Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Best Movies I've Never Seen Before: The Servant (1963)

The Servant (1963) ****
Directed by: Joseph Losey.
Written by: Harold Pinter based on the novel by Robin Maugham.
Starring: Dirk Bogarde (Hugo Barrett), James Fox (Tony), Sarah Miles (Vera), Wendy Craig (Susan).

Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter collaborated on three movies in the 1960s and 1970s – the first, and perhaps most highly regarded of these three was 1963’s The Servant. This is a devastating movie about a manservant named Barrett (Dirk Bogarde) who takes it upon himself to destroy his new employer – Tony (James Fox). The film was seen at the time of its release as a statement on Britain’s crumbling class system – with Fox’s Tony an oblivious, idle rich twit, still clinging to the old ideas of British aristocracy in taking on a “manservant” in Barrett, when the whole profession was already outdated. That Barrett so thoroughly and completely destroys Tony, was read as a victory of the working class. I’m not so sure that’s what is really going here. I may know little about Harold Pinter, but what I do know is that his work favors personal relationships over political commentary. That his work (like Accident, the second Losey-Pinter collaboration) which I will review shortly for this series) is more about the horrible things people do to each other while maintaining an outward visage of civility. That certainly applies to The Servant.

When the movie opens, we are presented with Tony as an upper class young man, who has just come into his inheritance. He has “very important” business dealings, that take up all of his time – although he still finds time to nap at three in the afternoon – and has bought a fashionable house, but needs someone to take care of it. In walks Barrett, who seems to be a gift from heaven. He oversees the decorating of the house, so Tony does not have to bother, and everything else. He cooks, he cleans, he locks up at night, he in short, does everything, leaving Tony with little to do. Tony loves Barrett for doing all of this. The only problem is that Tony’s fiancĂ©e Susan (Wendy Craig) hates Barrett. Why she does, is something that even she cannot put her finger on. After all, he is only doing his job – but he just always seems to be there – hovering around the house. She wants Tony all to herself, and asks him to fire Barrett. But that would mean Tony would have to do everything that Barrett does himself – and we can’t have that can we.

Having already succeeded in driving a wedge between Tony and Susan, Barrett goes one step further and convinces Tony to hire his “sister” Vera (Sarah Miles) to be the housekeeper. Vera is the opposite of Susan in every way – unrefined and clumsy – and yet she is undeniably sexy. Barrett practically throws her at Tony, but of course in a subtle way. The affair will be just what Barrett needs to blow up Tony’s life.

Dirk Bogarde is one of those actors who was capable of doing so much, while seemingly doing nothing. In the scenes at the beginning of The Servant, he seems to be the most prim and proper manservant in movie history. So attentive to detail. And yet, there is something supremely unsettling about him as well – something that we catch in his eyes, in quiet moments of him going about his work. Like Susan, we don’t trust him, but we do not know why. It truly is a terrific performance by Bogarde, and without it, the film wouldn’t work. For his part, James Fox is perfectly cast as the upper class twit Tony, oblivious to his own fate even as everything comes crashing down around him. Sarah Miles is terrific as the “sister”, manipulating Tony with her brash sexuality, but also being manipulated in return by Barrett. And Wendy Craig, although she has the most thankless role in the film, fills out the cast nicely.

Joseph Losey was blacklisted in the McCarthy trials of the 1950s, and found his way to England, where he struggled to get his career going again. But when he teamed up with Harold Pinter, he found his dream collaborator – the two of them perfectly suited for each other. Losey finds the perfect visual match for Pinter’s screenplay, which has buried meanings and at times sparse dialogue. Losey experimented with different styles in the same film. The Servant has visual elements of film noir, and yet also seems naturalistic at times, and surreal at others. It’s fair to say that Losey pushed himself, because he knew just how good Pinter’s screenplay was.

The Servant is a strange, disturbing, creepy film. It is one of those films where everything seems to come together – Losey’s brilliant direction, Pinter’s brilliant screenplay and Bogarde’s brilliant performance – to make one of the most memorable British films of the 1960s. Almost 50 years after the film was made, it still has the power to shock and amaze.

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