Women lined up through the house, taking up space on the stairs, cramping Colin (Michael Crawford), one of the tenants, both physically and mentally, all waiting for their turn with Tolen (Ray Brooks) in the top floor room... nah, it can't be like that, can it? It's just the way it seems to Colin, whose luck with the opposite sex is pitiful and has been for years, but he doesn't let his resentment show. Well, actually he does, and criticises Tolen openly for his constant stream of girlfriends and one night stands - could it be jealousy that fuels Colin's anger? Does he need to be taught the knack?
The Knack ...and How to Get It garnered a lot of praise when it was first released as it seemed, coming from the man who brought us the first two Beatles films and the innovations that accompanied them, to be fresh and bright and all-new. And young, don't forget young, it was as if Richard Lester, for it was he, had tapped into the anxieties of the generation gap and opted to back youth, not that they're entirely let off the hook as to their behaviour, but as we see the action in this is regularly commented on by tut-tutting middle aged and older people, usually in a humorous style.
Ah, yes, humorous, for this was a comedy adapted from Ann Jellicoe's play by Charles Wood, but perhaps something was lost in translation (for one, Jellicoe hated the film), for it did not seem to take the woman's side until late in the storyline and was chiefly concerned with getting Michael Crawford laid. Or his Colin character, at any rate. Sexual frustration is the order of the day, and the ineffectual Colin is more frustrated than most, so having Tolen's tremendous success in the same house as he lives in does little for his self confidence. A schoolteacher, he finds no one takes him seriously, so he decides to take the plunge and rely on Tolen's morally dubious skills to get himself a woman.
But wait, there is a female point of view in all this, and this is provided by Nancy (Rita Tushingham being about as Rita Tushingham as it's possible to get) who has just arrived from the North and spends the entire film looking for the YWCA so she can find somewhere to stay. Lester treats Nancy as if she were as much a comic character as the three men, and the cast are willing - the third man being paint-obsessed Tom (Donal Donnelly) whose rambling interjections offer some genuine amusement - even if their material is far too self-consciously quirky for its own good. You can understand why it won the Palme d'Or at Cannes for its year, it must have appeared like a minor revolution alongside the Continental New Waves, and there are passages where the film hits on a breezy quality that is still reminiscent of the impact The Knack originally had...
....but these are far between. Mainly the style seems undisciplined, and it wears you out to watch these actors tying themselves in knots to be as vital as possible. Still, watch a sequence such as the one where Colin, Tom and Nancy take Colin's new bed back to the house, one of many additions to the original text, and you can see that it achieves the lightness of touch necessary, with slapstick and visual wit jostling for dominance, but neither overpowering the other. Sadly, for too much of the time this is like trying to have a conversation with the most easily distracted person on Earth, and when the subject of rape intrudes, it's a fatal error if they wanted to sustain the humour. There's not much funny about Nancy thinking she's been violated even if she has not, and yet this is all treated in the same zany manner, with a nod to her discovering the power she now has with her accusation when it has previously been the men who were steering the conversation. It goes to show, what was yesterday's height of fashion is today's ancient monument; not always the case, true, but that's the way this feels. Music by John Barry.
[Available as part of the BFI's Woodfall box set on Blu-ray and DVD, which includes these fully restored films: