A chilling and bizarre story of Britain’s class struggle, 1963’s The Servant was a film in line with many that helped to transition its star, Dirk Bogarde, from a one-time matinée idol into a figurehead of the British New Wave art film. Once possessing a genially handsome face that lent itself to such anodyne fare like Penny Princess (1952) and Doctor in the House (1954), Bogarde cut a daring figure in much darker material that readily accommodated his increasingly aged and weathered looks. It helped that Bogarde had a greater range from which he could access quite effortlessly in his later roles of psychological examination. His later choices certainly won him favor with a good handful of critics, as his BAFTA for The Servant attests, if no longer the multitude of swooning ticket-buyers who lined up for Van Johnson films.
The Servant, as material, is already at an advantageous edge, given that it is based on a 1948 novella of the same name by Robin Maugham and was then adapted for the screen by Nobel Prize winner Harold Pinter. Maugham was a novelist who explored class and sexuality with an off-kilter but exceptionally incisive look at the complications between humans often tested by their environments. The Servant was his first work, but he would attain further critical favor with The Wrong People and The Green Shade, works which respectively explored racism, homosexuality, and ageism among the English living in North Africa.
Pinter, a playwright and screenwriter whose works include the plays The Birthday Party and The Homecoming and the films The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981) and The Comfort of Strangers (1990), possessed a highly-tuned ear for dialogue that revealed the material in shaded gradations of texture and wit. Here, the combined talents and Maugham and Pinter ensure a structure sturdy and expansive enough to permit all the story’s players to unleash their dramatic faculties as freely and fully as the perimeters allow.
Filmed with a coldly penetrating eye by director Joseph Losey, The Servant is the story of Tony (James Fox), a wealthy businessman in London who plans to develop infrastructure in Brazil. Needing to get himself in order to put the work in, he hires a servant to help put together his new house. Hugo Barrett (Bogarde), a seemingly impersonal and stolid man, is hired for the job.
Hugo moves into the household and does well in his job, but that doesn’t seem to convince Tony’s girlfriend, Susan (Wendy Criag), who believes that Hugo is a “Peeping Tom” and insists that he move out. Tony dismisses her demands, assuring her that her worries are baseless. Things, however, become complicated when, on Hugo’s insistence, Vera (Sarah Miles) is hired as a maid for the household. Hugo tells Tony that Vera is his sister, a lie that is exposed when Tony catches Vera and Hugo sleeping together.
Things go from bad to worse when it is also exposed that Vera had been sleeping with Tony, as well, causing Susan to walk out. Tony promptly fires both Hugo and Vera. But just when the household has completely collapsed, leaving Tony alone and often drunk, Hugo re-enters Tony’s life, and a new set of mind games begins to shift the dynamics into far more dangerous margins.
The Servant’s narrative quarters, here constructed as the glass jar of modern British nobility, are at once cramped and airy, an odd collocation that precipitates the actions between the four players of the household. In each set piece – the bedroom, the kitchen, the living room, the pub – viewers witness the slow, agonizing dismantling of Victorian upkeep, its polished veneer of social respectability tarnishing over time as contemporary attitudes and denominations are gradually introduced.
It’s never entirely clear what any one party truly wants; motives are held tightly to the chest and the action is limited to a series of emotional outbursts that occur in the last third of the film. Losey’s film doesn’t reveal much in the intentions of the actions and, curiously, this is how much of The Servant’s suspense is generated. Bogarde’s closely guarded Hugo is also the story’s most violent provocation, furiously stirring the airs of conspiracy between Tony, Vera, and Susan.
Pinter’s script positions Hugo between the two condescending and patronizing poles that are Susan and Tony. Hugo fields the offenses of questions like whether or not he wears deodorant while being politely denigrated for his services. As Hugo circles the rooms of the household, Losey frames the social iniquities acted out in domestic spaces with a calculating and limpid eye, his camera pushing forward intrusively and, later, hovering above the furor like an unnoticed spectator. There is always a sense of emotional stock being inventoried, a cold and taciturn assessment of the power dynamics which renders everyone in the household aloof and, therefore, unsympathetic.
An interesting dynamic in subtraction has the two women removed from the household quartet so that Tony and Hugo remain (once Hugo is re-instated into the household as a servant again) as a two-person circuit that is electrified by currents no longer pecuniary but sexual. The subject of Losey’s film is a rather vague and faded echo of Maugham’s source material’s more forward themes of homosexuality. The airs of a disengaged eroticism between the two men, however, hang subtly but surely throughout the film.
How much of a link between sexuality, class, and power Losey tries to establish is also up for debate, but the threads of those agitators in this drama unequivocally appear. The Servant is, therefore, a film of unfinished encounters, a drama that begins with glances and then leads toward a meaningful conflict before stopping at the threshold of any commitment of resolution.
Criterion’s release of The Servant features a clear, sharp transfer that renders the black and white picture with a stony clarity that becomes crucial to the film’s set design; an obviously baroquely designed set featuring a palette of tones, shades, and textures, which would be easily seen in natural color, can now be discerned to the naked eye with little effort. Sound and dialogue, for the most part, come across clearly. Supplements include interviews with the cast, director, and screenwriter, as well as an essay booklet written by author Colm Tóibín.
A critics’ pick upon its release, The Servant would earn its leading star Bogarde a BAFTA for Best Actor, finally cementing his status as a serious actor now successfully risen above the matinée fodder he began with. It would also help to launch Pinter’s career in film and set him on a path that would have him successfully transpose his famously-coined “Comedy of Menace” to the big screen. As it stands, The Servant is at once a disturbing and thought-provoking study of human behavior between the classes; it evokes the queasy fascination of watching several insect species within a glass jar, battling it out for rule and authority.