Monday Editor’s Pick: The Servant (1963)

by on December 12, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Mon Dec 19 at 8:00* at IFC Center [Program & Tix]
*Intro by Matmos


“We couldn’t have a chillier, darker, or queerer film for December,” the program notes proclaim of this month’s Queer/Art/Film pick at IFC Center.


The film will be introed by Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt, aka Matmos, “the musical duo behind some of the most cutting-edge music to emerge in the last 15 years.” But need not worry, Losey’s trippy and unexpected Harold Pinter suspenser starring Dirk Bogarde in high creep form and James Fox has a little something for everybody, even the straights.


Elliott Stein for the Village Voice:

The Servant (1963) is Joseph Losey’s signature film. With his 15th feature, at age 54, Losey scored his first international success, and in Harold Pinter found his ideal scriptwriter. This was the 10th European film for this exile from the blacklist (the first three had been released under directorial pseudonyms). The Servant, a spellbinding Faustian black comedy about class war, concerns a crafty cockney manservant (Dirk Bogarde, in the performance of his career) who corrupts his effetely indolent young socialite master (James Fox). The moral of this elegantly crafted demonstration of human destructiveness: Be sure the gentleman’s gentleman you hire is a gentleman.



Nick James for Sight & Sound:

The hallway of a house in Chelsea’s Royal Avenue; the unlocked front door opens at the push of a finger. In comes a neat man wearing a pork pie hat and a dark raincoat. This is Barrett. The camera backtracks away, around a corner into a room from which we can see a side-on view of the bottom of the stairs. Barrett comes back into view. He goes to the stairs, puts his hand on the banister and peers upwards, seemingly about to ascend.


The Servant is about the obsequious Barrett’s slow takeover of his upper-class master, Tony, and his well-appointed home. Barrett’s tactics are simple but effective: undermining Tony’s girlfriend by bringing in housemaid Vera, a seductive young slut, and making his indolent master increasingly dependent on his ministrations, eventually including booze and drugs. Pinter’s claustrophobic scenario enabled Losey to employ all his European art-cinema riffs at the service of a very English interior made sinister – the London house as a kind of nightclub cum prison – and a very English problem: the class system.


The Servant‘s fusion of Losey’s sensitivity to spaces and objects with Pinter’s stark approach to image and language – seen through cinematographer Douglas Slocombe’s magnificent black-and-white photography – initiated a new kind of cinema in the UK, one distinctly more ambitious than the social realism of the Woodfall films. The Servant transformed Bogarde’s image, cemented Losey’s fruitful partnership with Pinter and launched the cinema careers of James Fox and Sarah Miles (who played Vera). A few years later Fox would play a lost young thug opposite Mick Jagger’s reclusive rock star in Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s Performance (1970), the quintessence of the kind of cinema under discussion here.


David Thomson in Have You Seen…?:

Several years before the notorious house on Powis Square in Performance, Losey knew how to set an infernal mold in the structure and ambiance of a suitably upper-class residence. I remember seeing the separate rooms all on one sound stage, and realizing the way in which the webbing of camera movements could hold them in place. There, as the film as shot, you had a prescient feeling of a certain addled England stretched out in a morgue.


It was a trashy novel ostensibly uplifted by Pinter’s script. In fact, this was exactly the kind of trash – all rooted in intimation, sadism, and shame – that Pinter understood. It was Losey, who was then like a ferret pursuing the fat rabbit of English class, who knew what it could be. It was Losey who knew that Dirk Bogarde could not fail to flower in the shit-beds of the hothouse. This portrait of a helpless master and a cunning servant is icy, deliberate, and filled with loathing. The thing that strikes home in The Servant is the wintry assurance, the reptilian stealth of the takeover, and the final bleakness of England as it slips into the hands of its Barretts.


This is one of the great English films. Indeed, it leaves Performance looking not just imitative, but pretentious and romantic. Losey knows that the Tonys will go on, dead inside, just as the Barretts would dream up their Blair. But those consequences are only there if you feel inclined to do the autopsy. First observe the death.


