03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Knife in the Auteur

I don't mean to scratch open an old wound here (well, maybe I do), but I wanted to take advantage of the present calm in the Polanski business to underscore a point that seems to have gotten lost in the endless backandforthing.

Roman Polanski is arguably the world's greatest living filmmaker. Who else, since Hitchcock, has managed to mine terror from the most seemingly innocuous sources? There have been others (the director Michael Haneke, for instance, has proven himself a nimble sadist), but few have matched Polanski's record - and it goes far beyond Chinatown (1974) and The Pianist (2002).


Try to remember with me: In Rosemary's Baby (1968) we got nervous just from watching a shot of an empty hallway. What, on the surface, could be more innocent than that? In Tess (1979), a silent, long take, held past its breaking point, became the source of almost unbearable tension. And in Repulsion (1965), we were so aligned with Catherine Deneuve's disintegration, nearly everything Polanski showed us, no matter how quotidian, was transformed (often in our own minds) into a picture of pure hell.

Anyone could give an audience the heebie-jeebies with a hard cut to a rotting corpse, or tremble violins for the desired effect, but only Polanski traffics in -- if you forgive the cliché -- true psychological horror. The phrase has been so abused, it's hard to know what it means anymore, which is why I've been struggling - so please bear with me -- to evince a definition that may help to shed some light on Polanski's unique gift.

One horror is explicit, overt. Think of an eviscerated body, a knife in an eye. These aren't psychological; they occur literally, on the screen in pictures. Not that there's anything wrong with that. I get a big kick out of blood, just like anyone else. But Polanski, at his best, is after more than just kicks. His preferred métier is imagined horror; he wants us to feel as his characters feel, to fear as they fear, and as such, he doesn't torture us with props or makeup or convenient, short-hand symbols of terror, but with inference, with pictures of what we cannot see. After all, what does terror actually look like? Often, in the most dire of circumstances, it's nothing more than empty space. It may not have a face, or even a body. That kind of torture, true torture, is the kind we can never escape because it's the kind that lives not in reality, but in our heads. And in Polanski pictures like The Tenant (1976), it's everywhere.

Still not sure? Go out and rent Polanski's first feature film, Knife in the Water (1962), and you will see that the director's turns of the screw are so imperceptibly slight, you might find yourself questioning your own grasp of what you're seeing. "Is that character really thinking that?" you might think, "Or do I just think he's thinking it?" In most cases you won't know for sure, but that's why they call it paranoia.

What I mean to say is, should you find yourself with an empty Netflix queue and a rogue cursor drifting toward the Polanksi button, go ahead and click with a clear conscience.