A Film Rumination: The Servant, Joseph Losey (1963)

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8/10 (Very Good)

Joseph Losey’s film, The Servant (1963) is a profoundly unsettling experience concerning various class related themes (servitude, the British upper class life, etc).  Losey – an American blacklisted communist who was forced to flee Hollywood in the 50s to England – gives an interesting take on this common cinematic theme. This film marks the first of three successful collaborations with the renowned playwright and screenwriter Harold Pinter (Pinter won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005) – I’ve yet to watch either The Accident (1967) or The Go-Between (1970).

A brief plot outline is as follows (spoilers): Hugo Barrett (impeccably acted by Dirk Bogarde) is employed as a manservant by the wealthy Tony (James Fox).  Both appear to be happy in their respected roles as master and servant until Tony introduces Barrett to his girlfriend Susan (Wendy Craig).  Susan, for some unexplained reason, loathes Barrett and attempts to have Tony kick him out of the house.  The plot thickens when Barrett brings home his “sister” Vera (Sarah Miles) as a maid.  Soon Vera ensnares Tony and eventually it’s revealed that Vera’s actually Barrett’s lover.  Eventually, Vera and Barrett plot to reverse roles with Tony and Susan (perhaps Vera’s awkward seduction of Tony was all part of the plan).  Tony slowly falls into despair dominated by Barrett…

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First of all, the acting is impeccable.  The movements of Dirk Bogarde’s eyes and faint smiles and smirks betray Barrett’s true intentions.  James Fox never overacts as Tony, the high society London gentleman.  Both female secondary characters, Susan and Vera, are also quite well acted.  The real dynamic occurs between Barrett and Tony (the film was criticized upon release for the implied homosexual relationship between these two characters).  Almost acting as a third main character, is Tony’s house.  For all but 20 minutes or so of the film we are in the house.  We see it in it’s decrepit state before Barrett “suggests” that Tony spend more and more money on the decorations.  Eventually, the house is filled with objects.   The shadows cast on the walls and the various views through mirrors traps the audience in the house’s claustrophobic halls and crowded kitchens and living rooms.  The house serves as a microcosm for the expansive themes it addresses.

Likewise, just as the single house encapsulates the drama, minute details of individual scenes betray what is really going on.  The most memorable for me was the dinner near the end of the movie.  Barrett sits the same table as Tony eating from the cooking pot.  Tony remarks how wonderful the meal was.  Barrett complains about his own cooking and pours himself some brandy.  Tony reiterates how wonderful it was.  Barrett suggests it needs salt.  This is the culmination of Barrett’s machinations — whenever possible Barrett exerts his control.  It is at this point that we know that the roles have completely been reversed.  The “servant” complains about the food, serves himself, and dismisses the “master’s” words.

The Servant is by far one of the best films I’ve watched this summer.  It’s claustrophobic, sleek, extraordinarily well acted, the cinematography haunting  and brittle, the jazz score gives (especially in the finale) a hallucinatory air, and Harold Pinter’s screenplay is so unsentimental and vicious that it cuts to the bone.  I sat for a while on my sofa after the movie taking it all in — the last scene, the images, the feel.  Dirk Bogarde steals the show.  Losey’s best: A chilling triumph….

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4 Replies to “A Film Rumination: The Servant, Joseph Losey (1963)”

  1. Hey Joachim Boaz,

    You need to write another review stat! -Preferably of a film that one could watch instantly (on Netflix) on their parents’ computer…

  2. Thoroughly enjoyed this film. Not only was Pinter’s screenplay deeply layered, but just enough information was kept from the viewer that (at least I) was never quite sure exactly what was real. You can take the first scene as setting up the tenor of what’s to come; Bogarde lets himself in to the house while Fox is sleeping.

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