Adapted from a short story by Robin Maugham, The Servant (1963) was the first of three collaborations between Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter. It was followed by two further quintessentially English films Accident(1967) and The Go-Between (1971).
The Servant is a savage indictment of the English class system, and its waning hold over all aspects of the working and cultural life of Britain. Set almost entirely within the smart new townhouse of foppish aristocrat Tony (James Fox), the film plays out the struggle for power and dominance ignited by his duplicitous manservant Barrett - an energetic and genuinely ominous Dirk Bogarde.
MONTHLY FILM BULLETIN
THE BRITISH FILM INSTITUTE
Volume 30,No.359,December 1963,page 169
SERVANT, THE (1963)
Tony, a rich young man engaged to Susan, takes on a manservant, Barrett. Barrett seizes the opportunity to make Tony's Georgian ruin of a home as elegant inside as out. He becomes indispensable, running not only the house but his spineless employer. Meanwhile Susan's instinctive antagonism to him flares into open war. Barrett deals with the threat by moving in his girl-friend, Vera, as a temporary maid, and passing her off as his sister. Tony is seduced by her. When the truth comes out, Susan leaves, and Tony dismisses Barrett and Vera. The house, and Tony, rapidly deteriorate, so that a "chance" meeting between ex-servant and master in a pub leads quite smoothly to Barrett's reinstatement. But the relationship undergoes a subtle and rapid switch, with Barrett in deliberate and destructive command of a corruptible employer, Susan defeated, Vera hovering in the background, and drugs and orgies a nightly commonplace.
Though by no means perfect, The Servant is Joseph Losey's most impressive film since The Prowler. Significantly, it has the same concentration and economy (Reginald Mills's editing is smoothly elliptical), much the same themes of power, corruption and personality change. Set mostly in a London Georgian house, it is an ambitiously planned comédie noire about class and sex, written by Harold Pinter from a standpoint reminiscent of, though more detached than, Hugh Walpole at his most satanic. The relationship between servant and master, and the double threat of fiancée and maid, occupy the first half, with some brilliantly tart asides involving two aristocratic fossils (Catherine Lacey and Richard Vernon) and the various odd customers, including a bloody-minded Bishop, in an expensive restaurant. Then stealthily, if not always so effectively, the narrative takes on a Faustian dimension. Awkwardly staged seduction and confrontation lead on to sinister farce, with the two men playing hide-and-seek and smashing the staircase ornaments, then to a bloodless orgy rather too unconvincing, too abrupt and posed, to support the atmosphere of a Black Mass which one suspects is being intimated.
One can appreciate what Pinter intends and applaud a great deal of Losey's execution. The writing confirms Pinter as a vivid stylist with a flair for tensely ambiguous dialogue ("I've been keeping an eye on the workmen", Barrett assures Tony; "Have you?" Tony replies, with an air of loaded interest). Losey, for his part, reveals a command of rhythm, visual description and actors which he has never before equalled. Dirk Bogarde gives the performance of his career as the equivocal, catlike Barrett, and James Fox is perfect as the vulnerable golden boy sapped by inbred fatuity. By comparison the two girls are faintly unbelievable (though Wendy Craig is excellent), partly because they have an unjustly large part to play in bridging the gap between the film's two halves.
What is missing, in fact, is the cohesive control, the sure-footed development, of Walpole's multi-layer explorations into sadomasochism together with the more metaphysical elements of satanic destruction. It is perfectly credible that Tony should be reduced to a puppet; less credible when a whole roomful of orgiasts file out sheeplike through the door at Barrett's cursory order. And there are one or two other examples of the higher silliness. One senses a certain arbitrary schematism about the denouement which gives The Servant the air more of artifice than organic growth. Even so, it remains consistently gripping in its imagination and overall tact, and there is less evidence of straining after a tour de force than Losey has ever shown before.
The Monthly Film Bulletin was published by the British Film Institute between 1934 and 1991. Initially aimed at distributors and exhibitors as well as filmgoers, it carried reviews and details of all UK film releases. In 1991, the Bulletin was absorbed by Sight and Sound magazine.