When someone askes me to name my favourite film I usually say "The Knack...and how to get it" which is almost always met with a puzzled look in responce; so few people have seen this movie, even though it won the main prize at Cannes the year it was made and was a popular and commercial success across the world, that you might be forgiven for thinking that perhaps it had been surpressed or maybe overtaken by fashion that lumped all the "Swinging London" films together and forgot them. Either way I think it is a neglected clasic that deserves wider recognision.
Taken from a not very successful play by Ann Jellicoe, that ran at the Royal Court experimental theatre for six weeks about a year before it was filmed, Charles Wood's screenplay expanded the action away from the run-down house, which is at the centre of the play, to use London as the backdrop for the film; not tourist London but the back streets and slightly run down areas of Shepherd's Bush. The true masterstoke was to give the running commentary by the old people on what the four main (young) characters are up to. This babble is so typical of the British attitude to sex sensorious, but at the same time obsessed and slightly regretting that they haven't done it themselves that it is hillarious. This aspect of the film is clearly influenced by Dylan Thomas' "Under Milk Wood" but used here it takes on it's own identity. Charles Wood also has a small part in the film himself; he is one of the Guardsmen that Nancy encounters in their "Bear Skins" (pun fully intended) while trying to find the YWCA.
The performances by the main actors are all superb. Michael Crawford as the accident prone, sex starved Colin, living in his run down Victorian house, who careers from one disaster to another is clearly the reletive of Frank Spencer the character Crawford played to such great effect in the 1970's "Some Mother's Do 'ave 'em" before he went on to even greater success in West End and Broadway musical theatre.
Ray Brooks delivers a totally beliveable Tolan, the superior, promiscous man living on the top floor of Colin's house who's self confidence eventually leads to his own downfall. A year after making this Brooks was the male lead in "Cathy Come Home", one of the most famous British television plays of all time, which shocked a nation by graphically showing the full reality of the homeless in the UK. It is difficult to imagine two more contrasting rolls.
Donal Donelly as Tom the manic painter and decorator who acts as the catalyst bringing the other elements of the film together. He was in some other 1960 movies including "Waterloo" but I haven't seen him in anything for a very long time now.
Rita Tushingham always has a vulnerability about her and never more so than in this film as Nancy. She arrives in London and wanders haplesly around costantly being mis directed to the YWCA until she comes across Colin and Tom in a junk yard. As she comes to know the other characters she comes under Tolan's spell until she suddenly finds she is in love with Colin. Tushingham handles her part well as she develops from the innocent new girl in town to the more confident woman at the end of the picture via a sort of breakdown after which she accuses all and sundry of "rape". It is this aspect of the film which has drawn most criticim bringing with it accusations of misogyny. I don't think that it is justified after all nobody gets raped they just shout it a lot!
John Barry's score brings the whole film together; He uses a choir of womens voices and the jazz organist Alan Haven, who had previously enlivened the opening titles of "From Russia With Love", to a variety of moods with one basic theme in 3/4 time. It is one of the most creative uses of music I can think of.
Richard Lester directed this gem of a film on location at break neck speed just as he had some months earlier with "A Hard Day's Night". His surreal imagination, sense of humour and love of scilent movies all combine to make one of the most original films ever made. Using black and white stock allowed him greater freedom to film in awkward locations as well as to experiment with over exposure so what started out as a budget restriction became a creative tool. There are some wonderful individual shots; at one point, for instance, Colin, Tom and Nancy are seen throwing stones in the river and there is a shot of their reflection it is only there for a few seconds but it is the composition of the film for me. It is rare to find a film which has good dialoge and creative cinamatography.
On DVD the film looks great even with so few extra features. I was pleased that there were suptitles as some of the lines of dialoge are a bit indisdinct and even as a native English speaker I've often wondered what they were.
One final thing. Whenever I'm feeling a bit depressed I often look at this film and it never fails to make me feel better you never know perhaps it will do the same for you.
The story started out as a play by Ann Jellicoe. The film shifts between broad slapstick and avant-garde as it tells the story of an unlucky in love schoolteacher, his womanizing housemate, the artist who moves in with them, and a naive girl who has just arrived in London.
