Thursday, 4 August 2011

The Servant (1963)

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.

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The opening sequence of stark, leafless trees outlined against a cold English sky suggests the clinical austerity of 1960s Britain and hints at the cold manipulations that follow. The first shot of Barrett, leaving Thomas Crapper Sanitary Engineers (presumably his previous workplace), slyly insinuates the theme of the film as the 'flushing away' of the old order. His clipped appearance and punctuality tells us he means business, while the first shot of Tony (a 'businessman') finds him vulnerable, asleep in a chair.
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The drama revolves around issues of both class and gender, and the relationship between the two. While Barrett slowly insinuates himself in the house and manipulates his master by slyly rearranging the decor, it is through sex (in the shape of his alluring and sexually permissive 'sister', Vera (Sarah Miles)) that he finally brings about Tony's downfall. The calculating allure of Vera, in contrast to the stuffy, over-bred Susan (Wendy Craig), cuts through the class barriers and brings Tony down to the same level as his servant. Soon the boundaries between master and servant break down, as Tony succumbs to the will of his stronger adversary.
Belonging to an era of filmmaking which for the first time dealt explicitly with issues never before seen on screen, The Servant (in common with many of the contemporary British New Wave) is also artistically ambitious. Several scenes (particularly those between Tony, Barrett and Susan) are seen through the distortion of the big, round, convex mirror which sits on the living room wall, reflecting the unnatural, misformed relationships between the people in the room. Each shot is directed with precision, often framing Susan or Vera between Tony and Barrett, or positioning one of the two men close to the camera while his rival lingers in the background.


Published by


Volume 30,No.359,December 1963,page 169


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.

Look-In - Space 1999 (1975)

This edition of Look-In was printed back in September 1975 and carried terrific features and picture strips of all your ITV favourites. The Cover and articles below originate from Space 1999.
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Basil, a Branch and an Austin 1100!

The limited edition Corgi Austin 1100 Estate Fawlty Towers car was exclusively released by PBS stations in conjunction with the 30th anniversary of Fawlty Towers actually is the correct replica of the car Basil loved to hate.
These highly collectible cars are only available through PBS stations, and the set (pictured above) includes the car, Basil Fawlty figurine, complete with branch, and a numbered Certificate of Authenticity.