Dir: Richard Lester | Cast: Rita Tushingham, Ray Brooks, Michael Crawford, Donal Donnelly | Comedy | UK
It’s indicative of our more conservative century that in 2001 the Wallflower Critical Guide appreciated the creative cinematography and editing of The Knack, but then said it disrupted the storytelling. That’s ridiculous. The bare storyline of The Knack makes for a comedy pitched exactly in tune with its technique: a style conveying zany behaviour, sexual freedom and cheeky irreverence. Never a case of disruption but a familiar eruption of the visual approach associated with director Richard Lester.
Sandwiched between the two Beatles films, A Hard Day’s Night and Help, The Knack is very much a Sixties production. Amazingly, it won the 1965 Cannes Palme D’Or and has become one of the ‘swinging’ 60s films that people either love or hate. I like it, but with a few reservations. Blow-Up is the other 60s film now lazily described as ‘swinging’. Antonioni’s film doesn’t swing but provokes and mystifies: a film of its time yet also magisterially timeless; whereas The Knack has begun to look dated: caught in its own charming time capsule.
Colin (Michael Crawford) is a schoolmaster with little sexual experience of women. His friend Tolen (Ray Books) is a smug and conceited womaniser. He has the knack of seduction. Colin wants it too. Only with the disruptive arrival of Nancy (Rita Tushingham) on the scene does it seem possible that Colin’s inhibitions will be swept away by a potential girlfriend.
The Knack was adapted by Charles Wood from a play by Ann Jellicoe. I’m not sure how much of the dialogue is Jellicoe’s and how much is Wood’s. What is apparent is a strange and strained tone of both awkward misogyny and exhilarating energy. You disapprovingly groan at Tolen’s remark that women are ‘just skirt’ and that “skirt is meat”, and his assertion that “girls don’t get raped unless they want it.” These attitudes are powerfully counterpoised by Nancy’s assertive dialogue. As Tolen approaches, intent on rape, Nancy blasts out, “Mr. Smarty, Smarty, tight trousers – just you don’t come near me!” whilst her constant asking to be directed to the YWCA becomes a repeated knack leitmotif. Will the YWCA ever preserve Nancy’s virginity?
The Knack is a semi-absurdist mishmash of Wood/Jellicoe lines that manage to attract and repel. And Lester directs his actors to speak in a frenetic, questioning manner as if they were tearing through the text of Beckett’s Godot – not anxiously waiting for redemption but running up and down stairs intent on sexual gratification.
If The Knack hadn’t been so perfectly cast then I don’t think I would be giving it very much critical attention. Michael Crawford, Ray Brooks, Donal Donnelly and Rita Tushingham deliver wonderfully winning performances. The film might be an uneven, if brilliantly photographed, fantasia on sexual drives, but I strongly identified with the frustrations and ambitions of its very likeable and very human characters.
The comedy sometimes fall flat – both the child-like lion taming scene and the wheeling of a bed, through the London streets, are over-long – but when The Knack’s comedy works, it becomes an appealing bundle of anarchic energy. And British films are always in need of a good dose of that. Alan Price.
NOW ON BLURAY TO CELEBRATE BFI’s WOODFALL: A REVOLUTION IN BRITISH CINEMA
RRP: £19.99/ Cat. no. BFIB1292 / Cert 15
UK / 1965 / black and white / 85 mins / English language with optional hard-of-hearing subtitles / original aspect ratio 1.66:1 / BD50: 1080p, 24fps, PCM dual mono audio (48kHz/24-bit) / DVD9: PAL 25fps, PCM mono audio (48kHz/16-bit)