Looking back to 1963, I found a British classic which tackled homosexuality long before America incorporated gay themes into movies. With a screenplay by master playwright Harold Pinter and directed by the wonderful Joseph Losey, how could a film go wrong? “The Servant” has a great script, admirable acting and excellent direction.
Tony, an aristocrat, moves to London and hires Hugo Barrett to be his servant and he is to be responsible for everything in the home. He seems loyal and competent but Tony’s girlfriend, Susan, does not like him and asks Tony to send him away. However Barrett brings his “sister”, Vera, to work in the house with him and she and Tony have a brief affair. Upon returning from a brief trip, Tony and Susan discover that Barrett and Vera, in Tony’s room and it so happens that they are actually lovers and not family. They are fired and Tony and Susan break up. Tony later meets with Barrett in a pub and hires him once again. Now Barrett is free to impose his own dark intentions on the house. He turns the tables and switches places with his master. What the film does is take a deep look at class relations in Britain via the switch between a dainty bachelor (James Fox) and his contemptuous servant, (Dirk Bogarde). Barrett realizes and uses his expanding powers over Tony who loses his identity slowly and becomes a slave to the man he hired.
“The Servant” is a movie that is close to perfection especially when considering that it was made so long ago. It is a sinister thriller with a great deal going for it. The homoerotic undercurrent works well and although the movie has aged, it has done so gracefully.
There is a great deal of ambiguity in the film and it carries tension along its plot. Dealing with power and manipulation, a series of quirky developments occur. Harold Pinter is a genius with the English language. His screenplay is terse and laced with the feel of menace.
The movie belongs completely to Dirk Bogarde, however. He gives his role a malevolent campiness which conceals bitterness and rage that was common to the lower classes. This is a satire on the British class system and each character has an archetypal function.
The movie is confusing but it is a visceral experience. Joseph Losey gives us a claustrophobic atmosphere with an edge. Erotic during the first half, it becomes frightening in the second half. The plot moves downward throughout and we feel the sexual permissiveness and suggestion from the very beginning and the tension of which drives the drama. It is an original and brilliant film which cannot be fully analyzed.
The cast is uniformly excellent and as Bogarde reveals the true nature of his character, frightening as well.