Reviews of The Servant
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Title: The Servant
Director: Joseph Losey
Music: John Dankworth
Cinematography: Douglas Slocombe
Losey and Pinter’s first collaboration (they would continue their rapport in ACCIDENT 1967 and THE GO-BETWEEN 1970), THE SERVANT imposes an alluring tale of a subversive master-and-servant relationship, with heavy homo erotic undertones (the author of the source novel Robin Maugham is “defiantly homosexual”) way ahead of its era, so it is time to revive this hidden gem to make it circulate to a more open-minded demography for its sheer marvelousness.
A young aristocrat Tony (Fox) hired Barrett (Bogarde) as his servant to administer his house, but Barrett has his own plan to manipulate Tony to be completely reliant on him, so assisted by his complicit Vera (Miles), and hampered by Tony’s supercilious fiancée Susan (Craig), it is a binge of seduction, betrayal, debauchery, drug abuse and mind games.
Douglas Slocombe, the prestigious British cinematographer, brings the film to life with his ingenious camerawork, the setting is largely confined interior to Tony’s residence (dominantly in the shots is a bookshelf-shape door to the living room, camouflage beyond the veneer is a running theme here), Slocombe is ravishing the eroticism and tautness by his superlative deployments with mirrors (it is in the poster!), shadows, shades (Tony’s silhouette hiding behind the shower curtain during a hide-and-seek) and sublime focus-alteration, refracted by the B&W prism, the potency is mind-blowing and soul-cleansing, up to the very end, the transcendent oddity of the situation could only pique one’s curiosity for more, for the imbroglio is so fascinating, so nihilistic, anticipates A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971, 8/10)’s benumbing ridicule.
John Dankworth’s alternately light-mood, lyric, jazz-infused and riveting score is a handsome companion to Pinter’s satirical and pun-slinging screenplay (under the weather? poncho and gaucho?), when Tony addresses to Susan that “he (Barrett) looks like a fish”, it hits the bull’s eye. Bogarde continues his bold glass-ceiling-breaking endeavor after VICTIM (1961, 8/10), bags another self-revealing role and unleashes his nefarious audacious in the duality of Barrett’s servant-and-master changeover; while his on-screen prey James Fox, who, indeed, is equally brilliant in his breakthrough picture, out of four main characters, none of them are good-natured, but he is the only one can collect viewers’ sympathy, and one may not root for him, but witness his downfall nevertheless needs more than the fondness of his willowy figure and innocent eyes. Miles and Craig, the two female companions, can not receive the same laud, Miles has a strident voice and being excruciatingly annoying whenever she talks and her performance is in excess of theatricality, which luckily would tune down in her later effort in RYAN’S DAUGHTER (1970, 7/10) and THE HIRELING (1973, 6/10); Craig, whose snobbish and frigid poise is off-putting, albeit she has the most recondite sensibilities to present in the frenzied coda, the efficacy is beyond her ken.
THE SERVANT may be Losey’s finest work and should be appreciated more, it is a divine psychological drama with a latent homosexual struggle which perpetually beleaguers human nature and finally we reach the opportune time when we can look directly into each other’s eyes without feeling ashamed or offensive anymore.
- Currently 4.0/5 Stars.
A week or so ago at the London Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, I went to see Dirk Bogarde in The Servant. Recently re-released to celebrate its 50th anniversary, the film was first screened in 1963, directed by Joseph Losey on a flawless screenplay by Nobel Prize winner Harold Pinter, and ranks 22nd in the BFI list of the greatest British films of the 20th century.
Gracious and ferine, The Servant is an indoor essay on dominance and power, class and hierarchy, a private choreography of the unsaid, subtle, malicious, laced with not quite revolutionary subtext. Narrowly set in the newly repainted rooms of a lavish Chelsea townhouse, the narrative unfolds gently as the camera glides from staircase symbolism to early new-wavish shot, perfectly captured on a round convex mirror or an empty wine glass.
Dirk Bogarde is a better Hugh Barrett than anyone could possibly be. Courteous, unassuming, devoted, only ever so slightly possessive, “a gentleman’s gentleman” in a porkpie hat. It was him who brought in James Fox for the role of Tony, the indolent wealthy young man who unluckily hires him for his services. Ruthlessly and with practiced ease, Barrett gradually undermines the authority of his master as Tony grows more and more dependent on his care. While his lady friend Vera (Sarah Miles) easily drives Tony away from his upper-class fiancée, Barrett pours him one too many drinks and slowly takes control of his money, his home, his willpower.
- Currently 5.0/5 Stars.
I put this on late last night after renting it from Lovefilm. I wasn’t too fussed about seeing it – I’ve got a few good titles coming up on my rental list, so I thought I’d get it out of the way and wait for the next one. However, I was totally surprised and was gripped for every minute.
I’m a bit of a sucker for the Pinteresque set-up of films. I like the sparse dialogue, precise delivery and obsequious banter. Pinter’s screenplay is instantly recognisable, and the general look of the film very reminiscent of other Pinter-inspired films to come – films like Polanski’s ‘Cul-de-Sac’ (which I have forever rated higher than ‘Repulsion’). The characters we are introduced to – The smartly dressed man-servant Barrett, played by Dirk Bogarde, and the seemingly affable playboy Tony, played by James Fox in his first major role.