Tom Sutpen with an essential piece for Bright Lights Film Journal:

As Hugo Barrett, the manservant with a private agenda, Dirk Bogarde achieves more with a glance or a slight movement in Joseph Losey’s The Servant than another actor would have accomplished bringing a lifetime of stage technique to the part. Barrett is a phenomenally complex, delicate role, and the wrong actor could have easily thrown the entire film out of balance simply by leaning too heavily on a line or holding a beat just a second too long. In one of the most enigmatic films to come out of Great Britain, The Servant, both artists along with screenwriter Harold Pinter succeeded in rendering a study of human power, its limits as well as its possibilities, that, over forty years after its release remains a far more subtle, less baldly allegorical work than critics and some audiences first surmised.


Matters of Class may have been a principal subtext of the novel from which The Servant was derived (a novel I confess I have not read), but in no sense are they anything more than a vague underpinning of either the movie Joseph Losey directed or, particularly, the screenplay Harold Pinter wrote. This is a film about power, in its most basic and consuming forms.


Critics noted the uniformly fine performances, particularly those of Bogarde and Fox; Losey’s fluid, beautifully understated direction; as well as the overall impenetrability of Harold Pinter’s screenplay. In fact, much of what makes The Servant such a remarkably compelling work is the manner in which these elements converge in a still-rare formal harmony. But when it came to analyzing The Servant, cinemagoers were soon laboring under the dolorous weight of a view that simply took it for granted that the movie was obviously some form of allegory, a social morality play beating the deadest horse in Christendom: Britain’s tired class system. It was an unfortunately limited reading of The Servant that nevertheless obtains to this day. Numberless critics concluded that Barrett and Tony had, in the end, simply exchanged places, that Barrett’s skillful manipulation of his employer from passivity to dependence to dissipation and outright depravity represented a form of victory, however pyrrhic, for the working classes […] Pinter’s screenplay for The Servant is one of his greatest works, the equal of anything he wrote for the stage. With his devastating economy of dialogue and explication, he unblinkingly chronicles the savage destruction of one man’s will at the hands of another; not the half-bright social parable of some critics’ dreams. This, and not a barely existent subtext, is what makes The Servant such a disturbing film.



The blog Breakfast in the Ruins was rendered near speechless:

Rarely have I seen a film that is this perfectly realised – the script, the direction, the performances, the production design – all are as good as they could possibly have been, and all serve to create the kind of masterpiece that happens once per generation when the multitude of strange, tempestuous elements that go towards creating a motion picture – the same elements that Joseph Losey in particular seems to have struggled with throughout his career – all find themselves arrayed in glorious alignment toward a common goal.


My mum certainly remembers going to see ‘The Servant’ back in the day. Probably not in 1963, but at some stage. She recalls the film as being “chilling, absolutely chilling”, the vehemence of which conclusion surprised me. Because, well, yes, Dirk Bogarde’s astonishing against-type performance as Barrett, and the way he slowly transforms his character’s mannerisms and motivations, seeking to conceal his true face from the audience as much as from James Fox’s Tony, implicating us in the same kind of listless weakness he is seeking to exploit in his master… that is indeed chilling.


But chilling-ness aside, my primary impression upon leaving the cinema concerned the extent to which the film was really funny, of how fresh and irreverent the wit of Harold Pinter’s script seemed, and of how honest and unforced the laughter it provoked was, even forty or fifty years since Pinter’s name disappeared ‘neath a cloud of tedious theatrical pomp. Not to mention how real, and human, and basically likable both Bogarde and Fox manage to make their characters, despite the razorsharp maze of petty hatreds, personal failings, ambiguities, betrayals and collapses that the film subjects them to at every turn – in both cases, enough to reduce most lesser actors to cynical cut-out villains rather than the fully fleshed out, empathetic beings that the players give us here. I mean, it is entirely possible that Barrett doesn’t utter a word of truth or carry out any benevolent action throughout the film, but, as portrayed by Bogarde, it’s difficult to hate or fear him, even as he pulls the wool over our eyes for his own mysterious and destructive ends. Also on my mind was the extraordinary manner in which Losey’s command of unsettling, baroque mise en scene reaches its apex here, with a carefully balanced language of expressionistic framing and visual symbolism almost managing to take on a life of its own in parallel to the scripted narrative, frequently commenting on, expanding upon, and sometimes even venturing to suggest meanings that go way beyond, the on-screen action.



