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“The truth of the independent consciousness is accordingly the consciousness of the servant… being a consciousness repressed within itself, it will enter into itself, and change around into the real and true independence.”–G.W.F. Hegel, “The Master-Slave Dialectic”
PLOT: Hard-drinking playboy and would-be colonialist Tony hires the solicitous Barret as a manservant, despite the fact that his fiancée takes a dislike to the new employee. Barret convinces Tony to hire his sister as a maid, which sets off a chain of events that eventually leads to the master dismissing both servants. Tony’s drinking intensifies, however, and he invites his servant to return to the house; gradually, the roles of master and servant are reversed.
- Director Joseph Losey moved to the UK after receiving a summons to appear before Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities committee.
- The screenplay was written by Nobel Prize-winning playwright Harold Pinter, who adapted Robin Maugham’s 1948 novella. It was the first of three collaborations between Losey and Pinter.
- In 1999, a panel of movie professionals voted The Servant the 22nd best British film of all time.
- Dirk Bogarde, a closeted gay man, had played a closeted gay man in 1961’s The Victim, one of the first films to deal openly and sympathetically with homosexuality. His agent (with whom the actor was secretly involved) was nervous about Bogarde taking this role, fearing he might acquire a “homosexual image.”
- When Losey came down with pneumonia during the shoot, Bogarde stepped in to direct for ten days, with Losey providing instructions via telephone from the hospital.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Mirrors, devices which reverse and sometimes warp images, but which also serve to reveal the selves we cannot see. Tony’s townhouse is littered with mirrors on seemingly every wall, and Losey takes advantage of them throughout the film, using mirrors to reflect the underlying truth of a situation. In one shot, Tony and Susan face Barret accusingly. In the convex mirror image, Barret can be seen clearly, standing calmly with a robe and a cigarette, while only the back of Tony’s head is visible, and Susan isn’t there at all. The mirror shows us the relative power and importance of the three characters in the scene more profoundly than the head-on camera shot does.
TWO WEIRD THINGS: Upside-down orgy; kissing the servant
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Servant emits the subtlest whiff of dignified strangeness, all emanating from the mysterious Bogarde: an unassuming Trojan horse of malice and perversion without a clear motive or objective other than raw power.
2021 Restoration trailer for The Servant
COMMENTS: Led by a dominating career performance from Dirk Bogarde, ably assisted by a devilishly smart script by Harold Pinter and noirish cinematography from Douglas Slocombe, all tied together by Joseph Losey’s meticulous attention to detail, The Servant is an unheralded classic of subversive cinema. Fans of 2019’s Parasite will see obvious parallels to the reversal-of-fortune tale here; fans of Teorema and its kin will hearken to the theme of the destabilizing presence of a stranger in a bourgeois household. The film’s subtle perversities recall the of Viridiana. Yet despite these similarities, The Servant is very much its own movie. Just as the cavalier Barrett sneers “I’m nobody’s servant… I’ll tell you what I am! I’m a gentleman’s gentleman!,” The Servant takes a backseat to no other film.
The scenario is simple. Tony (Fox), whom we first meet napping in his unfinished townhouse after having drunk too much beer at lunch, hires the impeccably mannered Barrett (Bogarde) as a manservant. As the film goes on, Barrett leverages Tony’s increasing reliance on him—aided by some elaborate blackmail—to gain power over the household. Eventually, Barrett becomes the master, Tony his subservient underling. The story is simple, but told in a way that creates anxiety about the slow, vampiric transfer of power. The many offbeat shots—odd angles, the many shots mirrors distorting and reversing the parties, a shot of upper crust twist standing stiff and motionless for a moment as if posing for a portrait—create a strange distancing effect. (It’s no coincidence that Losey studied for a time under Bertolt Brecht.) Bogarde’s face, with one rebellious lock of hair constantly falling over his forehead, maintains a servile mien, while his eyes hint at schemes boiling in his brain. A seduction is accompanied by the suggestive drip-drip-drip of a disobedient faucet. Things are always a bit off around Tony’s house. Barrett’s provocations finally lead Tony to dismiss him, but by that time he has become addicted to the servant’s ministrations, and Barrett is able to weasel his way back into the house. From then on, the servant’s power increases until the two are like equals living alone in the house, playing childish games together, until finally Barrett seizes full control. The two men’s relationship is parasitic, duplicitous, sadomasochistic. The effect is chilling.
