on 18 January 2004
I first saw this film quite by accident, switching on the television on a dismal sunday afternoon. I gather I missed the first half of the film but what I did see utterly ruined my day. The big, fat, weighty emotions on the screen litterally suffocated me, made me feel quite sick and all the time I knew there was something very powerful happening there: two people, marvelously acted, caught up in a web of ugly dependance, eating at each other, until only one is left, the other ultimately assimilated into an unhealthy symbiosis-subordination.
More recently, I had the chance of seeing "The Servant" on the big screen and my hopes were very highly set. I could at last see the whole of the film and understand what had lead to the situation I knew and expected.
My impressions were somewhat different this time. There is undoubtedly a difficult claustrophobic feel about the film, but there is also comedy - a dark, bleak and grotesque comedy - that makes this work all the more richer for the ambiguity it instores. One shifts between extremes, between the heaviness and unhealthiness of the interlocked lives of the protagonists, the staleness and decadence of the house, the perverse demonstration of strength throttling weakness, of the servant inversing roles and finally taking the upper hand against his master, who ends up crawling very low indeed; and on the other hand, the numerous comic dialogues, the very funny situations bred out of the master's ineptitudes to live independently...
The homosexual element is also of great (and grave) importance. It is constantly slipping about in undertones (one must not forget that homosexuality was not legal in Britain at the time), seeping in at the fringes and thriving at the very core of what is going on between the two characters.
Aesthetically, the film is perfect. The use of mirrors and inhabitual camera angles, the display of the house, the black-and-white media so well suited to the dark subject matter... All this combines to produce an impressive (if intimidating) whole that leaves you feeling quite unwell.
If you believe the role of movies is to entertain, this might not be a film for you; but if delving into the depths of human relationships (however horribly uncomfortable this may be) and leaving the film different for having seen it is what you expect from this form of high drama, then you simply must see "The Servant". But beware! You won't come out of it untouched.
on 24 March 2009
'The Servant' used to be shown on telly - a lot. It seemed to crop up just about every school holiday - on BBC2, where it was shown at a 'respectable' hour when young minds could not possibly be corrupted by it.
As I child, I loved it. I knew it virtually off by heart, without really understanding a word of it.
Thirty years later, and rather more grown up, I rejoiced at its release on dvd. Douglas Slocombe's stunning black and white photography looks infinitely finer than it ever looked on telly, and the nasty little world that Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter have created from Robin Maugham's novel is compelling viewing.
There are some magical moments of pure Pinter, both tragic and very amusing, and for my money this film is vastly superior to the rather tedious 'Accident'. The performances are remarkable, with the crown of course going to Dirk Borgarde, whose creepy Barratt manages to act everyone off the screen without upsetting the balance.
'The Servant' sums up an era, and the hard winter of 1963 is shown to great effect. The rain and snow over a bleak London are obviously the real thing - and every bit as chilly as the emotions of the characters portrayed.
This film is one for the collection. Enjoy (if that's the right word!)
The Servant is directed by Joseph Losey and adapted to screenplay by Harold Pinter from the novelette of the same name written by Robin Maugham. It stars Dirk Bogarde, Sarah Mles, Wendy Craig and James Fox. Music is by John Dankworth and cinematography by Douglas Slocombe.
When well-to-do Londoner Tony (Fox) hires Hugo Barrett (Bogarde) as his manservant, he gets more than he bargained for. Especially when Hugo's sister Vera (Miles) also arrives on the scene...
The Servant remains as enigmatic today as it was back on its release in the early part of the 1960s. It's a film that defies classification, that rare old cinematic treat that continues to cause debate about not only its worth as art, but also its very meaning(s). A head bothering delight that revels in toying with your perceptions as much as Hugo Barrett enjoys toying with his supposed master. Lets play master and servant - indeed.
Set predominantly in the confines of Tony's swanky Chelsea abode, there's a disturbing claustrophobia that pervades the narrative, and this before we even begin to ponder the power of man, his ability to dominate and manipulate, or the reverse side that sees another's lack of ability to not succumb to the downward spiral instigated by a supposed lesser man.
Sprinkled over power issues are sexual desires, obtained, unfulfilled or simmering away unspoken. As the literate screenplay comes out in sharp dialogue snatches, breaking free of Pinter's other wise cement ensconced writing, there's evidence that this is a psychological study as opposed to the class system allegory that many thought it was way back then. This really isn't about role reversal, the finale tells us that.
