In 1963 The Servant brought together the combined talents of Harold Pinter, Joseph Losey and Dirk Bogarde. Although he would subsequently write a mountain of screenplays, Pinter was at this time still new to cinema; his only other major piece for the big screen being the adaptation of his classic play The Caretaker. So whilst it’s difficult to imagine what the film’s original reception was like, it was likely to be one of surprise.
Pinter and Losey were to embark on a fruitful partnership over the next decade which would also produce Accident and The Go Between, but The Servant was new ground for both of them. Previously, Losey had directed a diverse range of films including The Boy With Green Hair, The Criminal and the bizarre Hammer masterpeice The Damned. Coincidentally, Losey’s oddest film to date The Sleeping Tiger also starred the well known actor called Dirk Bogarde, the matinee idol desperate to shake off his lightweight shackles. After slowly edging towards greatness, The Servant would finally be the film that earned Bogarde the respect he demanded.
Everything about Dirk Bogarde’s performance in The Servant is perfect. There’s the sense that he put everything into it; he’d finally found a film that would shape his career exactly to his fancy. Sure, two years earlier his role in Victim was admirably daring, but Victim stands as a film with a clear agenda. In contrast, The Servant is darker, ambiguous, menacing and very unclear in its stance on sexuality. And although Bogarde appears to be boldly saying here I am, I’ve finally arrived he is oh so careful to get it right; subtle in his portrayal of Barrett, effortlessly creating this brooding and seething man. Every look is right; every rolled eye, every insouciant stare, every flick of the hair. Even the way he smokes is spot on.
It’s easy to summarise The Servant as a film about a master/servant relationship that appears to reverse itself over time. Seeing it again, I now think the true meaning of the film is far more complex. Tony (James Fox) and Barrett (Bogarde) first appear as a rather odd embodiment of the rich young man and his manservant, Bogarde drawing out the mismatch in their relationship. Rather than requiring a manservant for reasons of class and wealth, Fox is physically needy, weak and vulnerable (throughout the film we see Bogarde tending to him, nursing either colds or hangovers). Bogarde draws on this rather well, making Barrett the stronger of the two. If Pinter and Losey are showing you that the traditional master/servant relationship doesn’t really work in the conventional sense, they present us with the master/servant relationship according to their version of the world. And LoseyPinterworld is far more interesting; Barrett I believe is still the servant when the film ends, but in a world where the edges are peeled back to reveal corruption and insanity.
The Servant isn’t purely a vehicle for Bogarde, even though he is the best thing in it. James Fox is very well cast as Tony; I can’t think of anyone else who could have suited the role so snugly. Similarly, Wendy Craig and Sarah Miles complete the quartet of genius casting. Craig is perfect as the plain Susan, the young woman with whom Tony begins a chaste liaison. In a rare straight role before comedy stole her, Craig maintains the careful equilibrium of the film. Similarly, Miles is sensational as Vera, Hugo Barrett’s “sister”, who turns up out of the blue to give Tony his sexual awakening. In Pinter’s hands, the seduction scene is painfully stark and a voyeuristic pleasure. At least it was for me.
Losey’s direction is also worth a mention. The black and white photography, mostly in the claustrophobic interior of Tony’s house, is excellent. He makes subtle use of mirrors and cast shadows that lesser directors would only stumble over. If I have any criticism of this film then it is possibly the weird interlude where Fox and Craig visit a restaurant and we are allowed to eavesdrop on the other diners (who include Patrick Magee and Pinter himself). It’s an entertaining scene, although ultimately pointless in the scheme of the film.
The Servant is a difficult experience. It’s at times painful viewing, but it’s also an incredibly rich and powerful piece. Sometimes it’s worth being taken just the little bit further. And unlike many of its contemporaries, it hasn’t dated at all. And although Bogarde – especially in his own eyes – went on to even greater achievements, I think this is his finest role. Worth comparing with the other Pinter/Losey/Bogarde collaboration Accident and with Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell’s Performance, which showed another side to London depravity and just how far you could push James Fox before he went over the edge.