Joseph Losey & Harold Pinter's The Servant The 50th Anniversary re-release Review

Wednesday, April 03, 2013 Craig Grobler 0 Comments

Joseph Losey & Harold Pinter's The Servant Review
Joseph Losey & Harold Pinter's The Servant Review

Daniel Craig & Rachel Weisz may be playing an onstage couple in a Broadway production of Harold Pinter's Betrayal shortly but 50 years ago he adapted Robin Maugham's The Servant with Joseph Losey to break new ground in British cinema. To be honest, this review may have read slightly differently had I not watched the upcoming re-release of Joseph Losey Harold Pinter's Accident shortly after The Servant and gained some further insight into Losey's works - when collaborating with Harold Pinter, Joseph Losey shines, the man is an artist.

I am not overly familiar with Joseph Losey's works apart from, of course, the brilliance of The Servant which I chased down early, being an aficionado of Dirk Bogarde's acting. I have always held his performance as the homme fatale and the eponymous servant Barrett in high esteem along with some of his other brave performances in films like; Death in Venice and The Night Porter, roles with depth that he took on after shaking off his mainstream matinee idol image he gained with his previous crowd-pleasing films and his performance in The Servant is one of his finest. My understanding is that Losey's partnership with Harold Pinter gave birth to Losey taking creative control of his works and creating some of the best films of his career and The Servant is the first of them.

1963 The Servant Poster
1963 The Servant Poster

There is so much ambiguity; both in interpreting and weaved into Losey's The Servant that we may never fully decode its secrets, or at least possibly until the 50th Anniversary release Blu-ray which may offer up some insight. But when discussed, two common themes are always brought to the fore; hidden homosexuality and class war - but for me, The Servant was always a hauntingly dark tale of greed underpinned by a psychological war of personality.

One of the characters Tony (James Fox) has the power and whilst enjoying the benefits of it, doesn't really care much for it beyond his existence - whilst the other Barrett (Dirk Bogarde) has never had it and would do anything to gain it. This theme is similarly explored in another of my other favourite films - Performance by Donald Cammell and the great Nicolas Roeg made almost a decade later. Ironically or synchronistically the Performance plays out in a similar setting, just 3 miles away from Tony's pad in Chelsea, but with some role reversal as Mick Jagger plays Turner, a rock god whilst this time James Fox is Chas the criminal on the run ensconced in Turners home and life.

    Video: THE SERVANT (1963) | 4K Restoration | Official Trailer | Dir. by Joseph Losey               

The story at the heart of The Servant is delivered through the dramatic battle of wills that starts when a privileged young property developer, brilliantly played by James Fox in his first starring role, on the cusp of great things, as he starts out on his own in London, having just bought a pad off King's Road in Chelsea, has a huge property deal in Brazil in the making and his sweetheart Susan (Wendy Craig) by his side. To complement his aspirational lifestyle he needs the must-have item to complete any upwardly mobile gentlemen's kit - a manservant.

The Servant Dirk Bogarde James Fox mirror reflection
The Servant Dirk Bogarde polishing James Fox's vanity

Enter Dirk Bogarde's Barrett - The Servant. From the sweeping two and a half minute single take Establishing Shot of the film, Losey lets us know that The Servant is full of subtext beneath its facade. As he opens on a long shot of The Royal Hospital Chelsea, an institution and centuries-old symbol of Britain's commitment to look after its own - its servicemen. The camera tilts upwards and pans skyward towards King's Road ending squarely on the shop of Thomas Crapper, Sanitary Engineer and the entrance of Barrett. Like the many plays with optical tools, like a mirror and crystal ball, used in The Servant to draw attention and echo that the leads have very different perspectives, worldviews and see things vastly different from their stations in life even though they are looking at the same things, Losey has in one long shot shown us two opposites, almost mirror inversions of each other, as The Servant's take on commitment and service is somewhat different.

