Tuesday’s Overlooked Film: The Knack…and How to Get It

Before I get to the main event, some links to share: I am the Tuesday Talking Teaser over at JoJo’s Book Corner, answering questions and reading from Pelzmantel, and Kit Marlowe is the featured blogger today over at the Noble Romance authors’ blog, writing about her inspiration, P. G. Wodehouse.

See all of Tuesday’s Overlooked Films at Todd’s blog.

Fresh from the success of helming the Beatles’ films Hard Day’s Night and Help!, Richard Lester chose to adapt the play The Knack by Ann Jellicoe. I plan to pick up the original play (and Jellicoe’s essay, “Some Unconscious Influences in the Theatre”) to see how her work compares to the film, as I suspect there will be some significant differences.

There are all kinds of Lester-ish touches — I particularly love the OAPs as Greek chorus. The art direction is marvelous; from the opening frames onward there’s a marvelous look to the film, often taken to be a signal example of the British New Wave cinema. The black and white palette offers a chance to explore shadings and shapes, glossy blacks and dazzling whites. From the start we have Lester’s playful surreality as Michael Redgrave Crawford’s neurotic schoolmaster Colin imagines the endless line of women, all dressed identically in their white tops and swinging medallions, waiting for the door to his housemate Tolen’s (Ray Brooks) room to open and admit the next one.

Colin seems about ready to burst from sexual frustration and looks unfavourably on Tolen’s suggestion that his mate Rory McBride — similarly blessed with “the knack” — should move into the vacant room, but Tolen tries to convince him that he’ll pick up tips galore. Unbeknownst to both, however, the clever if often non-sequitor-spouting Tom (Donal Donnelly) has already moved into the room and begun painting everything white (“I can’t bear brown”). He also moves all the furniture into the hallway, leaving the room looking rather like a John and Yoko space.

Meanwhile, girl from the North, Nancy Jones (played by the 60’s zeitgeist Rita Tushingham) wanders through London trying to make her way to the YWCA and being led astray by everyone she meets. Having experienced at first hand the reluctance Londoners have to admit they don’t know where something is, I was amused. Tushingham’s Nancy seems content to keep looking, entertaining herself with the people she finds, but doggedly keeping on until she runs into Tom and Colin as they’ve located the bed the schoolmaster thinks will be key to his finding “the knack” — a huge metal Edwardian affair. The voyage of the three and the bed through London is a delight of silliness and surreality (likewise the farcical doors scene a bit later).

If you’re wondering why this film has been overlooked by many, I can tell you in one word: rape. This is why I really want to read Jellicoe’s play. The attitude toward rape in the film is, well, strange. It’s not simply some loathsome male rape fantasy like Straw Dogs, but it is partly that kind of outlook. When Tolen makes a move on Nancy, to her obvious discomfort, he tells her “No one’s going to rape you. Girls don’t get raped unless they want it.” Yes, loathsome. But it doesn’t end there. There’s a real reluctance to let things go quite in one direction. At first Nancy seems to change her mind, mostly out of curiosity, but when Colin and Tom balk at Tolen taking her up to his room, Tolen takes her out to a park and tries to persuade her to more intimate contact which she refuses and then faints away. Discovering her senseless body, Colin and Tom accuse Tolen of murder, but when Nancy comes round, she accuses him of rape.

The succeeding scenes are quite strange: Nancy goes around shouting “rape” to people, who react in very different ways, but she can’t get the word out when she comes up to a constable, though there’s a pregnant pause as she opens her mouth. Returning to the house, the camera angles give all the power to Nancy the accuser, who retreats to Tolen’s room and strips. The last part of the film shifts the power to Nancy and to Colin, making clear that their real connection between the two virgins becomes more important than the “fake” Tolen who gets exposed as ineffective — and humiliated by Rory McBride who fills the Albert Hall with his women. Eventually he joins the chorus as Nancy moves into the house, flagrantly embracing a sexual life with Colin — if we believe the fireworks in the sky as they walk chastely hand in hand. I can’t help seeing the last part of the film as embodying both the male fear of rape accusations (look how quick the media are to cover false accusations, while the numerous daily rape go unreported) but also a rather idealistic belief in a less manipulative kind of love.

Tolen’s smug arrogance (“All women want to be dominated”) does get shot down by the end and the hapless Colin wins the girl, but it’s such a bizarre little time capsule, I really don’t know how to think about it. Have you seen it?