The Servant (Joseph Losey, 1963)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents The Servant.

criterion logoBritish class distinctions are abused and upended in Joseph Losey’s adaptation of Robin Maugham’s 1963 short novella, where Tony (James Fox), a rich, ineffectual Oxford bachelor, is gradually debased by the insidious influence of his newly hired manservant, Hugo Barrett (Dirk Bogarde).  Despite the suspicions of Tony’s girlfriend Susan (Wendy Craig) and her opposition Hugo’s constant presence, Tony’s servant ingratiates himself to his naïve employer and becomes an indispensable facet of Tony’s lifestyle, all while slowly subjugating his employer through subtle manipulation.  This superb, shadowy study of brooding decadence and corruption features the claustrophic cinematography of Douglas Slocombe, the uneasy jazz score of John Dankworth, and marks the first of three cinematic collaborations between Losey and celebrated playwright and screenwriter Harold Pinter.

Disc Features:

  • New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • Introduction by experimental electronic musicians Matmos
  • Interview with actor James Fox by actor-director Richard Ayoade
  • Interviews with actors Wendy Craig and Sarah Miles, producer-director Stephen Woolley, Pinter-associate Harry Burton, and Dirk Bogarde biographer John Coldstream
  • New interview with scholar Amy Sargeant on the design and context of The Servant
  • Audio interview with cinematographer Douglas Slocombe
  • Interview of screenwriter Harold Pinter from the 1965 British television show Tempo
  • Archival interview with Joseph Losey on The Servant
  • Excepts from the 1963 television show Camera Three featuring Losey, filmmaker Adolfas Mekas, New York Film Festival director Amos Vogel, and festival organizer Richard Roud
  • Stills gallery
  • Theatrical trailer
  • PLUS: Booklet with essay by Peter Bradshaw and the 1948 novella by Robin Maugham

Michael Koresky’s liner notes on Basil Dearden’s Victim (1961) focuses primarily on the cultural and sociopolitical space that contained the film’s treatment of homosexuality and the differing receptions of the movie in the UK and the USA.  Generally left out of the discussion is the significance of its star Dirk Bogarde, an established matinee idol in the 1950s and a closeted gay man himself, who sought to change his image with a series of challenging art house roles that started with Victim and was followed shortly thereafter with The Servant (Joseph Losey, 1963).  Adapted from Robin Maugham’s 1948 novella, screenwriter Harold Pinter and director Joseph Losey took the British New Wave’s angry, gritty, kitchen sink dramas into upper class interiors and fashioned its own psychosexual indictment of the class system.  There, a posh, two-storey townhouse becomes a quicksand trap of decadence and manipulation as an obsequious manservant manipulates a young Londoner into utter dependence.

The Servant PosterOn a bleak autumn day, Hugo Barrett (Dirk Bogarde) sidles into a recently sold townhouse, perusing the worn-out residence until discovering its purchaser, affluent young man Tony (James Fox), sleeping/passed out while waiting for their meeting.  Tony, satisfied with himself and the sense of importance that comes with having an in-house manservant, hires Hugo to oversee his home’s renovation and anticipate his every need, however Tony’s girlfriend, Susan (Wendy Craig), takes an immediate dislike to Hugo’s skulking presence in Tony’s home.  The titular servant may look like “a fish with red lips” but he proves a master at insinuating himself between Tony and Susan, going so far as to bring in his “sister” Vera (Sarah Miles) to clean, then pressing her into the arms of their naïvely willing employer.  Barrett’s games and Tony’s liberties come to a head when Tony and Susan return home early from vacation and discover Vera and Hugo in bed together.  Tony’s disgust with the apparent incest is quickly replaced with humiliation when the familial relationship is disclosed to be fraud and Tony’s liaisons with Vera are revealed to Susan.

The Servant Mirror and CannonThe Servant is often thought of as a test of wills between the frivolously aristocratic Tony (whose next venture is the construction of multiple cities in the Amazon aimed at housing South Asians having “a tough time of it” in their own countries) and the schemingly influential Hugo, but Tony is less a contestant and more the battlefield or the prize between Barrett and Susan.  Hugo’s distorting influence on the master-servant relationship is only made explicit on Susan’s first arrival, when the film introduces the warped image of Tony’s domestic space reflected in the convex mirror located on the main floor.  This fish-eyed view become a recurring perspective throughout the film, literalizing the twisted reality within the confined space of the townhouse.  And when Tony’s indiscretions with Vera are revealed in front of Susan, the decorative cannon that rests beneath the mirror finds itself directed towards Susan, not Tony, as the blow is truly struck against her.  In this moment, The Servant actually points a gun at her head, demanding that she decide how to respond to Hugo’s power play, forcing her to decide whether she will stand by her boyfriend or whether she will surrender him to machinations of Barrett.  Ultimately Hugo and Vera are exiled from Tony’s home and his employment, but Susan also takes her leave of the young man as well.

An unplanned meeting in a pub between Tony and Barrett leads to Hugo’s return to the townhouse, but the gap between employer and employee closes significantly, with Barrett’s refined clothing and Italian gloves replaced with casual dress and passive aggressive squabbling.  Hugo’s uses Tony’s insecurity to enable his alcohol abuse, leading to the film’s surreal conclusion where Susan returns to find Tony near catatonic and Barrett acting as ringmaster to a decadent sideshow of boredom and fallen women.  The Servant has become known for its homosexual subtext, with Hugo’s talent for home decor and Continental cuisine subtly tipping its hand.  Watching Tony constantly size up Hugo in the early portions of the film, grinning while he’s “waiting for it [a lager],” it’s easy to discern, but Losey’s film presents this sublimated reality as a mechanism for the young man’s ruination.  As Charles Reece observes, “[I]t’s not really a gay film.  But the depravity of the heterosexual relations is rendered even less ambiguously.”

