The Knack… and How to Get It was a British film released in 1965 about the sexual revolution in swinging London-town, complete with a Greek chorus of disapproving members of society’s “older generation”. In the film, bookish teacher Colin (played by Michael Crawford) is frustrated by the womanizing ways of his housemate, Tolen (played by Ray Brooks).
The film opens with a series of mannequin-esque women in tight sweaters and short skirts, robotically waiting in line to get with Tolen.
Shot in black & white, the mod fashions seem nearly as bland and dingy as an Ugly American imagines London to be. My first thoughts were that we’d shift to color after this initial footage, but the entire film is in black and white. This, along with admittedly few costume changes, leaves little to leap from the screen as far as the fashionista’s attentions go — so why review the film here?
Because in black and white the film is much more of a character study (perhaps this was a calculated move on the part of director Richard Lester, most known for his 1964’s A Hard Day’s Night; I’ll leave that for movie critics to debate), leaving what little eye-candy fashion there is to become iconic & symbolic. At least in this person’s mind.
As I said, the women who visit Tolen are darn-near replicas of one another. Same tight-fitting sweaters and short skirts on the same lithe frames — just their hairstyles set them apart. They become rather unidentifiable and even (surprisingly, for a feminist anyway) unremarkable — you just don’t really care for or about these women. For even as the supposedly sexually satisfied women (we never see a sex act) prepare to leave with their “gifts” from Tolen, they seem without pleasure. When he gives jewelry, there is a cold acceptance. Even when the women given the Green Shield Savings Stamps (the UK version of S&H Green Stamps) lick the stamps to place them in their books, there’s no heat. And you know how sexy women’s mouths and licking are usually made in such films.
Where you might expect the vapid, drugged, zombie state of women in lust writhing and purring over “the man with The Knack”, there is instead the the passionless, mechanical quality of women who all look alike. I can’t help but find parallels to women who blindly follow fashion trends.
In a case of he-doth-protest-too-much, Colin rants angrily about getting a new roommate in his house because he can’t focus with all the goings-on in the house — both the practical issues resulting from the long line of ladies who visit Tolen & the moral & misogynistic improprieties. He puts a sign up, hoping for a monk or a nice quiet girl, but instead, through a series of comical mishaps ends up with Tom (Donal Donnelly), a quirky young man who insists upon painting over everything brown (but really seems compelled to paint everything in sight white), as a new housemate. Just in time too, for Colin is about to go over to the dark side — give up on morals and love — and get lessons in “The Knack” from Tolen.
While the boys are getting things sorted out at home, there’s a sweet, young country girl, Nancy (played by the charming and fetching Rita Tushingham), arriving fresh off the train to London.
She’s completely unlike the other young women we’ve seen. While her clothes are certainly more mod than New Look, she expresses — in fashion and face — a freedom the mod mannequins do not. She’s not just “country” v. “city; she’s alive. This is best shown with her innocent face beneath that plaid newsboy cap.
As fellow passengers voice the societal concerns of the big city ruining the sweet young woman, Nancy enters the London train station and sits down in a photo booth, taking portraits of herself as a hip urbanite. Notice that Nancy has removed her hat — a hat which should be watched as symbolism in the entire film.
Waiting for the photos to come out of the machine, Nancy gets her first rude awakening to what the swinging city has in store. A couple, older man with younger blonde, walk up to the photo booth. The young woman steps inside, draws the curtain closed, and proceeds to rapidly hand her male companion pieces of her clothing — one by one, including bits of lingerie.
Until we can obviously understand that she is completely nude in the photo booth; we see bare (or perhaps stocking-covered) legs & her shoes beneath the curtain as she happily poses for the camera.
Nancy, en route to the YWCA, has several other big city lessons in store for herself; including a hilarious scene with a hoodwinking salesman inside a clothing shop. Once she enters she is instantly proffered a dress & pushed into a fitting room by a salesman who says:
I never thought I’d see so much purity of pattern. Absolute rightness. I must please you, and I think I can. Don’t fail me now, because I may never trust myself with a woman again, ever. Try it on. I’m sure, absolutely, I can please you. Show me. Wait for me.
