The Knack... and How to Get It

The Knack... and How to Get It ★★★★½

What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.

The few people on here who bother to note any creator behind this film—the few people who, in other words, don't just treat it as another piece of streamable content—keep mentioning the great (or despised, pick your poison, you know where I stand) Richard Lester. But none of those reviews, weirdly enough, mention the woman who wrote the play in the first place, the modernist English playwright Ann Jellicoe. Surprise to me: Lester's film is actually a pretty straightforward adaptation of her text: look up "The Knack" on Internet Archive, you will see what I mean: (And she's someone I am totally fascinated by, and whose work I'd love to delve deeper into.) She wrote it explicitly as a comedy in 1962 in response to a man who was continuously sexually hitting on her in a flat she was renting with her future husband, til she reached an absolute breaking point of disgust. She also noticed the grand (surface) romance of the Swingin' London blooming during the period that she wrote the play. Thus, the two clash: a glamorous era of the smooth and sexed image, and the unconscious garish pillars supporting it. To elide Ann Jellicoe and this key context is not only to fundamentally misunderstand what the film is even doing (which is so apt, since misunderstandings are exactly what The Knack is about), it's to elide a big part of the argument for this 1965 film being not backwards, not "of its time," but very clearly (aided by Lester's further surreal distancing effects) about the absolute inability to communicate between men and women that breeds an abominable sexuality (it at its root?) and rape culture.

Ann Jellicoe, 1963: "I am trying to use every possible effect that the theatre can offer to stir up the audience — to get at them through their emotions ... I write this way because — the image that everybody has of the rational, intellectual, and intelligent man — I don't believe it's true. I think people are driven by their emotions, and by their fears and insecurities."

From the article that serves as a preface to the text of Ann Jellicoe's Knack play in the link above, by John Russell Taylor:

"The Knack might be a direct illustration of the above statement: it is a comedy, as far as can be seen, about normally intelligent, articulate people caught at precisely the point where the image of rational;, intelligent man breaks down just because they are completely ruled by their emotions, fears, and insecurities. The subject of these feelings, naturally enough, is sex — where else is the normally civilized man more subject to noncivilized, indeed anticivilized, influences? The situation is classically simple. Three men, Tolen, Tom, and Colin, live in one house: Tolen has more than enough sex, being a living demonstration of sexual determination, stamina, resilience: Tom, having one supposes struck a fairly happy balance, is not violently involved; and Colin, their landlord, does not get anything like enough and worries about it. Into their lives comes an innocent — at least she seems to be an innocent — called Nancy, and a tussle for her develops between Tolen, who sees her as yet another scalp for his belt, and Colin (though their conflict only slowly develops, and at one stage Colin is happy to let Tolen seduce Nancy while he takes notes on technique). Colin is to some extent in a one-up position because he is landlord, but Tolen has the advantage of him in the enviable field of sexual experience, and while Nancy is out of the room being sick after a fainting fit Tolen tries to play off his advantage against Colin's, offering to take Colin into a "girl-sharring arrangement" he is negotiating with a friend if in return Colin will throw out Tom, whose ironic and unpredictable presence he finds irksome, in favor of the other womanizer. Their plans are swept aside, however, by Nancy's vociferous assertions upon recovery that she was raped while unconscious — by Colin. Colin and Tolen have a violent row on the point, Tolen saying Colin couldn't, Colin saying he didn't but he could; finally Tolen leaves and Colin and the girl are left together under the friendly eye of Tom...

"That is what happens — what happens, not for the most part what is said. [A-ha...!] Whole sections of the text make no noticeable sense in themselves, because it is always what is going on, and what the audience apprehends from participating in what is going on, that counts."

Jellicoe's and Lester's film strikes me as being exactly about the gaps in language — which results in the false images men will create, and the standards they will craft, based upon sheer violence and domination of women's bodies, in order to feel rationalized in their own identity, sexuality, what have you. The brilliance of the film, its disturbing qualities, are owing to its employment of not bathotic drama but an unstabilizing comedy, in order to convey this fundamental truth. What gag more obviously conveys this than the image of a grown schoolteacher (Mike Crawford) ogling a girl changing her pants and revealing her panties and getting sexually heated at her— over the sound of a classroom full of bright white British boys aged 8-12 chanting eagerly and carefully, "A man must develop the Knack," as if it were just another schoolroom lessons like "2x4=8" or "The Queen is Dead, Long Live the King"?

Someone compared this to a non-horror version of Possession, and I think that's spot on, too.

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