Servant, The (1963): Losey-Pinter First Masterpiece, Starring Dirk Bogarde

The Servant, Harold Pinter’s 1963 screen adaptation of the 1948 novel by Robin Maugham, is a seminal British film, directed by Joseph Losey and starring Dirk Bogarde, Sarah Miles, Wendy Craig, and James Fox, all in top form.

The Servant
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This was the first of Pinter and Losey’s three screen collaborations, which also include the superb “Accident” (1967) and “The Go-Between” (1970), which won the Cannes Film Fest Palme d’Ór and is considered to be the best of the trilogy. That said, all three should be considered masterpieces of modern British (and world) cinema, especially when looked at from today’s perspective.

Tightly constructed, highly intense, and confined in space, “The Servant” is a probing psychological drama about the relationships among four individuals whose paths crisscross. The movie deals provocatively with such taboo issues as social class, power, sexual politics, and the complacent anomie of Britain’s rich, privileged elite.

Screenwriter Pinter and expatriate American director Losey (who was in exile due to the anti-Communist witch-hunting in the U.S.) fuse their disparate sensibilities to a largely effective result. Pinter’s adaptation of Maugham’s novel displays his familiar strategies of fragmented narrative, opaque dialogue, cryptic silences, ideological discussions of seemingly trivial issues that bear deeper resonance and meaning. (Pinter also appears in a cameo as a society man).

Dirk Bogard, then at the height of his international career, plays a dissipated Cockney servant named Tony, who is hired by Hugo Barret (James Fox), a rich and spoiled master. Soon, Tony begins to engage in power games with his master, a privileged and effete aristocrat, during which they trade roles and change identities–not always by choice.

Perfectly cast, Fox and Bogarde combine their considerable talents as the gentleman and servant-valet in this unusual movie. Barrett is a gentleman whose life is measured by the amount of alcohol he imbibes. When Tony becomes his valet, his London townhouse takes on orderliness, despite the antics of the young aristocrat. But the servant’s efficiency gets invasive and uncomfortable for both Barrett and his girlfriend, Susan (Wendy Craig), who dislikes the servant.

Gradually, the standards of the servant decline and he becomes less docile, much to Susan’s disgust. Taking liberties and violating the rules of the game, the servant brings in his girlfriend, Vera (Sarah Miles), and acts fast and loose with her, as if he were the master of the house. The self-delusional Susan thinks she knows how to “handle” the servant, but the norms of conduct continue to descend into darkness as seen in a final orgy-like party.

In its strong and powerful moments, the movie exposes and critiques the basic nature of both servants and masters, when the class system of the rigidly stratified British society was beginning to break down. As long as the structure is intact, the masters can take advantage of it. In many households, the servants were the defenders of knowing one’s place, but by the 1960s, the rules were tested, contested and changed.

Critical reputation of “The Servant” has remained steady and strong. Initially, it was considered an innovative, groundbreaking film.
The film won the British Academy Awards for Best Actor (Bogarde), Most Promising Newcomer (Fox), and Best Cinematography (Douglas Slocombe)

Some critics felt that the opaque and ambiguous ending was disappointing, damaging the overall impact of the writing, acting and visual imagery. The black-and-white film cuts away to a series of images that are often like still photography. Others felt that it was too much of an allegory of power, exploitation, and repressed sexuality.

I am vastly disappointed that “Variety,” for which I was a senior critic, gave it a negative review, but it was not the only magazine to misunderstand the picture.

It is noteworthy that “The Servant” came out three years before Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona,” which also dealt with the issue of identity transference, albeit between two women.

The movie is a turning point in the career of expatriate Losey, who became a major European auteur and a cult figure throughout the 1960s and the 1970s.

End note: Who’s Who

After working in major films throughout the 1960s, James Fox experienced a religious conversion in 1973 and retired from movies for several years. He is the older brother of Edward Fox, also an actor (“The Day of the Jackal”).

Wendy Craig replaced Vanessa Redgrave, who was to make her feature debut but had to drop out because she was pregnant with her elder girl (Natasha Richardson). Redgrave made a splash in 1966, with two movies: “Morgan!” and “Blow-Up.”

Douglas Slocombe’s astonishing career encompasses over 70 films, including major works by Alexander Mackendrick, Fred Zinnemann, Roman Polanski, Steven Spielberg, John Huston, and Ken Russell.

Cast

Dirk Bogart: Hugo Barrett
Sarah Miles: Vera
Wendy Craig: Susan
James Fox: Tony
Catherine Lacey: Lady Mounset
Richard Vernon: Lord Mounset
Ann Firbank: Society Woman
Doris Knox: Older Woman
Patrick Magee: Bishop
Jill Melford: Younger Woman
Alun Owen: Curate
Harold Pinter: Society Man
Derek Tansley: Head Waiter

Credits

Running tie: 115 Minutes

Joseph Losey: Director
Harold Pinter: Writer, based on the novel by Robin Maugham
Norman Priggen: Producer
Joseph Losey: Producer
Douglas Slocombe: Cinematographer
Reginald Mills: Editor
John Dankworth: Musical Composer
Richard MacDonald: Production Designer
Ted Clements: Art Director
Beatrice Dawson: Costumes
John Dankworth: Music Director
Bob Lawrence: Make Up

Detailed Synopsis (Includes Spoiler Alert)

A man walks down a dreary London street and enters a newly sold, and unlocked, house. He enters, searches through the unfurnished space for the occupant, and finds Tony, the owner of the house, sleeping fully clothed on a folding chair. He
wakes Tony up and introduces himself as Barrett, an applicant for a position as Tony’s manservant. Tony groggily gives him the gist of what he needs: to be generally taken care of.

