The Knack

Richard Lester’s 1965 movie The Knack illustrates the attitudes toward sex I grew up with. Tolen has “the knack” with women, and Colin wants to get it. What it consists of, is domination: Tolen states it baldly, and demonstrates to Colin, toying with Nancy like a cat with a mouse.

Nancy, programmed by the culture, responds as Tolen expects — up to a point. Awaking from momentary unconsciousness due to a fall, she declares loudly that Tolen has raped her (though it’s clear she knows he has not, in a physical sense). Tolen denies it, his composure for the first time shaken. Nancy however insists, singing out the word with glee and abandon, repeating it to every bystander.

As Lester’s jazzy jump-cutting and visual gags move the satire along, Nancy’s refrain eventually modulates, as she changes her tactics, now declaring it’s Colin who has raped her. It becomes clear this jubilant proclamation is a way for her to enjoy considering sex. Colin responds appropriately when he says shyly, “I didn’t … but I’d love to… I mean….”

Only when dominated can the programmed woman allow herself to enjoy sex. That doesn’t mean she enjoys being dominated. Nancy disliked Tolen, even though she found herself responding to his manipulation, and she fought back by impugning — and thus destroying — his “knack.” In a culture where women must be passive recipients of sexual attention, she transforms that role into a weapon.

All this was clear to me when I saw the film recently for the second time. I went to the Web to see what others saw in it. Of the two reviews I found, the more charitable said “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.”

That era was certainly more “innocent” of understanding or compassion about this oppression. I watched the movie at the time, but don’t remember my reaction; certainly I was still completely sunk in the programming then. Now, I’m simply amazed at what a brilliant picture it presents of the domination of women.

The movie is about sex, but it’s not erotic. About the programming that underlies pornography — but not pornographic. Its effect on me now (as I look back at it forty years later), is relief at seeing the pattern exposed. And for me that adds to the film’s humor. But for someone who does not feel the need to raise society’s consciousness, exposing the pattern could just produce uneasiness about what Lester intended.

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