The Servant ShadowsLosey offers a depiction of corruption in the film and Bogarde’s assessment of Fox as a television actor is notable, observing “a muted quality of corruptibility.  This young man could spoil like peaches: he could be led to the abyss.”  As Dan Callahan notes, “[Barrett] wants to have him [Tony].  Sexually?  Most likely.  But mainly he just wants to be his wife, a goal he achieves rather quickly.”  Barrett attains through Tony a more materially indulgent lifestyle than is otherwise available to him, and he secures it not by rejecting the British hierarchies, but by exploiting them.  Tom Sutpen notes:

Though Barrett has laid waste to Tony’s will more thoroughly than if he’d murdered him, he’s still the man’s servant.  He continues to cook the meals, fix the drinks, answer the doorbell, lock up at night.  He has attained an enduring power over Tony, and can indulge himself with the impunity of a Tiberius.  But it is a limited power.  A power achieved only by performing his duties, by pleasing his employer.

Hugo’s success is found in pleasing his master too well.  It comes by teaching Tony to rely on his servant completely and infantalizing himself beyond all hope.  The young man jokingly calls his manservant a nanny in an early scene, but Tony does become childlike by The Servant‘s conclusion, being fed and entertained, and then left to sleep it off while the adults enjoy themselves.  The shadows cast from stair railing seems to refer as much to a child’s playpen as it does to a prison.

The Servant proved a commercial and critical success in the UK, nominated in all major BAFTA categories and winning for the performances of Fox and Bogarde and the oppressive chiaroscuro cinematography of Douglas Slocombe.  Slocombe uses of deep focus in the extreme foreground and background to convey the same warped reality as that described in the townhouse’s various decorative mirrors and uses spreading shadows within the domestic space to suggest a moral blight that leaves the film and the residence in near total darkness by its last sequence.  On a larger scale, The Servant portrays the death of an empire that seems both deserved in its arrogance and tragic in its moral vacuum.  Losey’s film was released while British audiences observed the scandal of the Profumo affair and, later, the ousting of the unpopular Conservative government (only to then return to the polls just 2 years later when the minority Labour government proved ineffectual).  Losey’s blacklisting from Hollywood in the 1950s landed him in a culture of upheaval and dissatisfaction, perhaps saving him as an artist.  As Losey commented in a 1983 interview, “Without it [the blacklist] I would have three Cadillacs, two swimming pools, millions of dollars, and I’d be dead.  It was terrifying, it was disgusting, but you can get trapped by money and complacency.  A good shaking up never did anyone any harm.”  Losey’s career was mixed bag thereafter, but his greatest successes would come in further collaborations with Harold Pinter, following up their work on The Servant with Accident (1967) and The Go-Between (1971).

Santiago Caruso Portrait of CrimeA Criterion edition of The Servant may be somewhat fanciful given that StudioCanal holds its rights, but the Collection has had some success in maintaining and adding some StudioCanal titles to its library, and with StudioCanal doing nothing with the title in North America, we hope than an opportunity might exist.  With regard to a cover treatment, The Servant is very much the type of film that lends itself to simply grabbing a screenshot and producing a winning hard media package.  The yin of Bogarde’s slithery appearance and the yang of Fox’s fair youth would also lend themselves well to caricature and that approach would likely produce a great cover treatment.  We’ll go in a different direction and recommend Argentine artist Santiago Caruso and his heavily symbolic approach for a Criterion commission.  This surreal illustrator’s work hearkens back to earlier periods than 1960s London, but Criterion has something of a knack for working against type and looking at Caruso’s Portrait of Crime, we’re confident something unusual and utterly captivating could be produced for Losey’s chilling film.

Credits:  The back cover summary is developed from summaries taken from 3 or 4 previous hard media releases of Losey’s film.  Most of the special features are included on StudioCanal’s Region B Blu-ray, to which we’ve added the original novella, the introduction by Matmos (who introduced the film in 2011 at the IFC Center), and a piece by Amy Sargeant, author of the BFI monograph on The Servant.  We highly recommend Sargeant’s book, particularly for her insight on the costuming and set design of the film which she ably interrogates.

In addition to Sargeant’s monograph, this post owes debts to the Alt Screen overview of The Servant, Nick James’ article for Sight & Sound on Losey and Pinter, Matthew Connolly’s review for Slant Magazine, Charles Silver’s short article for the MoMA, the Celluloid Liberiation Front’s “Dirty Secrets” for New Statesman, Tom Sutpen’s “Class Dismissed: Revisiting Losey and Pinter’s Misunderstood Masterpiece, The Servant” for Bright Lights Film Journal, Dan Callahan’s profile of Losey at Senses of Cinema, Charles Reece’s “The Master Waits while the Servant Baits: The Servant (1963)” for Amoeba Music, and Peter Bradshaw’s “The Servant: a 60s masterwork that hides its homosexuality in the shadows” for The Guardian.

6 thoughts on “The Servant (Joseph Losey, 1963)

  1. realthog April 20, 2016 / 2:57 am

    It’s a great movie based on a pretty damn’ fine novella, and this sounds like a splendid edition of it from Criterion (and your review’s admirable — thanks!).

    Editorial nitpicker picks nits: It’s Robin, not Robert, Maugham.

    • spinenumbered April 20, 2016 / 3:33 am

      Whoops! Typo in the opening summary (but right everywhere else)! Thanks for the catch.

      And no Criterion edition yet, but we can hope!

      • realthog April 20, 2016 / 3:41 am

        Oh! I misread — I now see my error.

  2. B Noir Detour March 27, 2018 / 10:22 pm

    Your review and commentary are insightful and delightful.

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