The Servant Dirk Bogarde watches over a sleeping James Fox
The Servant Dirk Bogarde watches over a sleeping James Fox

This continues as we follow Barrett to his interview with Tony, only, after no answer he casually lets himself into Tony's home and ends up watching over the sleeping aristocrat like a cat watching an unsuspecting pigeon or goldfish, possibly  a stark warning of things to come - but this is almost immediately offset by Barrett's intelligent diplomacy and almost vulnerable demeanour. Eventually Barrett maneuvers himself into Tony's life and everything else out of it, to make way for his agenda. Almost set entirely in Tony's pad in Chelsea, the world outside gets smaller and smaller until eventually even Tony's sanctum starts getting darker and closing in on him.

The Servant James Fox & Sarah Miles fireside seduction
The Servant James Fox & Sarah Miles fireside seduction

The metaphors are not only visual and audio plays a part throughout the film, not only the soundtrack but the sound design, most noticeably the dripping tap during Tony and Vera's seduction scene, the tap drips till nothing else is important and like an itch that needs scratching that tap must be turned off.

But an even more vital clue comes later when Tony is relaxing on the sofa, struggling with a crossword puzzle  he interrupts a harried Barrett [who is trying to clean and launches into complaining about the mess - a delightful scene showing that their relationship has progressed to something akin to an old married couple] for his advice on a clue he can't solve:

Waxed, so it can wane, 5 letters”

We never found out the answer but the cryptic clue itself gives away much about the transient nature of change. Additionally, there are many easier clues that would have sufficed for anyone who cared to answer the question. For 4 letters the Moon or tide what have worked so why such a tough clue? Could the answer be deeper and more relevant to the themes of The Servant? P O W E R (5 letters).

Of course, there is merit in framing The Servant with a class war - this is a theme that would have been topical for the period, this was after all the beginning of the 60s when Britain as indeed the world's social and class structures were being questioned and challenged. Additionally, Joseph Losey had fled his native America after refusing to adhere to the Mccarthy era witch hunts and was known for his liberal stance that he would vehemently defend. The lead characters of The Servant are from different classes and these opposing views and perspectives would feed, drive and motivate the characters.

The Servant Harold Pinter cameos alongside Ann Firbank
The Servant Harold Pinter cameos alongside Ann Firbank

Homosexuality was still a criminal offence at the time and a subject close to Pinter's heart so this is less obliquely alluded to in the film and even then may only be part of Barrett's machiavellian machinations to strengthen the bond between the two. If you notice the paintings on the wall reflected in the mirrors later on in the film it, presumably part of Barrett's redecorating they certainly leads to the conclusion that Tony has hidden depths, more than likely moulding and shaping his character and how he falls victim to Dirk Bogarde's predatory Servant.

Tony has the power and whilst enjoying the benefits of it doesn't really care much for it beyond that, whilst Barrett has never had it and would do anything to gain it. What follows is a chilling cat and (unaware) mouse tale as the balance of power between the two shifts. Told in look and feel as much as in performances and we are left wondering how far can a man fall? And what dark lengths would man go to reach his goal? This is a technique Losey refined and masterfully employs to full effect in a less extreme atmosphere in  his second collaboration with Pinter - Accident.

The Servant Dirk Bogarde & Wendy Craig
The Servant Dirk Bogarde & Wendy Craig

The Servant was the first of a series of films on which Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter collaborated on, not only generally accepted as one of the greatest creative partnerships within British film but their collaboration also heralded in a new era of Art in British film. The Servant confounded audiences before becoming a huge critical and commercial success, as it left behind traditional British filmmaking rules and brought a fresh artistic style in, more in line with the European renaissance that film was enjoying, through the great French and Italian filmmakers of the time.

The Servant James Fox as Tony & Sarah Miles as Vera
The Servant James Fox as Tony & Sarah Miles as Vera

One of the strengths of the Losey / Pinter partnership that The Servant and Accident benefits from greatly is that Losey is a master of visual storytelling and even though it is still in its infancy it holds up to today's standards, a lot of what is happening under the surface of the story is told through the look, lighting, shadows and screen composition - Losey's vision enhanced with the help of master cameraman and The Servant's Director of Photography - Douglas Slocombe combined with Harold Pinter's mastery of words and delivery, creates a powerfully immersive auditory and visual experience whilst the mind is engaged with the ample hidden undercurrent to the seemingly ordinary. Sound is also used to great effect and should get its own star on the mind eng walk of fame. This all left me wondering why more comparisons had not been drawn between Losey and Stanley Kubrick's filmmaking style?