The complete pitch is repeated word for word with the next woman who enters the shop — and overheard by Nancy, who mimics him. She still buys the dress — but instead of buying a new hat, keeps her (now) trademark cap.
Undeterred by the slick swinging city & its rude people, Nancy continues on eventually running into Colin and Tom at the junkyard. The young men are there as Colin has deduced his poor luck with the ladies is due to a too-small bed, and Tom has found him the perfect Edwardian iron bed in the junkyard. Tom sees a way to help the naïve and awkward Colin with girls by getting Nancy to come along home with them.
Using the guise of promising to help Nancy find her way to the YWCA if she helps them, the three roll, carry, and float the bed through the city back to the house. (At some point the bed is now white as if Tom had painted it along the way.)
In this part there’s plenty of humor, including when Nancy, perched on the bed as the boys lift it to carry it down significant stairs, says, “I’ve been picked up now, haven’t I?”
This clearly disturbs Colin — but things will only get worse once the three get back to the house and Tolen decides to show-up his housemates by putting the moves on Nancy.
Tolen believes women must be dominated (that is part of “The Knack”), and his aggression frightens her. Colin seems oblivious, but Tom tries to assist; however Tolen eventually seduces the her into leaving with him on his motorcycle. Tom convinces Colin that the two need to save the poor innocent girl from herself and Tolen and they set off to chase the couple on foot. What ensues includes a Benny Hill/Keystone Cops chase scene.
Tolen and Nancy lose them and duck into a park. There Tolen really puts the moves on Nancy. She nervously says “no”, then demands he leave her alone — mocking Tolen. But she takes things too far when she starts calling him “Mister Tight Pants”, distracting herself. The conflicting desires have her falling to the ground in a faint. This is where the boys come in, assuming the worst, that Nancy is dead.
As they argue, Nancy sits up and yells, “Rape.” Not once, not twice, but endlessly throughout the town, even once she starts to tell a cop but decided not to. (As a feminist, I have to say I was rather put-off by this at first — but eventually you just have to laugh at the absurdity, especially due to the length of this scene.) Nancy even goes door-to-door. She knocks and when the door is opened says just the one word, “Rape,” to which the housewife says, “Not today, thank you.”
Nancy arrives back at the house before the boys, strips and remains in Tolen’s room, still insisting she’s been raped.
Now Colin takes the lead and confronts her, telling her she’s not been raped. The combination of their individual positions and mutual insistence becomes an elixir or sorts, and now Nancy claims Colin was the one who raped her. This is so laughable to Tolen, that Colin’s ego is affected and he falters for a second. Even Nancy seems to be insulted by Tolen’s reaction, so she starts saying that Colin “raped me marvelous super!” Colin responds by saying that he could, he would — he’d like to but he didn’t. Eventually Nancy & Colin consummate the claims in Colin’s new big bed.
Everything is settled for the couple now; Nancy will be living there. But Tolen is now upset by such impropriety. He heads off to some sort of pre-scheduled meeting with a fellow womanizer named Rory — one he feels is not as good as he. He gets there and Rory’s women now fill the Albert Hall (“now we know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall”) — not merely preventing Tolen from entering, but even trampling him in their blind (cold) lust.
Tolen, a very changed man, now joins the chorus of disapproving society folk, while the rest go on and live happily ever after.
A very unusual and thoroughly enjoyable romantic comedy about remaining true to yourself — with lots to think about in the regarding fashion too. It makes me want to go out and get a plaid newsboy cap.
PS I have to add that my heart was taken by the wonderfully mad, childlike (not childish), painting-everything-white, Tom. I wondered why he didn’t get the girl. At one point Tolen wonders too. Maybe he’s gay. “Are you a homosexual?” he says to Tom. Tom replies, “No. Thanks all the same.”
While it clears up one issue, I’m still wondering why Tom’s left single.