A couple of days ago I reviewed Accident, the second of three collaborations between director Joseph Losey and writer Harold Pinter. Now it’s time for the first, 1963’s The Servant, a slightly more straightforward film, although still with a biting interest in class and the complexities of relationships between people.
James Fox, in one of his very first movie roles, plays Tony, a young man from an aristocratic family who moves into a house in London and needs a servant. He hires Barrett (Dirk Bogarde), a gentleman’s gentleman who promises to cook and look after Tony. However things get tricky when Tony’s girlfriend, Susan (Wendy Craig), takes an instant dislike to Barrett. The sexual politics are ramped up when Barrett moves his ‘sister’, Vera (Sarah Miles), into the house, with Tony initiating an affair with this woman from far ‘beneath’ his supposed station.
Eventually Barrett starts to exert his influence more and more, and as Tony falls ever further into alcoholism, the role of servant and master start to reverse.
The Servant is the most entertaining of the Losey-Pinter movies. To a certain extent it’s very much a product of its time. It was one of the first British movies to directly take on the subject of class divisions. In the early 60s the old ways were coming to an end, and even then the idea of a manservant was something that had had its day. Barrett therefore is a figure from the past, coming face to face with an aristocrat who doesn’t seem to realise that, and feels he’s better simply because of the family he was born into.
Most see the film as an attack on the old ideas of class, which sees the working man turning against the pillars of authority that exist purely because of the privileges and deprivations of birth. However it’s not quite as simple as that, a Barrett is a truly sinister force who dissects the class system and just what’s wrong with it, but only has anarchy and madness to replace it with. As the power of the aristocracy began to wane, many of those in favour of the old ways worried about just that – feeling that the ‘better’ people were the stabilising force in society and stopped everything falling into chaos. You could see this film as agreeing with that, even if it lays the blame as the toffs’ door.
There’s also a strong homoerotic undertone to the movie. Nothing is overt – partly because homosexuality was still illegal in the UK at the time, although it was a couple of years after Bogarde had played gay in Victim – but as the film goes on, it’s difficult not to feel that part of the men’s problem is that they essentially live together as man and wife, but can’t actually say that. One scene comes close as they share a meal and admit they’re friends, and have only ever felt the same once before in the army. Mixed in with this is their relationships with women, although here too true feelings are hidden and the pressure of class lies unspoken under everything.
There are flaws though, mostly towards the end. Pinter is well known for writing dialogue where what’s not said is more important than what is, but that goes a little too far here in the last 20 minutes. As the role reversal becomes more pronounced, Pinter’s script implies rather than tells you what’s going on to the point where the story slightly outpaces the logic of what’s happening. It all culminates in a rather New Wave ‘orgy’ where all that’s been repressed suddenly bursts forth in a slightly surreal and OTT explosion.
While not 100% perfect, it’s still an interesting and absorbing film with some great performances, a complex script and wonderful direction from Losey. It’s a product of its time in some respects, but still has things to say that resonate today, and with a complex morality it certainly keeps you thinking.
The newly restored print looks good, showcasing Douglas Slocombe’s crisp and clever cinematography (just watch how the lighting and framing of the characters changes as the film progresses). There’s also an analysis of the film by expert Ian Christie. It’s fairly interesting, although does have Christie’s tendency to present opinion as fact and say things I don’t think are as true of British cinema as he does (but hey, he used to be my film studies lecturer, so perhaps I’m biased).
Overall Verdict: A fascinating dissection of class and sexual politics – and how they interact – with a great performance from Dirk Bogarde. It may not be perfect, but deserves its reputation as one of the best British films of the 60s.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac