Meet Rita Tushingham, the cutest comic (and dramatic) actress of swinging London. This ’60s masterpiece applies director Richard Lester’s talent for comedy to a new kind of quirky, youthful sex farce. Shy boy Michael Crawford takes lessons on how to dominate women from Ray Brooks, when all he has to do to win cute Rita Tushingham is be himself. With a glorious music score by John Barry. The style is everything; the movie was extremely influential.
The Knack… and how to get it
KL Studio Classics
1965 / B&W / 1:66 widescreen / 84 min. / Street Date January 12, 2015 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring Rita Tushingham, Ray Brooks, Michael Crawford, Donal Donnelly,
Jane Birkin, Jacqueline Bisset, Charlotte Rampling.
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
Here’s a must-see English movie from the 1960s, starring the endearing Rita Tushingham and an all but unrecognizable Michael Crawford, young and as skinny as a rail. And although they appear only in bit parts, this Richard Lester classic also has the first film appearances by Jane Birkin, Jacqueline Bisset and Charlotte Rampling. Plus the most swooningly romantic movie score of the decade, courtesy of John Barry.
Swinging London wasn’t an illusion. It did exist, but the glossy version that caught the American imagination was mostly the nightclub scene catering to not average kids, but young celebrities in music and film and models from the fashion industry. Peter Whitehead’s short film Tonite Let’s All Make Love In London gives the impression of a party scene capable of impressing notables like Mick Jagger and Michael Caine; I bet I’d recognize a lot more faces in that show now. When Roman Polanski hit London he was surely taken by the nightlife and its easy access to some of the most beautiful — and liberated — women on the planet.
Most movies on Swinging London missed the mark by a mile. An example of a good attempt that nevertheless survives only as a curio, is the now-obscure Wonderwall, with the iconic Jane Birkin and music by George Harrison. The movie most associated with the short-lived London scene in 1965 is Richard Lester’s The Knack… and how to get it. But it’s less a Swinging London movie than a mini-revolution in film style. The Knack is a new kind of youth sex farce that instead explores the tensions created by the ‘free love’ illusion promoted by the culture. Director Lester elaborated on the breezy, anarchic cutting of parts of his phenomenal success A Hard Day’s Night, adapting the style for a quirky romantic comedy. The music is a jazz-inflected romantic score, not rock ‘n’ roll. The result is a freewheeling style that owes something to silent comedy, and at times almost seems improvised. When Hollywood films began copying foreign movies, this was the most influential style, much more than the films of the French New Wave. In fact, in a year dominated by progressive French movies, The Knack won the Palme d’Or at Cannes.
The story brings together two young Londoners, an Irishman and a girl new to town, in a city ripe with the sensation that Sex is everywhere. But not in the life of young landlord Colin (Michael Crawford). Renting flats in his London townhouse, Colin is going crazy over the amorous shenanigans of an upstairs roomer. Tolen (Ray Brooks) 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.
The Knack’s vivid characters present a collage of progressive, playful comedy ideas. Playwright Ann Jellicoe’s Open Stage concept for her The Knack: A Comedy in Three Acts pushed the boundaries of theater; it had already been around for three years before Richard Lester chose to adapt it with Charles Wood. Adapt may not be the right word. Lester ‘s visual style explodes the material with constant stylistic interjections. Colin directly addresses the camera, and the things he talks about often take physical form, as in a comic book fantasy. Unrelated people share jokes across cuts. Some exaggerated scenes would seem to be projections of Colin’s sex anxiety as when he focuses on the school girls outside his class window. Lester introduces other ‘jokes of opportunity’ just for their own sake. In a dress shop, Rita Tushingham’s Nancy is ‘seduced’ into think that a particular dress was made just for her, the same way that Tolen sweeps girls off their feet repeating the same seduction line. In each case, sexual satisfaction is a consumer product.
Lester harbors no ill will for his characters, but he revels in poking fun at them. The three personalities at the center of the tale collide with the neat simplicity of a one-act play. Tolen’s supremely self-confident cool is quickly identified as hip aggression, a commanding facade that in real life can indeed align with the insecurities of many a love-hungry female. The joke is that Tolen is really a shallow and selfish jerk, gliding by on an image and an attitude.
Colin is immature, dreamy and happy to be a clown. Colin strains to project authority when teaching his schoolboys; anywhere else he’s a spirited klutz prone to laughing at his own silly thoughts. He’s girl crazy, and has foolishly come to believe that his yearnings can be attained by imitating Colin’s magic system of seduction. The answer is for Colin to be his own man; he doesn’t realize that the right girl will appreciate his inherent qualities. He also doesn’t understand that girls aren’t as Tolen sees them, interchangeable playthings. A third male character is Tom, the Irish artist looking for a room. Perhaps as important in the play but made secondary in the movie, Tom adds a dash of eccentric optimism, and provides a chatty sounding board for Colin’s anxieties.
The key to The Knack’s charm is Rita Tushingham, who made a career out of playing (sorry to repeat it) Ugly Ducklings in the big city. This is surely her best comedy. Although Lester introduces Tushingham’s Nancy Jones as a clueless silent comedian, she soon reveals an exuberant and hopeful underlying personality. Made the object of a three-way mating dance, Nancy has an adorable reaction to every move made by these would-be Romeos. Her heart is vulnerable, but possessed of a common sense about romance that we men pigeonhole as intuition.
