Richard Lester’s film work was as short and sweet as the youth culture he documented in the 60s. After A Hard Day’s Night, he made a charming, strange movie called The Knack… And How To Get It. Despite its French New Wave flourish (humorous subtitles, sudden audio commentary from bitter blue-hairs, wacky editing), Knack is a straight-forward and simple story of a young London schoolteacher trying to get laid from tips from a Michael Sheen-like mod douchebag; things go awry when a girl steps off the bus looking for a YWCA and runs into them, crying “rape” about a thousand times after the mod cops a feel in the park.
It is not a serious accusation, and does not turn the picture into a PSA (tonally, it maybe sits somewhere between the social slapstick of Tati, particularly Playtime, and Godard’s Masculin Feminin). Like the Beatles film, it’s a breath of fresh air from the modern world’s women’s studies outrage and the victim-as-hero. Spoiler alert: the kids are alright. It’s the old geezers and spinsters who are square, humorless, and as gray as the sky around them. They are sexless Scrooges oblivious to their own sexual innuendo, that frown and stare incredulously at the freedom and disorder of these three men who prevent this off-the-bus bumpkin from becoming one of them.
Lester told Time Out London a few years ago that The Knack was shot in six weeks with £100,000. It won the Palme d’Or. “I’ll never know what they loved about it,” he told Jonathan Crocker about the Cannes jury. “I mean I was asked [to be on the jury] the following year and all sorts of imponderables and swindles seem to take place.” The Best Picture the next year was A Man and A Woman.
It is ultimately a criticism of Tolen’s (Ray Brooks) “knack” with women not applying to all women, just the ones who will become the Stepford Wives of the seventies. “No girl gets raped who doesn’t want it,” he reassures the unsophisticated Nancy Jones (Rita Tushingham), a single line that takes him from amusing to horrible in under ten words. But there is something refreshing about a comedy from the guy who did two Beatles films, who would say these things to accurately depict the allure of villainy. It's about what turns women and men on despite their best reasoning, and I think of all the those screaming girls in A Hard Day’s Night running after, well, mostly Paul and John while they laugh... if the Knack could be a commentary on that. Timid, spazzy schoolteacher Colin (Michael Crawford) isn’t going to be bouncing foxy chicks off his dick not because he’s not a Tolen-level prick but because he’s not fully formed. He’s a faucet that won’t leak, a steady paycheck, something that any attractive woman can have for later when she’s maybe aged, not so attractive, and had her dessert first. And Colin will be just clueless enough to still be grateful, at 40 or 50, and not resentful. But Nancy the Mannequin comes along and, although they share no chemistry -- neither of them have any and wouldn’t even if they were dating a clone of themselves -- it’ll be a chance for Colin to get the “knack” through some connection with someone. It probably won’t last. I hope it won’t. Colin’s problem is he put girls on a pedestal and Tolen’s was he put himself up there, and neither could quite see that really, at their age and in their time, with the social changes and upheavals, the generational change of art and fashion and culture, a girl was just looking for some fun.