Alt Screen’s Dan Callahan for Senses of Cinema:

Many critics have expressed confusion about the film, especially its ending, but to my mind it is fairly simple. From the moment the man-servant Barrett (Dirk Bogarde) sees Tony (James Fox) sleeping in his big opulent house, he wants to have him. Sexually? Most likely. But mainly he just wants to be his wife, a goal he achieves rather quickly. Barrett hates women, even if he is sexually drawn to them, as is demonstrated by a long scene in a telephone booth—some girls want to use the phone and he contemptuously looks at their legs while he is talking. “Hurry up!” mouths one of them. When he leaves the booth, he says, “Get out of my way you bitch,” nastily, for no apparent reason.


Losey had four wives, two of which he omitted entirely when talking to interviewers. Like Nicholas Ray, he was able to view both men and women sexually, to the benefit of his films. His bisexuality has been hinted at by people who knew him. Michael Sayers, a distinguished playwright and screenwriter, told me that he used to have Losey and Bogarde over for dinner in the ’50s and that, to him, they were very definitely a couple. “Dirk was good for Joe, though he treated him badly in the end,” he reported. If true, this relationship is key to Losey’s use of Bogarde, especially in The Servant. It’s clear that Barrett sleeps with tempting Vera (Sarah Miles), but his manner with her is light and casual, whereas with Tony he is as calculating and demanding as any woman who wants to trap a man. Barrett uses Vera and other women to keep Tony in check so that he can have him for himself.


In the final analysis, The Servant is a struggle between Bogarde’s seedy valet Barrett and Wendy Craig’s fiancée Susan over a passive love object, weak aristocrat Tony. At the end, when Susan kisses Barrett, the film reaches a nightmarish peak. The real climax, though, is when she slaps him, feebly, and he reacts with shame. The slap seems to chasten Barrett precisely because it is so ineffectual and defeated—a complicated exchange to put across, and easy to miss. The Servant is a murky theatrical dungeon traveling towards that brief moment of conscience which Barrett experiences after he is slapped. If this terrific movie is finally more Pinter than Losey, careful viewing results in a deeper understanding of the ambiguous sexuality Losey only hinted at in Eve.



Andrew Sarris, originally for The Village Voice (March 1963):

The Servant is the first work in Joseph Losey’s tortured career to bear his personal signature from the first frame to the last. It is undeniably the most exciting movie of the year so far.


There is one staggering episode in The Servant that provides the key to all the motivations. It is the famous restaurant scene with the snatches of bullying conversations from three related couples. This is not an extraneous sample of Pinter’s virtuosity for comedy relief. It is the evocation of power as the dominant passion of a collapsing class society. When, then, does the servant take over his master? Simply because someone has to take over someone else. Every relationship – indeed, every conversation – is a power struggle. Lacking a plan, the servant has to improvise. Each nastiness, like Hitler’s, leads to unexpected gains, and the process continues until the servant is corrupted by power as the master is corrupted by sloth. The servant goes too far. He is fired, than rehired. Chaos. Utter perversion. Then, finally, a fine house where everyone once knew his place has beeen converted into a seedy brothel where everyone now knows his vice – in short, Losey’s vision of contemporary England.


The Servant is a genuinely shocking experience for audiences with the imagination to understand the dimensions of the shock. In years to come The Servant might be cited as a prophetic work making the decline and fall of our last cherished illusions about ourselves and our alleged civilization.


  • Great photos (stills). Don’t remember any incipient BJs, though. Gosh, I don’t ENJOY this film! One hates everyone sop!

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