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The Servant

The Servant
Anchor Bay
1963 / Color / 1:37 / 112m. /
Starring Dirk Bogarde, Sarah Miles, Wendy Craig, James Fox
Cinematography Douglas Slocombe
Production Designer Richard MacDonald
Film Editor Reginald Mills
Original Music John Dankworth
Writing credits Harold Pinter from the novel by Robin Maugham
Produced by Joseph Losey & Norman Priggen
Directed by Joseph Losey

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Made at the peak of the Art film craze, Joseph Losey's The Servant is a dark tale of psychological domination in a class system. Described by its maker as a version of Faust, this sexy story has a sickly feeling of degradation that begs for interpretation. Resist it. Stick to the intricate relationships between the characters, and you can't go wrong.


Back in London from Africa, the well-to-do Tony (James Fox) takes a townhouse and hires impressively proper valet-butler Hugo Barrett (Dirk Bogarde) to 'do everything' for him. Barrett takes charge and soon the house is a showplace of taste and organization. But something's amiss, although the dense Tony doesn't seem to be aware of it. Barrett has his life in such order that Tony's fiancee Susan (Wendy Craig) feels threatened. And Barrett's possessiveness may include a streak of malice, as he's passing off a tart acquaintance, Vera (Sarah Miles), as his sister. As Barrett's control and influence over Tony increase, things seem headed in an unpleasant direction ...

Impeccable, incisive, observant and richly appointed, The Servant is a fascinating and rather creepy little gem. It's performances can't be faulted, especially Bogarde's, whose every expression demands analysis, as we try to figure out Hugo Barrett's evil game. Initially very sympathetic, the hardworking and dutiful Barrett endures a lot of priggish insensitivity from the fussy, privileged Tony, but we always feel there's something lurking behind his deference and humility. The Servant takes us from one end of their relationship to the other. What starts out as an accepted form of class & economic domination, twists into something far more horrible.

Harold Pinter's collaboration with Joseph Losey results in a hard, merciless film that explains none of the characters but forces us to try and figure them out, minute by minute. A lesser drama would just observe the behaviors of these people and make judgements about them. Losey stays morally neutral, and seems to 'will' them toward finding their true characters in the end.

There's a tendency to impose a sexual agenda on the proceedings, but that's but a small part of The Servant. The domination of one person over another is the real subject, and we're given plenty of examples. The restaurant has a mother bullying a daughter, and a Bishop practically tormenting an underling. Tony and Susan, like the other well-to-do's, enjoy the privilege of being served as if it were some kind of right. Tony's relatives, Lord and Lady Mounset, are so lost in their own importance, that they insist on being right all the time, as when they pompously call South American cowboys 'Ponchos' and discourage any discussion of the matter.

Servant Barrett does use sex to get the upper hand of master Tony. He knows Tony's inner weakness, and puts in his path the irresistable Vera, played by a very young and impressive Sarah Miles, seven years before Ryan's Daughter. This leads to the famous erotic scene with the revolving leather chair, where Tony collects his special favors but is incapable of seeing the trap they entail. Tony's corruption and fall happens so easily, that Barrett, who may be a sociopath working his way from one 'master' to another, almost seems to be justified in his actions, as if he were taking revenge for downtrodden servants everywhere. Susan sees through Barrett's diguises, but not far enough, and has too much faith in the weak Tony and his tales of big business in Brazil. Tom Milne, in his interview book with Losey  1 talks about fine points of class with Susan that Losey admits were a problem, that Susan can't be taken as an upperclass 'lady' because she's not instinctively commanding enough.

The interview book also gives an unconvincing explanation for an incident at the end of The Servant that's often criticized. Confronted with a spectacle of an orgy about to start in Tony's flat, with Barrett now in complete control, Susan's behavior seems very out of character, whether she's supposed to be upper- or middle class or whatever. It stands out in such relief because every other character interaction we see is so credible and illuminating. It just seems false or forced. (If you want the moment spoiled, follow this  2 footnote.)

Losey isn't universally liked. He's called Joseph Lousy by several of Savant's friends, in fact. It's true that most of his pictures have awkward moments like this, dramatically unsound scenes or performance fragments that undermine brilliant work elsewhere. The Prowler has a mawkishly contrived moral conclusion that undercuts its earlier ambibvalence. These are the Damned has Oliver Reed's King, who seems a trendy bunch of unworkable clichés amid a nice assortment of strange but credible characters. Like These are the Damned and Accident, The Servant has a key scene where people come home to find illicit lovers busy in their beds. Dramatically daring, Losey is good most of the time, even when his ambitions get out of control. When things go wrong, as in his very bad movie Modesty Blaise, he's nevertheless fascinating, just because his approach is so unique.

The Servant, like Losey's most serious pictures, is going to bore a few viewers, because some actual work is involved to understand what's going on. And creating the world these people struggle in results in a pace that doesn't deliver a dramatic jolt every few seconds. The score is restrained and thoughtful, and there's a pop vocal that becomes an active character in the film, sounding completely different at different times in the story. If seeing an artist in control of every facet of a drama appeals, at the service of a demanding and adult story, then The Servant will be a rewarding experience.

Anchor Bay's DVD of The Servant is as impeccably presented as Hugo Barrett himself, with a fine transfer of Douglas Slocombe's delicately photographed images, and very clear audio. There are no subtitles or closed captions. A trailer is included. The Servant is available as a single disc, or in the Dirk Bogarde Collection 3 disc set, along with The Mind Benders and Accident.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Servant rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 13, 2001


1. Losey on Losey, Cinema World Series, 1968 Doubleday/BFI London

2. Susan is dumbfounded to discover Tony totally sodden on drugs and alcohol, preparing to party with several obvious prostitutes secured by Hugo Barrett, who, it is clear, is purposefully dragging Tony down to a depraved state, and enjoying it in the process. Unable to get Tony's attention, Susan suddenly responds to Barrett's ugly advances, something we're not prepared for, don't understand, and tend to reject. Losey is on record in the Milne interview as claiming that she's trying to shake Tony to his senses by putting herself at his level, or something of the sort. It's an interesting idea, but not one communicated by the scene itself, which just seems to throw Susan's character (and her hatred of Barrett) out the window.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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