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The Knack
... and How to Get It

The Knack
MGM Home Entertainment
1965 / B&W / 1:66 flat letterbox / 84 min. / Street Date September 17, 2002 / $19.98
Starring Rita Tushingham, Ray Brooks, Michael Crawford, Donal Donnelly, Jane Birkin
Cinematography David Watkin
Production Designer Assheton Gorton
Film Editor Antony Gibbs
Original Music John Barry
Written by Charles Wood from the play by Ann Jellicoe
Produced by Oscar Lewenstein
Directed by Richard Lester

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Tracking down core examples of swinging London on film can get tough. There's the talky docu Tonight Let's All Make Love in London, and a lot of movies that are spoofs of the pre-mod and mod scene. Hailed as a top example of the short-lived era, Richard Lester's The Knack is in reality its own animal, a delightful sex farce divorced from the swinging scene. Lester enlarged the breezy, anarchic cutting style of his A Hard Day's Night and adapted it for a quirky romantic comedy. The music is a jazz-inflected John Barry romantic melody, not rock 'n' roll.

Sex seems to be everywhere, except in the life of young Colin (Michael Crawford). Colin rents out rooms in his London townhouse and is going crazy over the amorous shenanigans of upstairs roomer Tolen (Ray Brooks), a slick customer who affects a perpetual low-key cool and professes to have mastered all the secrets of seduction. Intoxicated by fantasies of free and abundant sex, Colin signs on as Tolen's unofficial apprentice just as country girl Nancy Jones (Rita Tushingham) wanders in to complicate matters. Add new roomer Tom (Donal Donnelly) and the situation becomes a comic tug-of-war between Nancy's playful shyness, Tolen's commanding airs and Colin's awkward enthusiasm.

It may not really be about Swinging London but Ann Jellicoe's basic story is certainly a reflection of the new social mores of the 60s, and as adapted for the screen ultimately becomes a refutation of free sex and a sweet endorsement of monogamous romance. Even though The Knack is a farce, it connects with the real world, finding a compromise between the older generation's scorn and the trendy consumer image of swinging freedom.

What most viewers first react to is the freewheeling visual style. It's Lester's own, derived from a willingness to ignore anything having to do with standard continuity. He uses jump cuts and overlaps audio to further his story aims and indulges in fantasy sequences without bothering to explain them. We don't actually accept the endless line of look-alike femme dollies, each with the same ribbed sweater, the same makeup and hairstyle lining up at Tolen's door for the privilege of a quick jump in the sack. But neither does Lester bother to strictly define the vision as a dream sequence. At any point in the movie imaginative visions can just appear before Colin or Nancy -- associative visual puns that leap in for a few seconds and then vanish. All the while, a Greek chorus of elderly Britons critiques from the sidelines, condemning youth just for being young.  1

If the style now seems familiar, it's because it was immediately seized for commercials and other films. Francis Ford Coppola's You're a Big Boy Now flatly imitates it to some success. Television's The Monkees went so far as to rob the key Knack image of our carefree madcaps rolling a bed frame down the streets for a joyride. The influence was immediately felt in every comedy from What's New Pussycat? to Casino Royale, and it has yet to abate. Cross The Goon Show with The Knack, and you have Monty Python.

At the center of the tale are three personalities that collide with the neat simplicity of a perfect one-act play. Tolen's 'cool' is quickly identified as hip aggression, feigning a kind of masculine strength that indeed does mesh with the insecurities of many a love-hungry female. Colin is slightly immature, dreamy and happy to be a clown if someone else laughs, but he foolishly believes that his yearnings can be attained through a magic system that only Tolen seems to possess. Tom's Irish artist gives the mix flavor and provides a nice sounding board for Colin's anxieties.

The key is of course Rita Tushingham, who made a career out of playing the (sorry to repeat it) Ugly Duckling who comes to the big city, usually in more serious vehicles. She's a doll, an open-minded, initially shy but exuberant and hopeful girl who has 50 adorable reactions to every move made by these would-be Romeos. And she has a tough path to follow -- how to find the right man and get to his heart without being victimized, sullied or otherwise made the sap for Tolen-like schemes. Nancy is certainly susceptible but she has a heart as well, and the kind of ultimate female common sense about romance that we men pigeonhole as intuition. All of the main characters start as clichés and become recognizably human, even Tolen; when they find love, Colin and Nancy transcend themselves. The sixties era invented a Cool Vibe that preached that happiness was reserved only for a special hip elite. The Knack is special because it pushes through all that hogwash to formulate a romantic prescription for real happiness.

Always in good taste, The Knack doesn't tease with the subject of sex or use it for cheap laughs. A prominent non-PC scene has Nancy turn the tables on her Lotharios in a public park by whispering the word 'rape.' That word throws the men into fits of panic, even Tolen. In short order she's proclaiming it dozens of times as a litany, like shock theater. Instead of the '60s typical use of rape as a source of comedy, the word gives the usually silent Nancy a burst of personal power.  2

The look of London is definitely pre-Carnaby Street, with its fashions really only suited to bands like The Who. Savant has to admit that the look of these London girls reminds him of all the junior high dream dates back in the '65 -'67 era (even in the California sticks). The Knack engages deep nostalgia for a time and a feeling long gone.

David Watkin's cinematography is every film student's dream, shot with a nice low contrast array of grays that in B&W makes those gloomy London days look luminescent. Charles Wood's screenplay is a reminder of his versatility -- besides Help and this film, Wood wrote The Charge of the Light Brigade and the recent Iris.

Reviewers often tell us to see The Knack because it has the star of the musical Phantom of the Opera as a younger man. I see little connection between the youthful, agreeably silly Michael Crawford and his older incarnation and would prefer to remember his earlier film career. A young Jacqueline Bisset and Charlotte Rampling are among the many female extras; Tolen's "girl on the motorbike" is Jane Birkin of Blow-Up in her first role.

MGM's DVD of The Knack is a clean and handsome flat 1:66 transfer that would have looked better slightly cropped and enhanced to an anamorphic 1:78. 1:66 is the official theatrical format, but it was commonly screened as wide as 1:85 both in Britain and here in the U.S.. Most shots look acceptable on a flat monitor. John Barry's music still creates a romantic spell; anybody not already aware of the score will be looking for it after seeing the picture. A trailer is the only extra.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Knack rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 15, 2002


1. English subtitles will be a big help in deciphering these comments, as many are mumbled in London argot and we Yanks can only absorb one out of three.

2. Rape is constantly alluded to in sex farces, even Doris Day movies, as something females secretly desire. The James Coburn Western comedy Waterhole #3 got a big laugh by calling rape "Assault with a friendly weapon."

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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