Canon Entry - The Servant (1963)
Inspired by the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die, Edgar Wright’s 1000 favorite films and other lists, I am striving to come up with my own personal canon of films.
Art that explores the disparity between the very rich and privileged and everyone else exists in all culture, but other than American and Korean culture, I have been fascinated by just how pronounced this disparity is in British culture, a country with one of the most influential monarchies in world history and for a long time, the most powerful force of imperialism in the world. In America, there has been much discussion and conflict over the one percent and the lopsided distribution of wealth since time immemorial, but time immemorial in American terms is maybe 300 years. In Britain, it’s more than three times that.
It is this despair over any sort of meaningful advancement (economic, social, or otherwise) that is at the heart of Joseph Losey’s The Servant. Tony (James Fox) is wealthy young Londoner (possibly old money since we never see him do a lick of work) who hires a new manservant Hugo Barrett (Dirk Bogarde) to attend to his privileged life. At first, Barrett is the paragon of professionalism and servile propriety, but Barrett’s facade starts to crack slowly as he starts slowly neglecting his duties and then the arrival of Vera, whom he pretends is his sister rather than his lover, is a catalyst for the breakdown between traditional class and behavioral boundaries
Joseph Losey was an American with a strong leftist bent and would join the Communist party in 1946. He was long a target of the House Un-American Activities Committee and would lose nearly all his Hollywood connections because of his beliefs. It is not at all surprising that he would make a film that could be described as Marxist in terms of its themes as well as the interpretive lens that Losey chose to see this film.
Yet this film is not just some political screed in which characters are merely stand-ins for big, nebulous ideas about economic injustices. The easiest comparison to make is to Bunuel, who would make some of the greatest films about class conflict ever. Yet Bunuel is also a deeply idiosyncratic director, who often indulges in the surreal and humor that can be quite cerebral to unapologetically scatolgical, often in the same joke.
Losey does not necessarily lack a sense of humor, but his movie is an intense personal drama engraved in obsidian. This is a movie in which not a hair is out of place, even as there is no conventional plot that you can tick boxes off. The Black and White photography by Douglas Slocombe, best known for the Indiana Jones movies - perhaps the polar opposites to this movie, is so striking that when I think about the British New Wave, I think mainly of images from this film, even though Losey wasn’t technically part of this movement. Slocombe and Losey were able to accomplish so much just by lighting a face properly, whether it’s the towheaded blankness of Fox’s Tony or the dark, sunken features of Barrett. The images border on mythic, since we can get so much of the story visually. Another movie I can think of where black and white lighting is used this way would be obviously The Night of the Hunter, but I also see Bunny Lake is Missing, which comes out after this film and is lit so dramatically to emphasize a character’s mental instability that it’s almost comical.
This film is so striking visually that it could have worked as a silent film with some strategically placed intertitles, but then there is the dialogue by Harold Pinter, the king of loaded language. I am not particularly well-versed in Pinter’s work, but from what I have seen, every line he writes is sharpened by deep psychological motivations. Even at the beginning, when Barrett is the picture of civility and professionalism, he is also extremely guarded. Barrett speaks in highly efficient language, all meant to ingratiate himself with Tony without seeming too desperate or overeager. I don’t know if I was reading this motivation into Barrett when rewatching this film, but all I could think about was how tightly wound he was and that his very inoffensiveness made him such a threatening presence.
Perhaps this is what Susan, Tony’s girlfriend responds to since she immediately dislikes Barrett, even at the beginning when he has done nothing wrong. The original novel apparently characterized Barrett in tones that could be construed of as anti-Semitic, which I am glad this film did away with because so often, rich, privileged people do not justify their inherent contempt for people lower than them, mainly because they don’t need to. This delicious ambiguity also pays off as we start to see Barrett’s and Tony’s roles reverse, seemingly because of Tony’s dalliance with Vera. Here, Tony is not at fault strictly speaking since both Barrett and Vera pretended to be siblings. Yet what unfolds seems to come from far more than the aftermath of an illicit affair.
I cannot say entirely for certain why the two men seem to slip into a reversal of their roles. There are definitely signs of an unhealthy codependent relationship with Tony literally not being able to take care of himself either physically or mentally. Barrett’s own pretensions of social elevation and grandeur seem crass and somewhat pathetic. There are a lot of ways to read this relationship and this film overall, but I think this film works best when you are trying to figure out the individual puzzle pieces of this disjointed yet powerful piece of borderline surreal art. Losey and his team have made something both extremely specific to a culture and an attitude and intensely relatable if you have been in a toxic relationship in which you were an equal partner in that toxicity. Yet it is not as nihilistic as it could be, since the characters are still intensely human and flawed, which means there is always room for redemption, which this film does not necessarily offer but doesn’t necessarily preclude.