A film of psychological tension and bitter humor, Joseph Losey’s The Servant portrays a butler (Dirk Bogarde) gradually turning the tables on his callow young master (James Fox).
American director Joseph Losey was well on the way to success in Hollywood when he found himself blacklisted during the anti-communist witch hunts of the early 1950s. We’ll never know what kind of career he might have had in America, but the one he did have after moving to England turned out to be one of remarkable wit and sophistication. Years after the blacklist ended, he still felt at home making movies in Europe, and arguably the best was his 1963 film The Servant.
James Fox plays Tony, a rich, callow young Englishman who buys a London mansion and then hires a manservant named Barrett, played by Dirk Bogarde, whose overly attentive manner gets on the nerves of Tony’s fiancée (Wendy Craig). After Barrett brings in his supposed sister Vera (played by Sarah Miles) and persuades Tony to hire her as a cook, a complex game ensues in which the servant turns the tables on his master.
The movie was adapted from a Robin Maugham novel by Harold Pinter, and it has the flavor of a Pinter play through and through—the clipped, elusive dialogue, suspense giving way to grotesque comedy, all of it portraying, through the most indirect means, the raw dynamics of power and domination. This was the first of Losey’s three films with Pinter—the styles of the two men were well matched.
Most of the film takes place within Tony’s house. Losey starts with a very smooth style, with longish takes and tracking shots. As developments become more bizarre, the style becomes increasingly jagged, with more cuts and strange camera angles and effects. The black and white photography by Douglas Slocombe is stunningly crisp—the visual texture matches the story’s cold point of view. The house itself takes on a labyrinthian quality, like the servant’s elaborate trap for the master.
Although it’s been taken for a satire on the British class system, I see The Servant as more of a psychological study rather than a social drama. It attacks the very idea of “service” as a symptom of a sort of mental disorder: Barrett’s desire for power and Tony’s desire to submit are equally unhealthy. Both exhibit an inability to do anything meaningful in the world outside of the insulated realm of the house. Those looking for an affirmative message about human nature would be advised to watch another movie—Losey and Pinter have only the darkest view of the social roles by which people usually interact.
The performances are excellent. Best of all is Dirk Bogarde in the title role—his shift from inscrutable correctness to open resentment and then to a kind of bitchy familiarity is both compelling and hilarious. He was already a star, but this performance confirmed that he was a great actor.
The Servant is available on DVD.