Criterion Prediction #53: The Servant, by Alexander Miller
Title: The Servant
Director: Joseph Losey
Cast: James Fox, Dirk Bogarde, Sarah Miles, Wendy Craig, Patrick Magee
Synopsis: Smarmy aristocrat Tony (Fox) hires the seemingly meek Hugo Barrett (Bogarde) as his live-in servant. Initially, Tony is impressed with Hugo’s old-fashioned manners and the two seem like a compatible pair who conform to their social roles. Matters become complicated when Tony’s girlfriend Susan (Craig) finds his Barrett to be invasive and appalling. What seems like a psychological power play only proves to be a preamble for all out war when Barrett invites his sister to move in as a supplementary maidservant.
Critique: Some of the best movies are the ones you can’t put a label on. The Servant could be categorized as a psychological thriller, a horror film, or a very unlikely romance, but the best way to ingest this warped treatise of identity and tradition is with no preconception for what’s to come.
Fox and Bogarde are perfectly cast against each other, and the evolving psychological warfare they wage on one another is unnervingly realized by Losey’s slick, methodical direction, who’s at his best with a solid foundation of collaborators. The first of three scripts Harold Pinter wrote for the director, The Servant has the essence of a stage play (not to its detriment), and the writer’s absurdist tendencies are revealed intermittently. The film might appear humorless, but the wry deconstruction of masculinity and sexuality is engrossing and disarmingly funny – a mock tennis match on a staircase between Tony and Barrett is particularly memorable.
Women play an interesting part in the proceedings; Tony’s girlfriend Susan, whose disdain for Barrett stems more from premonition, not personal feelings. We know the ominous titular character is up to no good, but someone in the film needs to serve as a warning. Whereas Vera (Miles) is instrumental in a very literal sense from the characters and viewers perspective; it feels like the women in this film were written to be intentionally expository.
This is a heady steamroller of psychological cross-contamination that dissolves identity with classism, and customs with not-so-subtle overtones to sexual orientation. The cagey interior of Tony’s flat becomes a sentient representation of his ascension and eventual ruin; a disheveled canvas at the beginning, a proper looking home when Tony and Barrett seem to be an ideal pair. But when Barrett’s dangerous agenda reveals itself with the presence of his “sister”, the film echoes German expressionism. Douglas Slocombe’s cinematography is stirring, like a film noir that emphasizes psychological violence over physical. The Servant is an icy vivisection of, well almost everything? Classism and social conventions are at the forefront. Tony, played to perfection by Fox, is a demanding socialite, less a tyrant and more of a high-maintenance brat. Barrett is initially a representative of the old guard – taciturn and reserved, something Tony wishes he could be. There’s not much subtlety in the visuals (mirrors, paintings, and images suggesting imprisonment are prominently featured) and they are rich enough to provide something new to discover upon repeated viewings, dense, methodical veering on pretentious but the deliberate pace is consistently rewarding.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: To be completely honest, it surprises me that The Servant isn’t in the collection already. I can see The Servant right alongside The Innocents, This Sporting Life, If…, and the movies featured in the fantastic Eclipse Collection Basil Dearden’s London Underground. Losey, a terrific director who’s long overdue for the Criterion treatment, and his career is a story in itself, and The Servant is one of his best films.