Saturday 4 September 2021

From the archive: "The Servant"

In what was his first screenplay – for 1963’s The Servant, returning to cinemas this weekend – Harold Pinter kicked off a mini-cycle of Sixties films in which charming outsiders wheedled their way into, and subsequently came to undermine, the households of the well-to-do: think Pasolini’s Theorem, itself set for re-release imminently, or the Claude Chabrol thrillers that were to emerge over the following decade.

These were undoubtedly products of their particular moment, one where the bourgeois certainties set in stone during the ultra-conservative 1950s were under attack from a new wave of directors, writers and performers – diggers, drillers and chisellers by birth – who were no longer prepared to keep their heads down and know the place society had assigned to them.

Directed by American ex-pat Joseph Losey, The Servant is the one in which Dirk Bogarde’s Hugo Barrett is installed one snowy winter as valet in the townhouse condescending aristo Tony (James Fox) is having renovated as a swinging bachelor pad. For Tony, this rebuilding is part of a wider project, aimed at restoring order and decency to the world (“They’re having a pretty rough time of it in Asia Minor”) and installing himself at its centre, yet he will be driven to distraction by a peculiarly English awkwardness: that around having someone in your house, whether a domestic or a workman, who hails from a markedly different social class.

Barrett can now be claimed as one of the Angry Young Men who proliferated on the British stage and screen around the turn of the Sixties – yet he’s a rare one who’s actually in the position of overthrowing his oppressor, rather than merely ranting or raving about him. Bogarde spends the film’s first half silently, knowingly creeping about in the background, waiting to pounce, and the character’s background in the armed forces proves key: if an Englishman’s home is his castle – and Tony’s retreat, with its vast stairwells, secret passages and backchannels, is very much built as such – then Barrett has spotted a chink in this one’s defences.

Losey punches up the tensions between the film’s interior and exterior spaces: the cold outside is bad enough, but The Servant stands as a chilling study in what it is to be frozen out in your own home. When Barrett’s sister Vera (Sarah Miles) invades, Tony finds he can’t get into his bathroom to retrieve his stupendously massive bottle of cologne; later, he’ll find his own bed is territory, summarily claimed by someone else. The French restaurant scene – in which Pinter himself can be glimpsed as one of Tony’s fellow diners – opens out the story to hint at the neurosis, bullying and fear circulating within higher, notionally more civilised echelons of society.

There are elements of 60s modishness in here – a Johnny Dankworth/Cleo Laine score, future sitcom queen Wendy Craig cast as an aspirational love object – and a degree of repetition come the final act, as Pinter and Losey drive their points home with a labourer’s fist. Yet its influence remains lasting. Visionary as Donald Cammell and Nic Roeg were, you can’t imagine Performance – which took Fox, and twisted him even further – existing without The Servant, and fifty years on, the film has taken on a whole new, thrilling aspect: as the Bullingdon Club’s worst nightmare. It is, one suspects, exactly what Pinter would have wanted.

(MovieMail, March 2013)

The Servant returns to selected cinemas from Friday; a new 4K Collector's Edition DVD and Blu-Ray will be available through StudioCanal on September 20.

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