In March of 2015, The Knack…and How To Get It screened in Nimes, France for their British Screen Festival. During the introduction, director Richard Lester spoke on the experience of making the film, saying his previous movie (A Hard Day’s Night) was essentially “about four people who communicated without speaking and [The Knack was] about four people who speak without communicating. The original stage play was very much more, as we say, fascist versus liberal, it was a more political piece. In my usual fashion of ruining a good play or a good book, I quickly tried to turn the fascist into a figure of pity and scorn. So the strongest character quickly became the weakest.”
The Knack…and How To Get It is a difficult piece for many to engage in, even if it is a comedy. But that is one of the reasons it remains such a fascinating work. This swingin’ London-drenched film is funny and whimsical in the manner of Help! or A Hard Day’s Night, while also quilting the intellectual and emotional power struggles of the youth and working class, a familiar tool of British New Wave cinema. If that weren’t enough, woven into the verbiage, visuals and characters of the film are discussions of sexual freedom, women’s liberation and male domination, all highly topical in 1964.
The vast majority of the British New Wave was nicknamed “angry young men” films or “Kitchen Sink films” (mostly due to the kind of social realism that it utilized). One might’ve assumed that this adaptation of Ann Jellicoe’s play would have followed those New Wave rules a little more closely but that was entirely not Lester’s style. Instead, his film won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1965 with its conflux of surrealism, intergenerational commentary and sexual/linguistic anarchism.
The Knack… was one of two films adapted from women-written plays at the time, the other being Sheleigh Delaney’s Taste of Honey. Both played strong parts in the British New Wave and were considered to be groundbreaking in their own ways. Fun Fact: Rita Tushingham stars in both Taste of Honey and The Knack… and was the only performer from the stage production of The Knack to make it to the film! Secondary Fun Fact: The Knack…and How to Get It features the first glimpses of three of the most gorgeous women to ever delight the silver screen: Charlotte Rampling (water skiing), Jane Birkin(a girl on a motorbike, because of course), and Jacqueline Bisset (one of the ladies in the white sweaters)
The Knack…and How to Get It is an awkward film. It’s challenging at its best and uncomfortable at certain edges. There won’t be any major film “reveals” in this article but it would be unfair to the reading (and hopefully viewing) audience if I was not to tell you that there was an extraordinary examination of the word “rape” within the film text. There are a variety of ways that this can be viewed, none of which I propose are in any way excuses for rape/rape jokes/anything of that kind, so bear with me. Within this exchange, language becomes practically meaningless. So we wonder…what has meaning become with these characters? Do any of them know what they mean? Of the characters given, we have been led to see that emotional meaning is only critical to a few of them. If this is the case, where does the word “rape” work and with who? Lester had stated that these are characters that speak without communicating. Is it only through threats and fear that one may effectively deal with the other? But then does she herself understand her own power? The dynamics of the film, especially when the majority of the work has maintained a highly critical and negative spin on men’s treatment of women ends up being highly complex and must be taken into consideration when this moment comes to pass. This multilayered film is a damn onion and there is no getting around that.
In the modern context of gender dynamics, female agency and sexuality, the obvious questions arise when discussing a piece like The Knack: has the film aged well? Is it still relevant? As we delve into a work that is keenly problematic in a number of different ways- both for young women and for young men and our relationships to each other, be it 1964 or 2016 – I say that yes, this film is still relevant and worthy perhaps because of those problematic spaces.
This may sound like a quite serious film and in many ways, the subjects being tackled are quite serious: rape, harassment, “being cool,” toxic masculinity, nerd shaming, you name it. But let us not forget that this is, above all, a Richard Lester film. While we may continue to dissect the intricate verbiage and myriad of narrative interactions between characters for years to come, the film itself is utterly entertaining. And that cannot be discounted. The levity within tenseness is welcome.
Having been trained in Peter Sellers’ Goon Show school of absurdity, Richard Lester knew exactly how to throw together a tableau of WTF-ness, even for 1964. Aside from the fact that furniture is being dragged around a large urban area (London) and surreal incidents are part and parcel of the narrative from scene one, Lester added a Chorus of everyday folks as part of the film. This was, of course, no part of the original play, but the moment this Chorus appears and a running commentary on the younger generation starts, there is just no question. Richard Lester is written all over this film. This unconventional and completely anarchic spirit that breaks the fourth wall on a regular basis is the same spirit that Lester brought to his films with The Beatles and would later bring to the Superman films and everything in between. It is Lester-ism, just in varying degrees and incarnations.
As The Knack…was being shot, Lester details the camera set up that they used for the outdoors work. A number of different tents were set up to hide second or third cameras and used to film normal people on the streets of London who were watching the crew film. “As you can imagine,” Lester grimaces, “[most of the time] they were disgusted. So we took those bits of film, natural people responding to us, and added comment and voices over for post-production, and it became the style of the film.”
This spontaneity, youth critique and class-consciousness emphasizes the role that The Knack…and How To Get it played in British New Wave cinema. Ann Jellicoe may not have liked the adaptation of her play but the film certainly transmogrified the original material into something else entirely; a critical piece of British Film history and a work that, in modern context, allows us to investigate the meaning of language, actions, image concepts and the relationship of masculinity to sexuality. As a woman, it may be an uncomfortable film at times, especially since it is a comedy. But it is a smart film, which is integral to its interpretation. There is a lot going on in the film. It is absurd, sometimes shocking, always worth watching.
Of note: Richard Lester’s connections to the British New Wave do not end with The Knack. 1968’s Petulia (the incredible film that the New Beverly Cinema is pairing up with The Knack…and How To Get It) is populated by British New Wave figures. The star, the lovely Julie Christie, was in a pioneering BNW classic called Darling (John Schlesinger, 1965) and Nic Roeg, cinematographer for Petulia, shot quite a few films in the early 60s for different BNW filmmakers. In addition, the hip John Barry score that runs throughout The Knack… finds its match in the compositions that Barry has written for what Lester often said was the favorite of his films, Petulia.