Director Richard Lester uses all kinds of editing shots that still look fresh and there's something about this film being in black and white that somehow makes it more "1960s" than if it had been shot in color.
MGM released this in widescreen with the theatrical trailer but it really could use some extras where the making of the film is discussed. (Check out the liner notes on the CD soundtrack for some behind the scenes information.) Audio commentary from Richard Lester and any of the actors would have also been much appreciated.
Richard Lester obviously learned to tell a joke at the knee of Spike Milligan. It's a shame that the television shows he directed for Milligan (and Peter Sellers) in the 1950s haven't survived the BBC's notorious indifference to posterity. This makes it even more important that MGM has again made available this film that is now so politically incorrect I long ago concluded it was being surpressed.
This film won the Palm d'Or (best picture) at Cannes in 1965. It has more brilliant silent sight gags than most any three Buster Keaton pictures combined yet has so much verbal wit that you'll likely be back to watch the film at least three times, just to make sure you really got it all, which I'm not certain is really possible. The running commentary on youth by the older generation is one of the most hilarious things I've ever heard (and I am amazed I've never seen anyone steal the idea for a lesser picture.) Listen carefully to the broken dialog in the teacher's lounge where a spinsterish teacher worries no one wants to rape her and a boorish old male teacher reminisces over once hitting an unruly student right up the nose with a piece of chalk. The sight gags are more obvious, usually broad though occasionally subtle, with large parts of the film having no dialog at all, such as the sequence pushing the old bed frame across London, the sequence with which the film is most frequently identified (note that the bed turns white when they get pulled through a car wash).
The film is politically incorrect from the first shots of all the identically dressed girls queued up the stairs waiting for their turn in Tolin's (Ray Brooks) room. (Tolin has guestbook in his room and asks women to keep their comments to a single word). School teacher Colin (Michael Crawford) is obsessed that he will end up one of the dirty old men who hang around the school yard to watch the little girls play sports. Tolin offers to let frustrated Colin share his girls if Colin, who owns the house, will rent the empty room downstairs to Tolin's ladykiller friend, Rory, with everyone sharing in all the girls (we never do see Rory in the film but his presence keeps popping up in important ways). Before Tolin can move in his friend, however, a stranger, Tom (Donal Donnelly), a painter who paints white everything he sees, moves into the room on his own initiative. Releaved at not being drawn into the sex deal, but still wanting the knack of getting girls, Colin decides that his real problem is the size of his bed. Meanwhile, in the other story line, innocent Nancy (Rita Tushingham) has just arrived in London, where, in one of the film's best sight gags, she soon gets an educating eyeful from a prostitute working the photography booth trade. Nancy has further adventures trying to find the YWCA, including a very funny sequence in a dress shop where a salesman gives the same seductive spiel to each customer, various silent gags involving getting around the streets, and a very strange encounter in a phone booth with a man taking a call about Rory. Finally, she encounters Colin and Tom out acquiring a large old bed, that Colin likes because of the noise it makes. The three roll the bed back to the house across London. But back at the house Tolin quickly puts the moves on Nancy just to show Colin how its done. And then it all gets even more politically incorrect in a hurry so I'll leave the rest for those who watch the film. Let's just say it has a nicely moral ending even if the commentary from the older generation disagrees (there are things on their clothes line you wouldn't expect from three young lads).
Another review on Amazon describes the film as anarchic but I think that misses it. The jokes do come very fast and there are some decidely surreal sequences, some very stylish editing, and the occasional interupting fantasy. Yet somehow nothing ever seems so silly or outrageous that you completely lose some sense of reality. In this sense it is more Hard Day's Night than Holy Grail.
The picture and sound quality of the DVD are very good despite the picture's age. There is obviously a small amount of cropping of the original picture taking place though the aspect ratio is said to be the original 1.66:1. The DVD provides no extras beyond it's very entertaining trailer. Since the idiots at Mirimax didn't include Lester's Running, Jumping, Standing Still film on the new Hard Day's Night double DVD set, when it was on the earlier cheapo DVD release, it would have been awfully nice for MGM to include it here.