The Servant James Fox in the Queen's Elm Pub, 241 Fulham Road
The Servant James Fox in the Queen's Elm Pub, 241 Fulham Road

Steeped in subtext and symbolism in every aspect of the film from delivery of great performances from its cast through to sound and visual composition The Servant is both experimental and a masterclass in creating atmosphere, storytelling through its subtext and maintaining its sometimes less than subtle dark undercurrent throughout.

Sadly the DVD version of The Servant I watched was intended for review before the restored film big-screen release in March so the features I had access to - Film Analysis By Ian Christie, Theatrical Trailer, Filmographies and Photo Gallery, although interesting, particularly Ian Christie's discussion -were light in comparison to the extras that will be available on the upcoming DVD & Blu-ray re-release of The Servant, something that I feel would be rather engaging given the compelling insight in the extras on the Accident DVD that I have seen.

Marking the start of what became one of the most potent creative partnerships of British 1960s cinema, Losey and acclaimed playwright-turned-screenwriter Harold Pinter united to create a disturbing tale of seduction, sexual and social tension and psychological control.

The Servant is a stunning dissection of two men, the idle, wealthy young bachelor Tony (James Fox, Performance, The Remains Of The Day) and his new servant Barrett (Dirk Bogarde, Accident, Death In Venice).

Pinter’s razor sharp script unravels the ups and downs of class warfare and sexual games, as the two men play a constant tug of war for power. Recently returned from Africa, Tony recruits Barrett, a ‘gentlemen’s gentlemen’, to get his life in order. Barrett initially seems like a paragon of domestic virtue, and they settle comfortably and closely into their roles as master and servant. Only Tony’s perceptive bride-to-be Susan (Wendy Craig), increasingly threatened by the control Barrett is imposing on her fiancées life, starts to suspect something is amiss and makes her loathing of the manservant increasingly clear.

When Barrett introduces his supposed "sister" Vera (Sarah Miles, Blow-Up, Hope And Glory) into the house as maid, the psychodrama escalates as Vera, with Barrett’s encouragement, soon insinuates herself into Tony's bed. Are the pair working together to play upon Tony's vulnerabilities, whether for fun or profit? As their perverse psychological grip on Tony tightens, the power dynamic between Tony and Barrett dramatically switches and in their increasingly mutually dependent, often erotically-charged relationship, Tony becomes the eager-to-please lackey and Barrett starts to hold the reins of power.

The Servant 50th Anniversary Out on DVD & Blu-ray April 8th, 2013 

Directed by Joseph Losey
Screenplay by Harold Pinter adapted from the novel by Robin Maugham
Starring Dirk Bogarde, Sarah Miles, Wendy Craig & James Fox

The Home Entertainment DVD release April 8th will feature specially created new extras including award winning director Richard Ayoade (Submarine) interviewing James Fox and new interviews with Wendy Craig and Sarah Miles. In addition a blu-ray release will come in the form of a STUDIOCANAL COLLECTION series disc with the accompanying exclusive packaging, and exclusively created booklet and further unique featurettes including an interview with Stephen Wooley, archive interview footage and others with film experts and biographers to create an ultimate ‘cinephile’ edition for the collector.

DVD Extras: 
James Fox interviewed by Richard Ayoade
Interview with Wendy Craig
Interview with Sarah Miles
Audio interview with Douglas Slocombe (Director of photography)
Harold Pinter Tempo interview
Joseph Losey talks about The Servant
Stills gallery

Blu-ray Extras: 
All DVD extras above plus
Interview with Stephen Wooley (fan of the film)
Harry Burton (Pinter expert) on Harold Pinter
Joseph Losey and Adolfas Mekas at the New York film festival
John Coldstream (Bogarde biographer) on Dirk Bogarde

The Servant 50th Anniversary Blu-ray Poster