Thursday, June 18, 2015

THE SERVANT: Losey and Pinter take the knives out


Joseph Losey is one of England's most famous, and influential filmmakers. The director of a series of films (including 3 collaborations with Harold Pinter) in which he eviscerated the British class system, Losey created a body of work that would influence decades of films and filmmakers. Ironically, Losey was actually an American.

A victim of the blacklist, Losey had fled Hollywood in the early 50s and set up in the UK, where he began a new career making quota quickies. By the end of the 50s, in films like The Criminal and Blind Date, Losey was gaining a reputation for creating genre movies which took a particularly dark slant on humanity, and the ways in which society (specific English society) crushed those at the bottom and the fringes. The Servant (his first collaboration with Harold Pinter) is where Losey's work evolved toward something darker, and became less based in established genres.

Last time I did one of these Auckland Film Society reviews, the film was Purple Noon. That film has an interesting connection to this week's film: the producers of Purple Noon, the Hakim brothers, later produced Losey's pet project Eva. It was an unhappy collaboration which ended with the Hakims taking the cut out of Losey's hands. Despondent, Losey moved on to his next project: The Servant.

The Servant of the title is Barrett played by Dirk Bogarde. Finally free of his matinee idol status (and restrictive Rank contract), The Servant was one of several challenging roles Bogarde took on in the early 60s. As the deliciously malicious manservant, Bogarde dominates the film from the moment he steps onscreen. He completely outclasses poor James Fox who, in the role of Tony, Barrett's wealthy, entitled employer, is never more than adequate. Perhaps that was the filmmakers' intention -- Fox is so stuffy and young in comparison to Bogarde that he looks completely out of his depth.

 Taking place largely in the confines of Tony's comfortable townhouse, this space becomes a gilded cage for its owner as Barrett proceeds to take over the place, corrupting Tony with drink and women (including Barrett's ostensible girlfriend, played by Sarah Miles), and expelling his suspicious fiancĂ© Susan (Wendy Craig).

Mixing dark comedy with a heavy dose of absurdity, The Servant is a claustrophobic little pressure cooker of a film in which the viewer is forced to endure the spectacle of watching four rather nasty people tearing each other to metaphorical shreds. Douglas Slocombe's black and white photography is superb, the set design balances a sense of a real place with gothic touches (Losey loves his mirrors) that turn Tony's rather square home into a bacchanalian cesspit. 

While Barrett could be viewed as some kind of villain, his victims sow the seeds of their own destruction -- Tony is an emotionally stunted man who has inherited his money, and is waiting to hear  back from a potential backer about a mad scheme to build cities in the Brazilian jungle. Susan is a cold, class-conscious woman who treats Barrett as a serf. She sees the servant as a threat to her authority, and despises the access he has to her beau. When Tony turns into an infantile alcoholic and Susan flees the house, there is a certain degree of satisfaction to their loss of power.

Final thoughts: It's been three days since I saw The Servant and I'm still thinking about it. Though this is the first time I've seen it, The Servant feels like a film that rewards repeat viewings. Rich with ambiguity (the implicit homoeroticism of Barrett and Tony's dynamic is worth a blog post in itself), the film is filled with potential readings. It loses a little steam in the third act, but as a whole The Servant lives up to its reputation as a classic of British cinema. Check it out.

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