Things get weirdest in the final scene, which was not a favorite of critics at the time, who complained that it jettisoned the script’s subtleties. Today, it seems like a perfect climax. Tony’s (presumably ex) fiancée Wendy returns to the townhouse to plead with her lover one last time, but finds Barrett now firmly in control. The servant has scheduled a party, and has invited women of questionable morals to join them; the sodden Tony is too enervated to stand up for long, much less to stand up for himself. In an interview included on the Criterion disc, James Fox mentions that the finale was meant to take place at an LSD party (an idea Losey also alludes to in a separate interview). Although this is not made explicit in the completed film, it does help to explain the near-hallucinatory nature of the succeeding soiree. Barrett laughs grotesquely and shows the assembly what we can only presume are dirty pictures. Susan looks stunned, shocked and defeated. “All Gone,” once Susan and Tony’s go-to makeout song, wafts like a ghost through the soundtrack, subsidiary to a sinister symphony that increasingly mocks the tune’s recollection of happier times. Assembled tarts lounge around, staring into space, stoned, as drunken Tony stumbles about aimlessly. No scene has captured the joylessness of bourgeois depravity this vividly sincedowned his last martini in La Dolce Vita.
By this point, Barrett has completely supplanted Tony as master in all but title, and we are left to wonder: what is the meaning of it all? At the time The Servant was released, at the dawn of the Swinging Sixties, class structures in England were crumbling. The idea of a young man having a manservant was already somewhat quaint and old-fashioned. But the loss of one societal structure inevitably creates anxiety about what will replace it; although the moneyed class are treated satirically, the movie’s sympathies seem, in some sense, to be with Tony and Susan, not with scheming underdogs Barrett and Vera. Contemporary criticism focuses mostly on the undercurrent of homoeroticism between Tony and Barrett: Barrett interrupts his master’s heterosexual lovemaking and seduces him by proxy; there is a scene of the two bickering over dinner like an old married couple; Barrett taunts “You’ve got a guilty secret!” as Tony cowers in the shower during a game of hide and seek. These two interpretations are foremost in the literature, but there are more layers to the dynamic at play. Critics often overlook Tony’s alcoholism, but the love-hate affair with the servant he cannot do without is quite similar to the way drink gradually comes to dominate the alcoholic’s life. On a Freudian level, Barrett is a scheming id looking to overtake the unwary ego. The film’s structure even suggests Hegel’s master-servant dialectic, wherein the servant is the one who obtains true freedom because his understanding of his own limitations leads him to a self-consciousness the master lacks. Because Barret’s motives are never explicit, all of these dualistic dynamics coexist at the same time. That slipperiness of meaning, combined with the disorienting presentation within an deceptively simple narrative arc, gives The Servant a strange power which gradually takes over the viewer’s mind.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“The strange story of an obsessive relationship between a young, inexperienced master and a smooth, over-experienced servant dearly calls for an all-out bravura style (unless the director went right to the other extreme of Bressonian concentration, but there is enough picturesqueness and deliberate oddity in the screenplay to prevent that)… things go a little adrift as Losey, in his determination presumably to put over his interpretation of the story as a modern Faust, plunges into absurdity with an orgy straight out of Eve…“–John Russel Taylor, Sight and Sound (contemporaneous)
“You’d have to seek out two other guys-go-mad-in-a-flat movies, ‘Performance’ and ‘Dead Ringers’, to find anything that approaches its atmosphere of febrile desperation and deepening identity confusion.”–Tom Huddleston, Time Out (2021 re-release)
IMDB LINK: The Servant (1963)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
The Servant (1963) | The Criterion Collection – Hosts a scene from the film, an essay by novelist Colm Tóibín, and more
The Servant (1964) | Turner Classic Movies – TCM’s Servant page serves up a couple of clips, photos, and an article on the film’s history from Felicia Feaster
www.HaroldPinter.org – The Servant – A collection of Pintercentric critical quotes about the movie
The Servant: a 60s masterwork that hides its homosexuality in the shadows – Guardian article exploring the film’s closeted homoeroticism
“Servant? I’m nobody’s servant”: Dirk Bogarde in Pinterland– Jospehine Botting’s writes about The Servant for the British Film Institute, written for a 2021 Bogarde retrospective
Why I love Dirk Bogarde’s performance in The Servant – An appreciation by Emilia Rolewicz of Little White Lies
The Servant (Film) – TV Tropes – TV Tropes catalog of tropes used in The Servant
HOME VIDEO INFO:
The Servant has remained in print since its release and can be found in many different editions, but the best is undoubtedly the Criterion Collection’s 2023 Blu-ray release (buy), which utilizes StudioCanal’s 2021 4K remaster of the film. Besides the original trailer and an essay booklet, it includes an archival audio interview with director Losey and a television interview with screenwriter Pinter. It also includes new material: a video essay on “The Look of Losey” by critic Imogen Sarah Smith, and interviews with stars Bogarde, Miles, Craig, and Fox (the last hosted by , who is Fox’s son-in-law). The Servant can also be rented on demand.