Over the next few weeks, Barrett oversees the renovation and decoration of the house while Tony settles into his role as “master.” When everything is in place, the house has been transformed into a well- appointed home.

After dinner with his fiancé Susan, Tony talks about the progress (or lack thereof) of a business venture of his in South America. When their intimate rendezvous is interrupted by Barrett “accidentally” walking in on them, Susan expresses her anger about Barrett’s constant presence and leaves. Tensions between Susan and Barrett gradually increase.

With the house settled into a routine, Barrett tells Tony that he has invited his sister Vera to work at the house as a maid, an arrangement that Tony has approved. Tony meets Susan for dinner, while Barrett goes to meet Vera at the train station.

Susan tells Tony that she doesn’t trust Barrett. A series of petty conversations swirl around them as they dine. In the cab from the station, Vera touches Barrett’s leg in a way that does not seem sisterly.

They get back to the house and Vera moves into her room next to Barrett’s. Tony finds himself in a series of fraught circumstances with Vera, starting with awkwardly hiding his naked chest when she delivers his breakfast in bed. When she returns to the kitchen, Barrett leers at her in silence until things are not so silent anymore. Later when Barrett asks for the day off so he and Vera can visit their sick mother, Tony, in typical petulant form, orders him to take the following day. After Barrett asks Tony to speak with Vera about her inappropriate attire, Tony walks in on Vera in his bathtub. Tony leaves in a huff and Barrett joins her in the bathroom. The next day, Tony watches Vera and Barrett leave for the country.

That night he is surprised to find Vera standing behind him in the kitchen. While explaining her presence, the phone rings, but neither answer. Vera gets up on the kitchen table and complains coyly about the heat in the room. They embrace on the table.

Barrett returns to a house in complete disarray, but tells Tony that he’ll be out late that night. Taking the opportunity, Tony conjures some romantic ambience for Vera. Unbeknownst to Tony, Barrett is in Vera’s bed. She joins Tony.

Some time later, Susan appears at the house and starts ordering Barrett around and is generally unpleasant. She confronts him on what “he wants” in the house. He feigns ignorance. After a trip to the country, Tony and Susan return to London to find the light on in his bedroom. Barrett appears naked at the top of the stairs, sees Tony and Susan, but unconcernedly returns to the bedroom when Vera calls him back. Tony yells for Barrett to come downstairs and demands an explanation, accusing Barrett of incest.

Barrett reveals that Vera is not his sister, but his fiancée. Vera confirms that fact and Tony tells them to leave. They chat happily as they gather their things and leave. Tony starts drinking. Susan leaves shortly after. Tony wanders in dismay, drinking his way through London, until he ends up at a bar where Barrett is also drinking alone. Barrett buys him a drink and tells him that he was besotted by Vera and that they were saving up money to get married. He says that he didn’t know what was going on between Tony and Vera and when they left, Vera disappeared with his money. He blames his deception on Vera and asks Tony for another chance.

Tony takes Barrett back, but the two men’s relationship has changed dramatically. Barrett speaks his mind and Tony does the same, but there is still a remnant of the master-servant relationship. Tony wakes Barrett up and demands that he clean up a carpet, threatening to throw him out. Barrett laughs and ignores his commands.

While playing a ball game on the stairs, Tony throws the ball into Barrett’s face, making Barrett threaten to leave. Tony desperately wants Barrett to stay and tells him how grateful he is to Barrett for his work.

On a rainy night, Vera shows up wanting to talk to Tony. She asks him for money and professes her love for him. Barrett grabs her, but once out of Tony’s sight only pretends to toss her out. Later, Barrett pressures Tony to drink some brandy against Tony’s wishes. They have a discussion, which ends with Tony offering to join in on the work of keeping the house clean.

Susan appears again as Tony drunkenly stares into space. He warns her against being at the house as the doorbell rings and Barrett lets some women in, including Vera. Tony leaves Susan and goes into the bedroom where the women are lounging. Susan enters the room and dazedly confronts Barrett, only to end up kissing him. Tony stumbles toward her and the other women laugh maniacally.

Tony crashes to the floor and orders them out. Barrett lightly ushers the women out, except Susan and Vera. Barrett flippantly tells Susan to leave. She slaps him across the face and runs out of the house to cry on the street. Barrett locks the front door, turns out the light, and joins Vera in the master bedroom while Tony passes out on the floor.