Krzytsztof Komeda‘s jazzy score, led by Bernt Rosengren‘s sultry saxophone, which adds spice to the film’s sense of menace.

The titular knife belongs to the unnamed boy. Forewarned by the title, each appearance it makes creates a sense of dread, brought on by not knowing how it will be used. When it hits the water the sexual tension that has been growing on board comes to a head. We do not see the knife actually in the water — Polanski gives us only the splash but it makes ripples that, for everyone, will change their life.

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The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Into the lawless west came Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart), fresh from law school, and armed only with law books. His stagecoach however was assailed by masked bandits and he left for dead.  His money may have be stolen but fortune was on his side as Tom Donophin (John Wayne) found him and brought him to the small town of Shinbone. So begins the flashback that forms the main narrative of John Ford‘s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962, 123 mins).

The flashback is triggered by Stoddard, now a senator, returning with wife Hallie (Vera Miles) to attend the funeral of his good samaritan. Asked by the local paper to tell his story — a famous politician seeing off a practical unknown is quite the scoop — he agrees, citing characters from his past as justification. His story is the stuff of legend, centring as it does on his continued encounters with the belligerent Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), the widely feared leader of the aforementioned bandits.

The film is not a simple story of law versus lawless, but is in fact a look at the changing condition of the west, as its wildness is tamed. Donophin and Valance, both cut from the same cloth, represent the old west, where justice and pistols are one and the same; while Stoddard with his books is seen as ushering in a new learned era. He teaches the illiterate of Shinbone to read and write and preaches democracy, all to a classroom comprising women, blacks, and immigrants. It’s classic civil rights stuff and given its shooting in the early 1960s, seems entirely relevant and its contemporary impact would likely have been harder hitting than it would be today.

Despite its moral compass, a love story also runs through, with the affections of both Donophin and Stoddard focused on Hallie. Together before the lawyer’s arrival, Hallie and Donophin grow apart as she sways toward the newcomer. There’s a sense that Donophin, as a cypher for the old west, knows his time is nigh and begrudgingly allows the women he loves to drift away. And while she willingly goes, and enjoys the success that comes, it’s clear from the beginning that she always loved the other. Just another element that gives The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance depth.

One thing that does seem particularly silly is the age of both Wayne and Stewart. At the time of filming they would have been in their fifties, playing men some thirty years their junior. While it’s easier to accept Wayne’s traditional cowboy, Stewart is unbelievable as a fresh-faced graduate. However, it’s easy to set age concerns aside and enjoy his performance as his helpless unarmed attorney evolves into a man whose later success hangs on the legendary reputation he acquires in his final encounter with Liberty Valance. The burden of that legend weighs hard, and as the flashback continues, we learn the facts that, once aired, allow Stoddard some respite.

Away from the main cast’s tale, the town of Shinbone is people with a wide range of memorable characters, notably Edmond O’Brien‘s Dutton Peabody (alcoholic editor of the Shinbone Star) and Andy Devine‘s Marshall Appleyard, whose cowardice allows Valance’s hellraising to go unchecked and brings some comic relief to an otherwise serious film. Lee Van Cleef‘s Reese, one of two sidekicks to Valance, is a touch underused, although he and his compatriot’s limited role serves to enhance their boss’s malevolence. Valance himself is a bit one-note, although his unlikeability allows us not to mourn him too much when the inevitable happens.

When Stoddard’s flashback ends and the truth is out we are left to question the nature of the western myth, asking whether heroes are made or made-up. The railroad’s advent modernises industry; enlightenment changes society. Shinbone — and, by extension, the world — will never be the same again. And with these advances the old cowboy tales — and cowboys like Tom Donophin — are relegated to the past. Stoddard’s is one such tale; his legend will live on, the facts disregarded. But given the truth at the heart of his fame, the romance of the west never felt so bittersweet.

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