Talking Points


Richard Lester once said that the difference between A HARD DAY’S NIGHT and THE KNACK was the four protagonists of the former enjoy perfect communication without having to talk, while the four protagonists of the latter talk all the time without ever communicating. When this was quote back to him by Joseph Gelmis he described it as “Very glib, and very true.”

What do we talk about when we talk about THE KNACK?


The anxiety of influence — it could be argued that the film had a negative effect, because the dumb copies proliferated to such a degree that the original came to seem less fresh — part of the reason it was neglected/despised in the eighties — and because those copies became THE style of the sixties, and the British sixties in particular. It could be argued that the movie demonstrates the danger of injecting a concentrated dose of originality into a formally staid and sclerotic industry.

How does a film go from winning the Palme D’Or and defining the style of a generation of cinema (far more so than A HARD DAY’S NIGHT, actually) to being considered old hat and sexist and embarrassing? It’s the same film, after all.

Is Michael Crawford annoying? Or brilliant? Or both?

Have you read or seen the play? What do you think of the changes? I think structurally, it’s one of the best adaptations ever — as Lester said, not so much “opening out” as EXPLODING the play. Also, they come up with an ending for Tolen, which the play lacks — I guess the point being that he’s an unchanging character. But I love what the film does with him. “We’re all of us more or less sexual failures.”

The Greek chorus. Why aren’t there more Greek choruses in movies?

When is a rape joke not a rape joke? Is the film unconscious of the offence it might give, is it deliberately courting offence, does it offend you? Or, radically, can I suggest that the discomfort it produces entirely intentional and part of its meaning? The play is feminist. Is the film? A bit?

Do you find Ray Brooks attractive? I find Rita Tushingham attractive.

Donal Donnelly is in WATERLOO, THE GODFATHER III, THE DEAD, and worked for John Ford three times. Why is he not an axiom of cinema?

Pauline Kael said “It’s a great technique, but what can you do with it?” How should we answer her, bearing in mind that she can’t talk back?


Don’t rush to answer me now — think it over between now and Monday is when we will DO THIS THING. And of course don’t feel limited. I’m just interested in anybody’s responses, what bits strike them as interesting, what we can learn about film storytelling.

For now, here’s one question you CAN answer — can you think of KNACK-influenced films where the influence was positive? There are definitely some.

BTW, the whole film’s on YouTube (shouldn’t be, but is) so there are no excuses for not seeing it (except honesty).

10 Responses to “Talking Points”

  1. I saw the original New York stage production which was the first play ever directed by a former comic named Mike Nichols. It was good — a kind of “bedroom farce” in which sex was no longer “naughty” but rather a fact. Lester’s film explodes the “bedroom” idea and the house itself. The “slamming doors” notion is parodied in the musical sequence in which the cast cavorts before a line-up of doors.

    Ray Brooks was Babe-a-licious and the fact that his career petered out has always astonished me.

    In previous “Shadowplay” posts I have sung the praises of Jane Birkin, Charlotte Rampling and Jacqueline Bissett who all make their debuts here.

    “It’s a great technique, but what can you do with it?” Plenty. See Jean-Luc Godard, Wong Kar Wai, Guy Maddin, Martin Scorsese (in After Hours), Joseph McGrath, Terry Gilliam and Peter Greenaway.