Visually it's a box of atmospheric tricks as well. Losey and Slocombe use deep angular black and white photography to enforce the chilly dynamics at work in the story, the longer the film goes on, as it gets to the nitty gritty, the more jarring the camera work becomes - delightfully so - the house no longer an affluent person's residence, but a skew-whiff place of debauchery and mind transference. And mirrors - reflections, important and used to great effect.
Some scenes are striking and rich. Hugo at the top of the stairs standing in the bedroom doorway, in silhouette, an overhead shot of Hugo and Tony playing a childlike ball game on the stairs, a sex scene on a leather chair that we don't see but understand totally. And many more as Losey finds the material that allows him to show his skills.
Cast performances are across the board terrific, particularly Bogarde who gives a visual acting master class, and Fox who beautifully shifts a gear from toff twit into dependant dead beat. While Dankworth's musical accompaniments add flavour to the unfolding machinations. 9/10
on 25 March 2015
Studio Canal Blu Ray version: THE FILM: This is one of the finest films ever committed to celluloid and deserving of this high quality restoration; Harold Pinter's screenplay, a reworking of an original short story, was written at the height of his powers, cleverly omitting enough from the narrative for the viewer to think and draw his own conclusions (the covert hints of homosexuality, the unspoken battle of who is really the master of the house, an observation of the class structure). The camerawork and lighting exemplify the finesse with which Douglas Slocombe executes his craft as the master - look at the rainy afternoon in the lounge scene and you'll see what I mean. This is one of those rare films that improves with age, capturing the atmosphere of 1960s Britain wonderfully. The off-beat humour injected by Patrick Magee as a bishop in the restaurant scene is pitched well. And notice Patrick's gritting of teeth as he swigs the last of his wine! A very fine film which I hope one day will be released in 4K. For those interested, Losey was taken ill during filming and Bogarde took over some of the direction, at times receiving instructions from Losey by telephone from his sick bed. When Losey returned he was unhappy with some of the direction and re-took certain scenes. Dirk mentions the tension between himself and the Director in an autobiography but adds that he always respected Joseph's professionalism. The pub sequence was actually filmed in a real pub in Fulham, although sadly it no longer exists as a pub. THE BLU RAY: Picture quality is excellent - clearly a lovingly restored project. There are also many interesting extras. Amazon has a serious data quality problem with their synopsies as they tend to use their same review on different presentations of the same material (eg a review of an unrestored DVD release seem to be used for restored BD release, etc - so buyers should conduct further research before buying). This BD presentation is unequivocally recommended.
on 28 January 2014
It tells you that a) "the only extra feature is the theatrical trailer", and that there's b) "No sign of remastering on either sound or vision"
I have this Studio Canal release. Fact: it has over 3 and a half hours of extras on it, including umpteen interviews and several documentaries. And it has been exhaustively remastered frame-by-frame, so that it bears not a speck of print damage or instability, and in all likelihood never looked this good in cinemas.
Of course, by the time Dirk Bogarde’s deceiving 'underling’, Barrett, is pleading his case to Wendy Craig’s schoolmarm-ish Susan, the pairing of director Joseph Losey and screenwriter Harold Pinter have already (in our minds) at least partially put paid to any archaic definition of social/class roles in their stunning 1963 cinematic collaboration. The Servant remains one of a handful of defining British films of the era that encapsulate the revolutionary effect that the new-found liberalism of the ‘swinging 60s’ would have on the arts and culture in the UK – the film’s innovative look and feel being heavily influenced by US-exile Losey’s European connections and delivered to the screen with much evocative and inventive cinematography courtesy of (ex-Ealing man) Douglas Slocombe, accompanied by John Dankworth’s alternately sultry and comedic, jazzy score.
Losey’s film is also an acting tour-de-force – Bogarde playing against type (and demonstrating great versatility) as the softly-spoken, subversive (but cultured) Lancastrian man-servant to the inexperienced (but highly impressive) James Fox’s self-confident, well-connected 'aristocrat’, Tony (albeit, as an ex-Harrow man, the role being something of a busman’s holiday for the aspiring actor). Equally, and perhaps surprisingly, impressive is Craig (yes, TV’s 'most respectable mother’!) as Tony’s open-minded, perceptive fiancée, whose hackles are raised as Barrett begins to (subtly) wrest influence over Tony from her. Losey’s film is also ground-breaking in its latent (and not-so-latent) sexual themes – Tony and Barrett’s early scenes being underpinned by hints of homo-eroticism ('I’m keeping an eye on them’) – whilst Barrett’s 'sister’ and coy seductress, Sarah Miles’ Vera’s, arrival on the scene, prompts things to boil over. Losey’s handling of, and Pinter’s dialogue for, the scenes between Barrett and Susan and those between Tony and Vera (the dripping tap) are particularly impressive, being brilliantly suffused with (respectively) tension and eroticism. Further mention should also be made of Slocombe’s work as integral to the film’s haunting, unnerving tone – great use of mirrors’ distorting effect on proceedings, as well as shadows, tilted frames and shots through glass.
