The Servant, 1963.
Directed by Joseph Losey.
Starring Dick Bogarde, Sarah Miles, James Fox, Wendy Craig and Harold Pinter.
A wealthy man hires a servant, who proceeds to upend his entire way of living.
The 60’s is often hailed as a decade that changed everything for western cinema. Spurred on by daring innovation in world cinema, the long standing American studio system was eventually overthrown by a host of young hot shot directors in the last few years of the decade. And yet, looking a few years earlier, only a handful of western gems stand out as truly special, before the tide turned. Film’s such as Antonioni’s Blow Up and Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones are now consistently held up as game changers, even drawing the attention of Academy voters at the time. Other films made little impact in their effort to go against the grain, and are now begging to be rediscovered. Re-releasing as a 4K Ultra HD Blu-Ray Collector’s Edition, the 1963 movie The Servant fits that latter description.
Adapted from a short story by Robin Maugham, the film sees young, wealthy Tony return home from business abroad to settle in London. He requires a man-servant to wait on and cook for him, and at the disapproval of his girlfriend Susan, Tony hires Barrett for the post. Tension weaves deliciously between the three characters, mostly confined to Tony’s three storey house and heightened when Barrett brings in a woman who he claims is his sister, Vera, to work as a maid.
Despite the politeness and Britishness of it all, there is so much at stake here, with the characters constantly demanding power from each other, often winning it through sexual advantage. Adapted by playwright Harold Pinter, the script very much echoes the writer’s later “Memory” plays – No Man’s Land and Betrayal – in this regard. Never revealing much of the truth of the situation, Pinter always prompts enough questions and creates enough intrigue to keep you entirely on the edge of your seat.
Yet there is certainly method in what could be described as madness; there’s far too much social relevance for this to be a Lynchian absurdist film. Though that doesn’t mean The Servant will leave you anything less than wondrously dazed. Director Joseph Losey imbues the work with an urgency and energy that feels surprising given the slow, measured pace. Losey invites us to watch, as closely as we like, the breakdown of society from a post war, stiff upper lip attitude to one of counter-culture decadence. It’s almost as if Barrett is a stepping-stone from the repression of Celia Johnson’s protagonist in Brief Encounter to the unstoppable libido of Michael Caine’s Alfie.
Dirk Bogarde steals every scene as Barrett, magnetic as he oscillates from downtrodden to confident. Though James Fox and Wendy Craig are perhaps perfectly cast as the innocent couple, there is a sense that without Bogarde and the revelatory Sarah Miles – who plays Vera – this film might not be quite as captivating as it is.
Losey went on to direct a slew of critically acclaimed films, including the Palme D’or winning The Go Between (which was also adapted by Pinter). Pinter himself continued to work with much success in theatre and film, eventually receiving 2 Oscar nominations for his adapted screenplays in the 80’s, and a Nobel prize in 2005. The careers of each of the four main actors never particularly took off, though Miles enjoyed some success and time in the spotlight, largely because of her marriage, divorce, and re-marriage to writer Robert Bolt over a 30 year period. Frankly, this picture is perhaps the best thing any of the collaborators achieved throughout their careers on the big screen. Today, the importance of this work in cinematic history cannot be overstated, especially when it is repeatedly forgotten in favour of other films released in the same period. And in almost 60 years, the film has not lost any of its vigour or quality. The Servant is now, as it was then, nothing short of a masterpiece.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★