The first in a trilogy of Harold Pinter and Joseph Losey collaborations that also includes Accident (1967) and The Go-Between (1970) and re-released this week in glorious 4K, The Servant (1963) is a tense psychological drama that studies the theme of servitude, whilst also offering a brutal indictment of the British class system.
James Fox stars as Tony, a wealthy young Londoner who hires valet Hugo Barrett (Dirk Bogarde). Initially, Barrett takes to his role and subtly suggests that the house could do with some alterations. Gradually, Barrett begins calling the shots, yet he and Tony form a seemingly friendly bond, whilst dually retaining their conflicting social positions. The arrival of Tony’s girlfriend Susan (Wendy Craig), who dislikes Barrett and loathes all that he represents, marks a dramatic shift in the ‘master and servant’ dynamic.
Meanwhile, Barrett brings Vera (Sarah Miles) into the house, introduces her as his sister and integrates her into Tony’s household as a maidservant; but there is more to Vera than meets the eye, as her libidinous behaviour soon affects relations between Tony and Susan. Both servants work together to insidiously manipulate their boss, and as Tony gradually becomes dominated by his employees, social standings and sexuality expire as the house descends into madness.
The complexities of The Servant’s screenplay are composed with utmost dexterity by one of Britain’s greatest ever playwrights. Pinter’s expertise ensures that the spoken word is not always key to the film’s visceral effect. The moments of silence speak volumes, adding to the rich inter-textual layers that have maintained scholars interest since its original release. Long pauses in dialogue, short abrupt sentences and dramatic shift in tone all prove vital ingredients to Joseph Losey’s cerebral creation. Pinter’s words are utilised to wondrous effect, interweaving them through episodes of increasing tension, including the drip of a tap, the tick of a clock and the roar of a thunderous passing lorry.
Breaks in dialogue are filled with a superb jazz score, as wildly unpredictable as The Servant’s events. Cleo Laine’s All Alone begins backing music for an early romantic scene with Tony and Susan, but through multiple use, the haunting lyrics take on a whole new meaning as Tony’s circumstances become increasingly perverse. Fox excels in his role as the wealthy simpleton and shows great vulnerability at the hands of the servant and his seductive ‘sister’, Vera. Played faultlessly by Miles, Vera cranks up the heat in one of the most erotically charged kitchen scenes in British cinema history. She flaunts her sexuality through suggestive movements and lingering stares as she plays pawn in her ‘brother’s’ twisted game.
However, it is Bogarde’s performance that really seals the deal. As relentlessly manipulative and menacing as his presence is, Bogarde provides Barrett with an unblemished, charismatic exterior – as alluring as it is chilling. Fox and Bogarde bounce sharp dialogue back and forth and are captivating as the psychosexual tension increases between them. Through subtle visual clues Losey artfully blurs sexual boundaries to create one of cinema’s most memorable relationships. Packed with homoerotic subtext, The Servant is a seminal title in British cinema and the British New Wave.