Elsewhere, the film’s parodying of the British class system (a pet Pinter subject, of course) hits a high point during the brilliant 'cameo scene’ between Tony, Susan and Tony’s mother and father, Lord and Lady Mounset (respectively, Richard Vernon and Catherine Lacey), full of hilarious pretense and self-importance ('fascinating’). Indeed, the film’s depiction of this class-manners-taste theme calls to my mind, particularly during the claustrophobic scenes in Tony’s West London 'pad’, Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party, as well as hints of the cinema of Bunuel and Renoir. But, perhaps The Servant’s most direct comparator is Cammell and Roeg’s 'turn of the decade’ classic, 1970’s Performance – both films being set in 'trendy 60s’ West London, both being films of two halves, the second halves in each involving the breakdown of a defined British 'social system’ (Performance – gangland, The Servant – the aristocracy) into anarchic, drug-fuelled hippy liberalisation, and both films (oddly enough) featuring impressive ‘downfalls’ of a James Fox character.
The 2013 Studiocanal DVD also includes extensive interviews with James Fox, Wendy Craig, Sarah Miles, Pinter, Losey and Douglas Slocombe (audio only).
For me, The Servant represents the pinnacle of the highly fruitful collaborations between Losey and Pinter and is a key British film of the 60s (and indeed any era).
on 7 January 2013
A real treat. It is an arresting depiction both of the original novella and of aspects of 1960s London; decadence and challenges to the social order. The acting is tremendous. Tip: watch after the novella which is really excellent.
on 14 January 2012
Sixteenth feature film by American director Joseph Losey (1909-1984), an adaptation of a novel from 1948 by British novelist and playwright Robin Maugham (1916-1981), which was written by screenwriter and playwright Harold Pinter (1930-2008), tells the story about Tony, a young and wealthy man who hires a man named Hugo Barrett to work for him as a servant at his house in London. Even though his girlfriend Susan acts with pointed prejudice towards Tony`s newly hired servant and questions his character, Tony ignores this and continues his trusting friendship with the charming Hugo Barrett.
This brilliantly written and directed British production, a character-driven, dialog-driven and rigorously structured study of character which portrays a fierce power struggle between a man from the upper-class and a man from the working-class, is a tense, intriguing and dramatic chamber-piece and a poignantly atmospheric Film-noir from the early 1960s with a underlining jazzy score by English Jazz composer John Dankworth (1927-2010). The noticeable black-and-white cinematography by British cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, the sarcastic humor, the pivotal use of light, the quick-witted dialog and the stellar acting performances by James Fox as the shallow and gullible Tony, Dirk Bogarde as the dutiful and articulate Hugo Barrett, Sarah Miles as the enigmatic and seductive Vera and Wendy Craig as Tony`s loving and suspicious girlfriend Susan are crucial aspects which characterizes this interior thriller about the darkest sides of human nature.
This BAFTA Award-winning film from the British New Wave is an internal psychological drama with an efficient shifting pace and artful milieu depictions which provides a detailed examination of the British class system. An ardent, acute and captivating masterpiece from the director who was blacklisted by Hollywood during the McCarthy Era in the 1950s for supposedly having attachments with the Communist party and exiled to England where he made most of his films.
on 18 April 2016
Essential viewing, this film was a milestone in the fusion of film and theatre when it was made. Many other excellent reviews have praised the performances, several of which run against type (Bogarde and Wendy Craig), and the deliciously depressing sense of time and place but, for me, the achievement is in the way a sense of theatre is loaded on to the screen.
I should also mention that the art direction and photography contribute massively to the oppressive transformation of the house from tatty wreck to smart society house to doss house. There is a marvellously-shot sequence in which James Fox twists himself into and then out of a chair like some revolting serpent.
If there were six stars available, I should award them.
Cyril Connolly said of the British: "the greater part of the ruling class remains adolescent, school-minded, self-conscious, cowardly, sentimental, and in the last analysis homosexual." Joseph Losey was a shrewd enough observer of the British to see evidence of Connolly's observation.
There's a moment when Tony, (Edward Fox) says how much fun it is to be in Hugo's (Dirk Bogarde's) company, "it's like being back in the army." It's the closest any too characters get in the film (much closer than the men get to any of the women.)
The power play is exquisite, as is Bogarde's acting. It's a great allegory of the 1960s. Brilliant.