It goes without saying that the late, great Harold Pinter was one of the most innovative and incisive artists in dramatic writing history. Although the man himself openly disavowed the term ‘Pinteresque’, it has nevertheless found footing as a ubiquitous adjective when describing works marked by elusive dialogue and an uncomfortably simmering aura of threat. Whether it’s The Birthday Party, The Caretaker or The Homecoming, there is a demonstrably consistent vein of cryptic tension that pervades his efforts, imbuing commentary on class, social issues and sexual politics with a necessarily confrontational menace (it’s no accident that ‘Comedy of Menace’ is a term frequently ascribed to Pinter’s form) that burns into the brain with its uncanny knack for showcasing us at our seemingly arbitrary worst.
The Servant, Joseph Losey’s 1963 classic at the tail-end of the British New Wave movement, was adapted by Pinter from a novella by Robin Maugham. Highly controversial at the time for its homosexual subtext and depiction of decadence, it’s a film that has retained its power to confound and disturb on a primal level, provoking discussion not only about the legitimacy of class hierarchy but also the fundamental character motivation therein, given Pinter’s adroitly enigmatic screenplay that isn’t dated one iota despite ostensible paradigm shifts in British society.
Tony (James Fox) is a young upper-class Londoner with more wealth than he knows what to do with, something that has prompted a somewhat narcissistic endeavour to finance construction projects in rural Brazil. The apple of his prissy girlfriend Susan’s (Wendy Craig) eye, Tony has it made, excitedly moving into a lavish home in Chelsea in yet another episode of casually foppish profligacy. Territorially loath to do a lick of actual work in the most meagre sense, Tony advertises for a valet amid poncing around in arrogant delusion.
The vacancy is promptly answered by Hugo Barrett (Dirk Bogarde), a mild-mannered and relatively quiet Northerner with good credentials who politely acquiesces to Tony’s demands. Proving to be a natural at the position, Barrett displays virtually no emotion as he tends to Tony and keeps the abode in prime condition. Susan is instinctively placed in a position of discomfort upon meeting Barrett, believing that he’s anything other than how he presents himself, yet her concerns are nonchalantly dismissed by our focal man about town.
As time passes, Barrett begins to insidiously exert a subtle control over his employer. Throwaway comments about the house and Tony’s lifestyle are emitted under the careful guise of obsequiousness, and proceedings only become more complicated when Barrett brings his sister Vera (Sarah Miles) into the fold to work as Tony’s housemaid. The gentleman’s gentleman and his mysterious new accomplice engineer an artful game of subterfuge, gradually eroding traditional power dynamics and attacking the social institution of the highborn’s innately pure moral character. Susan can only look on in horror as her smug and silly beau is enveloped in the machinations of these two ne’er-do-wells, people below her social station who prove to be more cunningly vile than her snobbery could have possibly anticipated.
Even now, 57 years after its release, The Servant is awe-inspiring in its capacity to provoke thoughts and turn stomachs. Bogarde is the master of the screen as the delphic Barrett, an ostensibly straightforward and respectable professional who generates pathos as we witness the infuriating and subtly abusive condescension he receives from Susan (and sometimes Tony), only to deftly toy with our empathy as he slowly reveals that all is a veneer for something altogether more sinister. His courteous and unquestioning manner about the house is sharply contrasted with a casual and oily self-satisfaction that emerges whenever his masters are absent, displaying a thoroughly nasty streak when he emerges from a phone box and greets a gaggle of in-the-way women with some coarse abuse that is barely muffled by landscape noise. Losey has described the film as, among other things, a spin on the tale of Faust, and the viewer is tantalised as to whether the Mephistophelean Barrett is some calculating and fundamentally righteous social class terrorist or simply a diabolical sociopath who destroys things because he can.
There is an intriguing extratextual element at play here as well given the film’s suggestive tone of sexual tension between Tony and Barrett, a facet that was repudiated by the more reactionary critics of the time and shocked the nation in general, same-sex relationships remaining a criminal offence until 1967 reforms. Bogarde’s own sexuality was hotly debated throughout his life until he reluctantly admitted that his long-term friendship with manager Anthony Forwood was anything but platonic. It’s something of a quiet rebellion, then, on Bogarde’s part to have portrayed both the sexually amorphous Barrett and the lead character of Melville Farr in 1961’s Victim, a highly controversial work that contributed to amendments in British laws and attitudes around LGBT issues. The fact that Bogarde would have torpedoed his reputation and career had he articulated his genuine self is nothing short of wretched, and there is a modicum of satisfaction in his surreptitious position as an avenging angel who rubs a society’s callous bigotry in its face and, especially in regards to The Servant, attacks the moral delusions of those at the top of the hierarchy.
James Fox and Wendy Craig are on fine and believable form as a couple who embody toffee-nosed naivete, but the film undoubtedly belongs to Bogarde and Miles, the latter bringing her own contributions to the framework of unspoken libidinousness by way of a wily sex kitten who is far smarter than she initially presents. The film is ultimately about the human ramifications of clinging to obsolete patterns of social order, and it’s compounded by the viewer’s uncertainty as to who they should empathise with, if anyone. Are Tony and Susan maliciously supercilious and unjustifiably contemptuous of Barrett and Vera, or is he a harmlessly lazy rich boy and she an extraordinarily good judge of character? Are Barrett and Vera somehow perversely noble in their undermining of traditions, or simply evil?
Beautifully shot and scored by Douglas Slocombe and John Dankworth respectively, The Servant is Losey’s magnum opus and a note-perfect example of showing and not telling, something that a plethora of psychological dramas and thrillers continue to hopelessly bungle. Your mind shall become a feast of stimulating questions, you’ll be chilled to the bone and not a little amused. One of the greatest films to have ever been produced on this little island of ours, this apex of mind-game cinema is more than worth the parting fees of streaming platforms or physical media, so you can rest assured that you’ve no excuse.