Lester’s distinctive style is derived from a willingness to ignore standard film continuity rules. He uses jump cuts to keep the viewer off balance, and overlaps dialogue to make instant connections between scenes. He indulges in fantasy sequences without bothering to say when they begin and when they end. The opening title sequence, slightly overexposed and given a dreamy quality through John Barry’s slick music, presents a seemingly endless procession of identically dressed ‘dolly birds’ lining up on Colin’s staircase, each waiting her turn to be seduced by the god-like Tolen. The queue of look-alike femme dollies, each with the same ribbed sweater, the same makeup and hairstyle, is obviously a fantasy tantamount to a wet dream. But neither does Lester strictly define the vision as a dream sequence. At any point in the movie imaginative visions just appear before Colin and Nancy — associative visual puns that leap in for a few seconds and then vanish.
Lester never misses an opportunity for a joke. Nancy’s wanderings through London contrast tourist images with all manner of visual puns suitable for a silent comedy. All the while, a Greek chorus of elderly Britons offers critiques from the sidelines, condemning youth just for being young. As a sort of commentary on the proceedings from the older side of the generation gap, Lester cuts to various elder folk offering their two cents. Sometimes they’re reacting to something specific, but mostly they’re expressing their own frustration, the feeling that the youngsters are getting it all wrong, that they don’t appreciate the sacrifices of their elders.
If Lester’s 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 considerable success. Television’s The Monkees went so far as to rob a key Knack image, when the carefree madcaps roll a bed frame through the streets for a joyride. The film’s influence has yet to abate. Cross The Goon Show with The Knack, and you have Monty Python. MTV later declared Richard Lester the ‘father of the music video.’ His joking response was to deny paternity and demand a blood test.
The Knack doesn’t tease with the subject of sex or use it for cheap laughs. A noted non-PC scene has Nancy rather menacingly cornered by Tolen in a public park. He ignores her demands that he behave himself. She turns the tables on him by whispering the word ‘rape,’ and is delighted to discover that the word throws all three of her suitors into fits of panic. In short order she’s proclaiming it dozens of times as a litany, like shock theater. The word gives the usually silent Nancy a burst of personal power. I fear that this scene has gone in and out of favor more than once in the fifty years that have elapsed since The Knack appeared. Is it an expression of liberation, or just a thoughtless joke about a real problem?
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. It’s really a snapshot of pre-Swinging London before the ‘scene’ became a commercial product. Befitting its romantic music score, the film is actually very sentimental. All the characters become recognizably human, even Tolen. There’s no endorsement of Free Love, just the freedom to follow one’s heart. Lester’s trendy inventions and mannerisms eventually fade to reveal a warmly positive, if conventional, attitude. It refutes the ’60s trend of ‘Cool’, the consumerist idea that happiness is reserved only for a special hip elite. The Knack is special because it pushes through the ‘swinging’ hogwash to formulate a prescription for romantic happiness. When Colin and Nancy find love, they transcend themselves — it’s back to the basic Boy Meets Girl.
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. David Watkin’s cinematography uses low contrast grays to make those gloomy London days look luminescent. The look of London is definitely pre-Carnaby Street, but its fashions must have circled the globe like lightning. The styles seen in A Hard Days’ Night were immediately picked up in the California backwoods town where Savant went to junior high. The look of these London girls reminds me of all the junior high dream dates back in the ’66 -’67 era. The Knack engages a deep nostalgia for a time and a feeling long gone.
Reviewers often note that The Knack features the star of the musical Phantom of the Opera as a younger man. I don’t connect with the older incarnation of Michael Crawford and would prefer to remember his agreeably silly image in this picture. A young ‘Jackie’ 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.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The Knack… and how to get it is a big improvement on MGM Home Video’s non-enhanced letterboxed disc. Yet it is not the fully restored presentation we’d hoped for. The B&W 1:66 HD master hails from 2002, the same year as the DVD – could it be adapted from the same transfer? Little if any digital cleanup is evident. The dirt is somewhat distracting on the main titles, and in very light scenes, such as those in a room that Tom has painted bright white. Elsewhere the transfer captures the ‘overcast London midday’ feeling, but the image is not as luminous as it might be.
The soundtrack is okay but might have needed some work too. Even on the menu, the title theme is seriously distorted. The audio for most of the film is just fine, but the louder music over the titles and end credits is distorted as well. The Amazon listing’s mention of English subtitles is false. We’re disappointed that Kino is sticking with its policy of no subs — many of the mumbled English accents throughout the film are difficult to decipher, especially the ‘heard on the street’ asides from passersby. This is a movie that should have been picked up by Criterion and given a thorough revamp job — everybody considers it a distinguished classic.
“Trailers from Hell” episodes for this picture and Richard Lester’s The Bed Sitting Room provide a minimum of comment; speaking about The Knack, director Allan Arkush calls it a masterpiece and cites it as extremely influential to a generation of film students. A gallery of Richard Lester trailers includes those two plus How I Won the War, Juggernaut and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to The Forum.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Knack… and how to get it Blu-ray rates:
Video: Very Good
Sound: Fair +
Supplements: ‘Trailers from Hell’ attraction with Allan Arkush; plus TFH attraction for The Bed Sitting Room with John Landis; Richard Lester trailer gallery.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 21, 2015
Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson