Directed by Richard Lester in the afterglow of his hit "A Hard Day's Night" (starring Paul McCartney's pre-Wings band), "The Knack" is Swinging London seen from a slightly different angle. Popular in its day--it won the Palme d'Or at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival--it's still undeniably funny, but also undeniably dated."The knack" is the inexplicable charm that ladies' man Tolen (Ray Brooks) exercises at will; his nebbishy roommate, Colin (Michael Crawford), tries to learn it himself, and picks the other man's brain whenever he can. Enter Nancy (Rita Tushingham), a wide-eyed innocent who stumbles onto our Mutt 'n' Jeff duo while looking for the YWCA--and who immediately becomes the object of both men's affections.
Brooks and Crawford play off each other wonderfully; the latter also proves quite adept at physical comedy, of the split-second sort that generally went out with the silents. As their mutual love interest, Tushingham holds the camera well, though one suspects she's more a McGuffin rather than a fully realized character. Director Lester wisely keeps the pace quick, deftly tossing off clever visual jokes all over the place (one of them may have inspired the famous runaway plane gag from Airplane!). Even his more daring stunts, like the crowd of disapproving elders who continually comment on the action much like a Greek chorus, work more often than not. Also notable is the jazzy, quietly sensuous score by John Barry.
The witty banter is often delightful: "Are you a homosexual?" "No, thanks all the same." But the unrelievedly manic tone sometimes becomes tiresome, and then the rapid-fire "business" on the screen fails to obscure the fact that very little is really happening. Another problem lies with the film's offhanded sexism, at least from a contemporary perspective; much of the plot revolves around a putative rape, dealt with in a surprisingly cavalier manner. It's not clear how much of the film's breezy misogyny is intended satirically, and how much is simply a product of that more "innocent" era.Regardless, the film's infectious energy overcomes its faults--for the most part.