The Knack … and How to Get It (Richard Lester, 1965)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents The Knack … and How to Get It.

criterion logoEither you have it or you don’t.  Cool and sophisticated Tolen (Ray Brooks) has it with a monopoly on womanizing proven by a long line of conquests, while his naïve and awkward landlord Colin (Michael Crawford) desperately wants a piece of it, but when Colin falls for an innocent country girl (Rita Tushingham), self-assured Tolen quickly makes a play for her.  Fresh from the success of A Hard Day’s Night, Richard Lester applies his frenetic style to the early days of Swinging London and creates this mod masterpiece.  The Knack … and How to Get It breaks through the formulaic conventions of romantic love and the sex comedy and stands as a handsome portrayal of the generation gap and the oncoming sexual revolution, wowing audiences at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival and making it a surprise winner of the Palme d’Or.

Disc Features:

  • New 4K digital restoration, approved by director Richard Lester, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
  • Audio commentary featuring Steven Soderbergh interviewing Lester
  • New interviews with Ray Brooks, Michael Crawford, and Rita Tushingham
  • Downloadable soundtrack by John Barry
  • Birdwatching, interviews with Charlotte Rampling, Jacqueline Bisset, and Jane Birkin, who all made their onscreen debuts in The Knack … and How to Get It
  • Richard Lester’s 1965 documentary on Formula One racing made for Esso
  • New interview with Richard Lester on his advertising work during the mid-1960s, including a collection of his television commercials
  • Theatrical trailer
  • PLUS: An essay by British film scholar Janet Moat

Richard Lester is probably best known for the films that roughly bookend his career – his two films starring The Beatles and his involvement in 3 Superman movies – but Lester had a remarkable career otherwise that extended beyond feature filmmaking and included an astounding array of commercial work in documentary and advertising.  One of Lester’s films in particular seems under appreciated, a small project taken up to fill time between The Beatles films and boasting a budget of only $350,000 – The Knack … and How to Get It.  It’s easy to understand how this little film, with no marquee names connected to it, could be overlooked.  It only made $8,000,000 worldwide, won the 1965 Palme d’Or, and stands as a definitive document of Swinging London immediately before its heydays.  Only released by MGM in a rather bare-bones DVD edition that now seems out of print, The Knack … is an excellent choice for a Criterion treatment, building off its recent release of A Hard Day’s Night (Richard Lester, 1964), perhaps leading the way to a Criterion edition of Help! (Richard Lester, 1965), and adding yet another of Cannes’ big winners to the Collection.

Lester’s The Knack … is based on Ann Jellicoe’s successful play, deconstructed by himself and Charles Wood and reassembled in a process designed to see what components were actually needed to make their film version.  The film is a relatively simple tale of sexual rivalry.  Schoolteacher Colin (Michael Crawford) owns a home with one tenant, the sexually talented and much desired Tolen (Ray Brooks), and room for another.  Colin is a knot of romantic frustration, lacking the knack in women and annoyed/jealous at Tolen’s boundless sexual success and the seemingly unending stream of women seeking his favours.  Colin seeks out Tolen’s advice, but manages to interpret his advice as suggesting he simply has the wrong bed.  Tom (Donal Donnelly), an artist who abhors the colour brown, accepts himself as Colin’s new lodger and promptly paints the entire main floor living room white.  Meanwhile, Nancy (Rita Tushingham), a young and innocent girl new to London and in search of the YWCA, joins Colin and Tom’s search for Colin’s new bed, bringing an elaborate and sizable metal frame back to the house where Tolen quickly directs his talents at this fresh face.  Nancy rebukes Tolen in a nearby park, passes out, and then accuses Tolen of raping her. Tolen eventually flees, giving Colin time to connect with Nancy and finally find love.

Of course, what distinguishes The Knack … from other films is Richard Lester’s anarchic storytelling and visual style.  Here, Lester takes his whimsical techniques from A Hard Day’s Night and recasts them for a romantic comedy.  The Knack … presents the same merger of French New Wave rule-breaking and distanciation with the graphically eye-catching and slickly associative editing of commercial advertising, incorporates the tradition of British documentary realism with location shooting and unscripted passerby reactions, and focuses these techniques on displaying London on the verge of a revolution in youth culture and the timeless challenge of finding love and acceptance in another.  Supreme Being at Stand by for Mind Control suggests that the opening sequence of The Knack …, with Colin exasperated by an endless line of nearly identical women filling his stairwell, all waiting for their turn at Tolen’s affections, does not exist in either objective reality or subjective fantasy, but rather as a lengthy “visual metaphor,” with the film then settling “down to its almost unbearably manic pace.”  It’s worth noting that the lengthy visual metaphors don’t end with the film’s opening sequence, but rather multiply as the film proceeds, varying in tone and style between the openly comic, the broadly slapstick, the artfully meaningful, and the gloriously surreal.  In A Hard Day’s Night, Lester employed his breathless style to reflect the fervour of Beatlemania and the appealing cheekiness of the young men that inspired it, but The Knack … is more generally concerned about the youth of its day, about the changing mores of its generation and its effect on developing identities and making interpersonal connections, and Lester’s audio-visual style reflects that process of experimentation and exploration.  Whether it’s tearing through London on a bed frame or an impossible chase through a fence fashioned from a collection for doors, The Knack … is consistently concerned with looking at the world from new and different perspectives.