Of course, unlike Cul-de-Sac, we have quite a dramatis personae, with each character big and small representing at least a portion of their respective class. Tony’s awful girlfriend, Susan, is a prudish, frigid toff who takes an instant dislike to Barrett and likes to order him around, even though she doesn’t live with Tony in his trendy London townhouse. Vera, Barrett’s stunning and highly sexed girlfriend, is a playful and likeable character. And then there are the smaller characters: Susan and Tony’s ‘friends’ who they visit at some sort of country estate, standing like statues of Imperialist buffoons, all pomp and pretension but, apparently, completely clueless about the world. Susan, despite being a fairly horrible woman, has the upper hand with this older couple and points out to them that they had misappropriated the word ‘poncho’. “No, that is a cloak.” says one of these aristocrats. Of course, the English word is correct, who cares if the Argentines are ponchos or wear gauchos? Not that it matters anyway – we feel that Tony’s plan of building cities in the jungle (or on the plains? he doesn’t quite get his story straight) is a hare-brained scheme that will never actually happen. We get fleeting glances of the opposite end of the social spectrum throughout the film – a girl in a coffee shop who may or may not be a prostitute. Some common tarts waiting to use a phone booth. They’re all there for a reason. It’s interesting how Fox’s character seems at first to want to talk to this prostitute, but nervously backs out, whereas Barrett’s encounter with the irritating tarts on the street results in quite a shocking exchange of words for 1963. He’s working class though, ain’t he?
In the first act of ‘The Servant’, we see Barrett in one of two modes. Primarily, he is the careful butler – ever attentive, polite and hard-working. However, when Tony is out of the house we see him in a more relaxed manner – casually smoking as he stirs some soup, flicking cigarette ash any which way, and picking his teeth with a toothpick, dressed in a charming tank top over unbuttoned shirt. He becomes even more relaxed upon the arrival of his ‘sister’, much to Susan’s chagrin.
The movie takes a very dramatic and highly stylised volta around the halfway mark – this movie is quite beautifully shot by Doug Slocombe – and Tony’s life gets turned on its head. But Barrett’s game is far from over. He is certainly a talented chap. Sauntering into the living room in his dressing gown and puffing a cigarette, he gives the big reveal to Tony. Susan is of course utterly disgraced, and leaves possibly forever. You can’t help but feel a little bit sorry for Tony. Despite his spoiled playboy attitude, he never seems completely comfortable with ordering Barrett around, telling Susan “he’s still human, you know.” He’s not a totally bad chap.
After a brief hiatus, Barrett skilfully returns to Tony. Where has he been? Has he conned some other poor playboy? Where does he get money to buy those handsome scarves? I see him as a bit of a Tom Ripley. Worming his way back in, the balance of power is tipped in his favour. This is where the film took me by surprise. This balance is not satisfying, and we are not totally happy with the fact that the working class chap has found a plateau at least on the same level as the rich playboy. Bogarde’s acting is pitch-perfect the whole way through, and he plays the true-colours Barrett with an explicit sense of self-righteousness. They become very pally – playing cards and drinking together (naturally, there is subtle hint of homosexuality – a theme often discussed when it comes to this film. However, it is absolutely meiotic subtlety. It’s 1963 – homosexuality is illegal, both on film and in real life. We are lift to fill in the blanks) but these always seem to end in a struggle. Tony is slightly wary – though not outright annoyed – that Barrett has changed the hierarchy. He seems to struggle with telling Barrett what he is; in one exchange on the stairs after a game of dodgeball, he seems recitent as he tells Barrett “you’re just the manservant…” and Barrett shouts him down in a petulant manner, before chuckling patronisingly at him and walking away.
From here the film moves into the grotesque – the highpoint of which is a highly dramatic sequence in which they play Hide and Seek – Fox cowers in a corner, sweating, hand over his mouth, while Bogarde does his best Bela Lugosi. The final scene seems like a deleted scene from Blue Velvet – a dreamlike ‘orgy’ in which the final card is played in Tony’s undoing, and the balance is permanently tipped…again, much to the chagrin of Susan, who is totally confused by the entire thing.
I immediately rate this as one of the most important British films since 1945. Everyone has their favourites, and this may not always be picked, but I found it relentlessly brilliant. Pinter’s screenplay, Bogarde’s acting, Slocombe’s photography all make for a brilliant British film about class. But it’s not a class struggle, or even a class war. Barrett, that cheeky northern Tom Ripley, has the upper hand the whole time.
- Currently 5.0/5 Stars.
Excellent film psychologique maîtrisé de bout en bout que ce “The Servant” de Joseph Losey. Il faut d’abord souligner la maitrise de la mise en scène, proposant des plans inventifs, avec des jeux de miroir, tout en conservant une certaine fluidité. Le noir et blanc est d’ailleurs superbe et très bien utilisé. Il faut aussi souligner les prestations de Dirk Bogarde et James Fox, tout deux excellents. Quand au film, jouant la carte de petits rebondissements pour semer le doute au spectateur, il s’agit avant tout d’un incroyable rapport de force entre dominant et dominé, mais possédant aussi des allusions sexuelles fortes (l’homosexualité latente du personnage de Tony). Un rapport de force qui va s’inverser entre le maitre et le domestique. Le but de Barrett semble bel et bien de prendre petit à possession des lieux. Très bon film vraiment et qui parvient à passer les décennies sans problèmes. Il manque un petit quelque chose pour en faire un chef-d’oeuvre. La musique étant trop redondante à mon goût et finalement lassante par exemple.
- Currently 4.0/5 Stars.
Intelligent and intense psychological drama sharply-scripted by Harold Pinter and masterfully-crafted by director Joseph Losey, with extraordinary black and white cinematography and superb performances – Dirk Bogarde was much lauded for his performances, though, as good as he is, it’s James Fox who really shines as an idle aristocrat who has his life torn out from under him. It is deliberately paced and overlong, but the strength of the almost gothic visuals and depth of the characters makes this one a classic.
- Currently 4.0/5 Stars.