  2. Practically needless to say that I love the film almost as much as you do, David. I still have Leslie Halliwell’s autograph from writing to request that Channel Four show “The Knack” in 1983. Marvelous memories!
    No way is Michael Crawford annoying. I love the shot of him in the whitened front room as he’s concentrating on what Tolen is “teaching” him, where the camera comes in closer and closer to his facial expression. I can’t think of another occasion where I’ve seen him with such a grim facade.
    I also noticed when Michael Crawford writes the sign “ROOM TO LET”, that he is left-handed. Despite close on perhaps fifty viewings, I never saw that before. I’m not certain that it’s clear which hand dominates in the door barricading scene, except perhaps “The Use Of The Saw”.
    A scene that I had lost all recollection of was that Tolen is trampled underfoot by the girls outside The Albert Hall. My memory of the scene was that he struggled to enter the venue and had to claw his way through the girls. Its climax was lost to me, so this latest viewing was a gift, in that it corrected my recall.
    The lions scene is perfectly ended with Michael Crawford’s little cough. The absolutely right place to cut.
    The overbearing man in the telephone booth that takes note of “Albert Hall, 8th December, Rory McBride”. What is the meaning of this character’s appearance? He says, “I’ll tell her”, like he’s some girl’s pimp, then he warns Nancy never to let him see her in the phone booth again with much menace! Who is this guy???
    The Belle And Sebastian video based on the bed perambulations scenes is a suitable homage to the film. I don’t think it makes any negative impact on the vision of the movie, so for reason I reckon it was an example of a work that was positively influenced.
    I have the John Barry soundtrack album and it is a wonderful CD that finds its place when I am writing-up my Vocational Development work for the hospital, The music is just the right level of quiet to avoid distraction, while being just the right level of upbeat to encourage a fair working pace: students take note! The Albert Hall scene at the film’s end is accompanied by organ solo work by Allen Haven, which is a major soundtrack highlight. Another aspect of the soundtrack is that Barry uses xylophones. OST music (especially comedy soundtracks) was to be where xylophones would remain, until a decade later Frank Zappa started using them in rock, so let’s hear it for the xylophones!
    As to the question of the rape theme in some scenes jarring in today’s sensibilities, I say this: This film was a pioneering 1960’s masterpiece and if it couldn’t take those thematic risks, then there would have been no 1960’s zeitgeist to reflect. Tolen does however say, “Girls only get raped if they want to.” That is about one of the most controversial statements one could make nowadays… given the British police’s and courts’ heritage of only successfully prosecuting the thinnest minority of rape cases.

  3. “When is a rape joke not a rape joke?”
    There is in truth no such thing as “a rape joke”. Ever.

    ‘“Girls only get raped if they want to.” That is about one of the most controversial statements one could make nowadays…’
    That’s not “controversial”, it’s vile. And perhaps most egregiously, assumes that men and boys do not suffer rape. (They / We most certainly do. Male-on male rape is the most under-reported crime in both the US and UK, and probably throughout Europe, for that matter. And female-on-male rape is far more frequent than you might infer from the complete media silence on the subject.)

    The attitude to rape threatens to undermine the film; it’s depressing to read attempts (by men) to rationalize this.

  4. Without getting ahead of ourselves (save it for Monday!) I think Tolen’s line has to be considered in the context of who is saying it. Tolen isn’t a nice man. Like Alfie, he doesn’t really see women as human beings. And rape isn’t real to him because he assumes all women are available to him.

    If a line is IN CHARACTER, one cannot object to its presence, can one? Except on the grounds of its violating the tone of the piece, I guess.

    The rape references elsewhere — the use of the word AS a word, to be played with, which comes from the Jellicoe play, is far more difficult to deal with. You can have funny murder, you can’t have funny rape (leaving aside that there is no actual rape in the film). That may not make any sense, but it’s true nevertheless. Comedy should tackle difficult subjects, but while you get extra points for succeeding, the penalties for failing are huge. Or, as comedian Richard Herring puts it, when you walk into an area carrying a joke, you have to know why you’re there.

    Crawford’s reputation, I think, was damaged by his sitcom, Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, even thought it was hugely popular. It was never considered cool. But the visual comedy he managed in it was astonishing at times (see YouTube).

  5. And he was wonderful in Hello, Dolly!

  6. Crawford’s reappearance as The Phantom of the Opera took us all by surprise. And it seems his willingness to perform near-suicidal physical feats in comedy has translated into a ferocious perfectionism in musical theatre, where he drives himself and everyone else to exhaustion and beyond. A very interesting psychological study, this gentle persona with such a mania within.

  7. He was something of a horror to work with.

  8. Although my old friend Alexander (Upstairs, Downstairs) Faris, who was Crawford’s musical director for Billy (the West End Billy Liar musical, from the 1970s), always referred to Crawford as ‘my little lovely pet lamb’. Make of that what you will.

  9. He’s both, clearly!

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