(Joseph Losey, UK, 1963) 115 minutes


Director: Joseph Losey
Producers: Joseph Losey, Norman Priggen
Screenplay: Harold Pinter, based on the
  novel of the same name by Robin Maugham
Cinematography: Douglas Slocombe
Editor: Reginald Mills
Music: John Dankworth
Dirk Bogarde (Barrett)
Sarah Miles (Vera)
Wendy Craig (Susan)
James Fox (Tony)
Catherine Lacey (Lady Mounset)
Richard Vernon (Lord Mounset)
Ann Firbank (Society Woman)

Reviews and notes

1963 Venice
2012 Osaka
2014 Seattle

Losey’s relentless dusting of the ruling vs. the grueling classes began a partnership with playwright Harold Pinter that continued through two more exacting entries, Accident and The Go-Between. In this dramatic drubbing, a beguiling Dirk Bogarde plays a conniving Jeeves to a newly posted member of the idle class, Tony (James Fox), who has visions of grand projects but can barely boil water for tea. When Barrett (Bogarde) brings in his sultry “sister” (Sarah Miles at her impish best) to be the maid, all is unmade, including the beds. Tony’s tony townhouse is the claustrophobic battlefield in the eroding power relationship between man and manservant. Losey uses the interior space like a suffocating replica of dear England, stopping every so often to refract the action through a distorting mirror hung hideously in a hallway. All the while, the house itself seems to decompose as its foppish owner succumbs to his own exhausted spirit. No butler to the bourgeoisie, Harold Pinter provides pointed dialogue that wipes clean every surface like a class disinfectant. My Man Godfrey this ain’t.
- Steve Seid, Pacific Film Archive.

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 come prison – and a very English problem: the class system.

In their creative relationship, neither Losey or Harold Pinter was master or servant. "I'm not accustomed to writing from notes and I don't like this," Losey reported Pinter saying at their drink-fuelled first script meeting. Pinter's version was as follows: "I went to see [Losey] at his house in Chelsea. 'I like the script,' he said. 'Thanks,'I said. 'But there are a number of things I don't like.' 'What things?' I asked. He told me. 'Well why don't you make another movie?' I said, and left the house." Two days later they patched it up and, as Pinter says, "over the next 25 years we worked on three more screenplays and never had another cross word."

Insomniac Losey could be prickly, a burly man whose emotions often ran to tears. Harold Pinter was the self-contained truth tester, a precise and correct writer at the top of his game; an actor too, who knew what actors could do with cadence and diction. It was another actor who brought them together, Dirk Bogarde, instrumental in so many ways in The Servant's groundbreaking – standing in for Losey when he had pneumonia (only to see most of his scenes reshot), bringing James Fox in as Tony. Bogarde used The Servant to trade in his matinee idol image – already made questionable by his brave turn as the homosexual barrister in Victim. Following his scheming turn as Barrett, he instead became the weather-changeable face in semi-decadent art films such as Darling (1965), Accident (1967), Justine (1969), Visconti's The Damned (1969), Death in Venice (1971), The Serpent (1973), The Night Porter (1974), Providence (1977) and Despair (1978).

It was Losey who first showed Robin Maugham's novelette The Servant to Bogarde in 1954. Originally separately commissioned by director Michael Anderson, Pinter stripped it of its first-person narrator, its yellow book snobbery and the arguably anti-Semitic characterisation of Barrett–oiliness, heavy lids – replacing them with an economical language that implied rather than stated the slippage of power relations away from Tony towards Barrett. In 1962 Bogarde read Pinter's script and rang Losey, who was shooting Eve. By the time director and writer were brought together, Losey was seething with fury at the Hakim brothers' mutilation of his beloved Eve. But that's another story.

To focus instead on Losey's pretentious leanings, the standard view is that Pinter saved Losey from his excessive tendencies. Losey himself felt differently. "It took me many, many years to get over the feeling that The Servant was inferior to Eve," he said to Michel Ciment. "It cost a lot less, of course; it was less elaborated, less personal, and in many ways it's a kind of remake." As in Eve, degradation and sexual revenge are present, but here they're not so heavily signalled. The restraint that Pinter's disciplined dialogue imposes – along with the lower budget and the one-house set – reined Losey in to powerful effect; he is quite mistaken about The Servant's inferiority.

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.
- Nick James, Sight & Sound, June 2009.

Weblink: A review of the Auckland Film Society screening by Lumiere Reader

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