Very much a ‘film studies 101’ template in the UK, Joe Losey’s 1963 slice of Grand Guignol has maintained a critical reputation over the last forty years; restored as part of a meticulous BFI package in 2021, it’s one of the great iconic British films, although, for once, there’s not a shred of patriotism or jingoism to be found. Instead, class conflict is centre-stage, with Dirk Bogarde’s manservant Hugo Barrett tearing at the fabric of the establishment, but to what end? Harold Pinter’s script never quite explains why, but that’s very much part of the elliptical, puzzle-box approach here.
So let’s play master and servant. Brought to life from Robin Maugham’s story, the master is Tony, played by James Fox, introduced in the classic pose of the British establishment at rest, sleeping off a hang-over in his new, palatial Chelsea lodgings. Enter Barrett (Bogarde), a gentleman’s gentleman, and a willing manservant. ‘My soufflés have received a great deal of praise in the past,’ he demurs modestly as Tony checks out his CV. But there’s much more to Barrett than soufflés, he has hidden shallows. Barrett persuades Tony to allow his sister Vera (Sarah Miles) to move in, and Tony quickly falls for her gauche mannerisms and blatant sex appeal. But Vera isn’t actually Barrett’s sister, and a trap is being sprung, with only Tony’s girlfriend Susan Stewart (Wendy Craig) aware of the power-switch that’s happening behind closed doors.
‘Excuse me, sir,’ says Barrett in his opening line, but Barrett’s doesn’t want to be excused by Tony, he wants to replace him at the nexus of power that the younger, diffident man takes for granted. Not yet troubled by self-parody, Pinter has a variety of killer lines on tap; ‘I’ll lock up myself’ says Tony as he goes to bed, but the truth is that Tony is unlocking and expressing himself as never before as he enjoys carnal delights with Vera. Tony has an absurd job, planning cities to be built overseas, a project that will involve ‘clearing the jungle’; Losey and Pinter artfully draw the vanity of the establishment as vague, dangerous and pointless. By 1963, that establishment is collapsing, but what will replace it? Bogarde is quite astonishing as Barrett, switching accents, demeanour and physicality in split seconds, but always working a longer game that the naïve Tony is capable of imaging.
This new print, premiered at Edinburgh International Film Festival in 2021, offers a picture so sharp you could shave with it, or cut your wrists; you can see the steam coming off the car engines, the residue collecting at the bottom of brandy glasses, the light reflected off the diamonds in a necklace. And the shots of Tony walking home past a darkened Woolworths are impressively dank, an inverted negative. Pinter’s script ends with a gentlemanly version of the kind of psychedelic freak-out later seen in another, later James Fox film, Performance, and the manner in which the two men switch places still makes for a fascinating mood-piece. Even if it lays into now familiar Pinter-esque tropes (the childish game that suddenly becomes serious gets an early airing), The Servant is still pertinent in 2021, less as prophecy than as commentary, showing how the barbarians at the gate may be clothed in the trappings of respectability, but may still be barbarians nonetheless.
This double disk re-issue has an effusive 40 minute video essay with the always entertaining Matthew Sweet and Phuong Le praising ‘the demonic Dirk’, while commendable time has been taken to track down the well-preserved and articulate cast for their worthwhile memories of the production, including Wendy Craig, Sarah Miles and James Fox, interviewed here by Richard Ayoade. There’s also contemporary materials on Pinter and Losey, but a complete package, it could use a little more context of Losey’s work, and perhaps a comparison with Performance.
THE SERVANT opens in UK cinemas on September 10 and on 4K UHD Collector’s Edition Blu-Ray, DVD and Digital on September 20. Thanks to publicists Zoe Flower and Olivia Jarvis for early access and press materials.