The Servant, 1963
Classic Movie Review
Directed by Joseph Losey
Starring James Fox and Dirk Borgarde
Privileged playboy Tony (James Fox) has just purchased a new house and hires manservant Barrett (Dirk Bogarde) to look after his daily needs. Barrett cooks, cleans, and even coordinates the decoration and furnishing of the house. Barrett also convinces Tony that a maid is needed and suggests his "sister" Vera. Tony's prudish girlfriend Susan senses something sinister about Barrett and her contentious relationship with him begins to affect her romance with Tony. Noticing this and Tony's growing drinking problem, Barrett slyly makes Vera available to Tony in order to gain greater control over him. Tony takes the bait, ruining his relationship with Susan and hastening his downward spiral into drink, lethargy, and emotional/sexual confusion. The film ends with a bizarre, implied "orgy" which leaves no doubt who the real master of the house is.
Of all the artists affected by the HUAC blacklist, Wisconsin-born director Joseph Losey may be the only one that actually benefitted from it. After refusing to appear before HUAC on charges related to his prior communist leanings, Losey fled to England and never made another film on American soil. While some critics admired his early, socially-conscious Hollywood films, Losey's oblique style and his affinity for uncommercial material likely would have limited his ability to succeed within the studio system. He was able to find work in England on the strength of those early films, which were well-regarded by the next generation of European filmmakers and critics. The Cahiers du Cinema crowd were already hailing Losey as one of the great American film artists. By the early 60's Losey, already over 50, was desperate to achieve the level of independence and respect reserved for the likes of Fellini, Visconti, Bergman, and other art-house favorites. The Servant was the film that earned him that opportunity, and it's remarkable how well it holds up today.
The timing was finally right for Losey. The Profumo Affair, a sex scandal involving British politician John Profumo, happened just a few months before the film's release creating the perfect cultural climate for The Servant's mixture of class conflict, social mores, and repressed sex. While that event helped make the film a box office hit (one of the few of Losey's career), The Sevant has stood the test of time because of superior filmmaking and a dryly vulgar sense of humor. Not vulgar in a graphic way, but in that suggestive, indirect, yet pointed way that was Losey's and screenwriter Harold Pinter's specialty. Pinter was the best writer Losey ever worked with and he was also somewhat of a kindred spirit. Both men fancied themselves as highbrow artists (which they were), but their work (together and separately) often displays a veiled smuttiness which appeals to the basest of human instincts.
Pinter had a gift for conveying the subtleties of emotional/sexual gamesmanship with a minimum of dialogue. What is unsaid (those famous "Pinter pauses") is often more important than what is said, and what is said often has a different meaning. When Barrett tells Tony that he is concerned about Vera and says,"It's her skirts sir. They're a bit short," Tony has no idea that Barrett is trying to make him take notice of Vera's shapely figure. The audience knows it and can chuckle at Tony's ignorance and revel in the craftiness of Barrett's maneuvers. In fact, the whole first half of the film sides the audience with Barret, mainly because Tony is characterized as a spoiled, lazy twit. However, as the film progresses, a pervading malaise sets in as Pinter plumbs the depths of masculine degradation and manipulation. In Pinter's world, no one is innocent, few are even likable, and sex is always bubbling just underneath the surface.
The spareness of Pinter's writing allowed Losey to fill in the detail with concise compositions (aided by Douglas Slocombe's shimmering cinematography) and an abundance of metaphorical imagery. Losey loved to give common household objects an ominous sexual context. Leaky faucets, swinging grandfather clock chimes, and rocking chairs are all given prominent placement in the film's most sexually charged scenes, adding a visual accompaniment to the repressed sexual tension of Pinter's dialogue. Losey's use of music also heightens the sense of sexual longing and desperation. The song "Now While I Love You Alone" is played at different intervals throughout the film, sometimes as overlay and sometimes played on record by the characters, and it features lyrics written by Losey and Pinter. Strange, suggestive lines like "Give me my death/Close my mouth/ Give me my breath/Close my mouth...Can't love without you/Must love without you" are sung with a throaty yearning by jazz icon
Losey was also a master at utilizing interior spaces to reflect the shifting dynamics of characters' relationships and states of mind. In particular, the house's staircase plays a large metaphorical role in the power plays between Tony and Barrett. In the opening scene when Barrett comes to interview for the job, the camera slowly tracks him through the open doorways of the empty, bare house as if he is sizing up the potential of the place. At one point Barrett takes a few steps up the staircase and then comes back down to find Tony passed out in a folding chair with a beer at his side. In this one shot without any dialogue Losey characterizes Tony as a layabout who has done nothing to make his own place livable and hints at Barrett's desire to be master of the house. Towards the end of the film Tony and Barrett are shown playing a game on the staircase where they throw a ball at each other. Barrett is at the foot of the staircase and complains of being in the "inferior position." After Tony hits him in the face with the ball, Barrett threatens to leave. Tony apologizes profusely begging him not to leave, and Barrett turns the tables by telling Tony to go get him a drink. From a high angle above the staircase we see Tony race down the staircase to fetch a drink as Barrett calmly walks up the staircase. This scene is a bit silly and a rather obvious class conflict metaphor, but it is essential to complete Barrett's transition from servant, enabler, pal, and finally master.
That transformation is believable thanks in large part to amazing performances from the two leads. Dirk Bogarde was known primarily as a matinee idol who starred in comedies and other light fare until his breakthrough in The Servant. Bogarde was an atypical English actor in that he wasn't stage trained or big-voiced with letter-perfect diction like Richard Burton or Peter O'Toole. He was a great camera specimen though, because he knew how to use his face to say more than words ever could, and that is precisely what Barrett's character requires. He conveys a quiet servility in the first half of the film standing perfectly still and upright in his butler's suit with his perfectly parted hair. Yet when you look into Bogarde's reptilian eyes and at his mischievously pursed lips, you can see that he is capable of evil. Bogarde won several awards for his performance, and rightfully so, but James Fox is even better in the more difficult role of Tony. Fox later said that he felt the character was "rather stupid" and he is to a certain extent, but Fox plays him with the perfect balance of arrogance, ignorance, and vulnerability. We may take pleasure in Tony's obliviousness in the early stages of the film, but that quickly turns to an uncomfortable pity when we see him drunk and powerless, futilely trying to regain control of his home amidst Barrett's "orgy" in the final scene. Fox doesn't necessarily make him likable but he does humanize him.
One other thing that must be mentioned is the revisionist interpretation of The Servant as a homosexual power-play. Several critics have suggested that Barrett manipulates Tony so that he can have him to himself. There are scenes in the film that support this argument, particularly a few scenes toward the end that show Barrett and Tony bickering like an old married couple. Even more persuasive is a scene right after the ball game on the staircase that shows the two playing a weird game of hide and seek with Barrett looking for Tony and calling out, "You've got a dirty secret. You've got a dirty secret! I'm going to get you!" However, one could also propose that Barrett is a small-time pimp looking for a place to house the ladies that he brings over in the final scene. Or you could posit that Barrett was just angling to get a better home for he and Vera. Losey and Pinter were both regular practitioners of thematic ambiguity because like most great artists they understood that much of a film's content is provided by what the viewer chooses to bring to it. The Servant is one of the great films of the sixties, thoroughly of its time, yet timeless because of the remarkable skill of its makers and its continued air of mystery.