The term “Swinging London” would be coined less than a year after the release of The Knack …, and Lester’s film managed to address the cultural shift just ahead of other iconic films of the era including Blowup (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966), Alfie (Lewis Gilbert, 1966), Bedazzled (Stanley Donnen, 1967), and If…. (Lindsay Anderson, 1968).  Lester’s decision to film out in the streets of London seems equally inspired by the French New Wave and British realist movement, and makes it a valuable document of its period.  Black and white cinematography is often embraced for its more severe examples (as in many noirs), but David Watkin offers in The Knack … a beautiful array of grays that provide a crisp sense of texture and depth throughout.  One of the greatest novelties of The Knack …‘s location shooting is the incidental recording of reactions by on-lookers.  Lester uses the disapproving expressions and comments of those older passers-by as a kind of chorus expressing the widening generation gap.  They are fascinating moments in the film as they convey not just the changes in attitude and taste between the generations, but locate them in functionally different modes, with the older generation existing outside of the film, looking on from the perspective of a cold, uninspired reality, while the young rollick and play in a performative space that is full with jouissance and inaccessible to their elders.

What is perhaps most fascinating about The Knack … is that it is already deconstructing the Swinging London zeitgeist even before popular culture recognized it.  While acknowledging the hopefulness and indulgence of the scene, it presents it as still running aground of the usual sexual politics.  The film’s principal foursome is made up of 3 men and its character most emblematic of Swinging London, Tolen, seems to have little regard for his coterie of admirers, treating them with little more regard than his motorcycle, his black gloves, or his hair.  Only Nancy resists Tolen’s spell, rebuking his advances in a park, then passing out and accusing him of rape when she awakens.  The entire sequence is rather bizarre.  Some reviewers suggest the existence of an ellipsis that casts doubt on whether or not Tolen raped Nancy, although I can’t admit to reading the scene as such.  Rather, what seems to occur is an abruptly shocking reversal of power, one that elevates the previously meek Nancy, cows the confident Tolen, and unites the three male characters in the face of the accusation.  Nancy traverses London shouting “Rape!” to all but a police officer (perhaps suggesting that she knows Tolen didn’t rape her), and Lester plays all sorts of visual games to express the unease and panic of Tolen, Colin, and Tom.  Nancy uses the word to rebuff Tolen finally, as well as embolden Colin and encourage him as her suitor of choice.  It’s an altogether strange process and one that rests somewhat uneasy from a contemporary perspective, but it is captivating and pointedly skewers the shallow and self-centred worldview of Tolen and that portion of Swinging London.

The KnackIn between A Hard Day’s Night and The Knack …, Richard Lester made a documentary for Esso and produced 7 screenplays for The Knack …, and was already making Help! when The Knack … won the Palme d’Or.  Between Help! and the 70 commercials he shot during the period, Lester couldn’t even attend Cannes to accept his award.  It was a highly productive period for the director, one that gets lost as television commercial work doesn’t hold much cache unless you’re Ridley Scott.  Lester is nevertheless an under-appreciated powerhouse of period and The Knack … and How to Get It deserves the kind of profile and attention created in a Criterion Collection edition.  Ray Brooks has suggested that “you could put [any frame of The Knack …] on the cover of Time/Life.  Everything was so beautifully shot.”  We couldn’t agree more, so why not use this image of Colin and Tom suspended over an alleyway as a cover image, putting Colin at the top and leaving space in the lower left side for the film’s title?  We’d pay for that.

Credits:  The cover summary started from the one provided on the MGM DVD and evolved from there.  The involvement of Steven Soderbergh always ensures good commentary and was a natural choice given his previous collaboration with Richard Lester that resulted in Soderbergh’s book, Getting Away With It, Or: The Further Adventures of the Luckiest Bastard You Ever Saw, Starring Steven Soderbergh, Also Starring Richard Lester as The Man Who Knew More Than He Was Asked.  The interviews and the Birdwatching feature are invented for this imagined edition, although it is entirely true that The Knack … contains the first onscreen appearances of Charlotte Rampling, Jacqueline Bisset, and Jane Birkin.  We’ve also included a downloadable version of the score by John Barry, who we never even talked about!  Barry’s jazzy score for The Knack … is a minor classic within a body of work by the great composer that unfortunately overshadows it.  It was difficult finding writing on The Knack … to leverage into a booklet essay, but Janet Moat’s modest piece for the BFI’s Screenonline promised a rewarding read in an expanded version.  Maybe she could be enticed from retirement to accept a Criterion Collection assignment.  Finally, we decided to approach a Criterion edition of The Knack … as an opportunity to explore Lester’s prolific commercial advertising work during the same period and so we’ve included his documentary for Esso (sorry, we haven’t been able to identify anything about it beyond its mere existence) and an interview that could address and include his more memorable commercials.

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