The Servant

Director: Joseph Losey
Screenplay: Harold Pinter (based on the novel by Robin Maugham)
Stars: Dirk Bogarde (Barrett), Sarah Miles (Vera), Wendy Craig (Susan), James Fox (Tony), Catherine Lacey (Lady Mounset), Richard Vernon (Lord Mounset)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1963
Country: U.K.
The Servant Criterion Collection Blu-ray
The Servant

The Servant was the first of three collaborations between American expatriate director Joseph Losey and playwright/screenwriter Harold Pinter—which Losey described to Michel Ciment as “the best and most useful collaboration I’ve ever had”—and the second of his five collaborations with actor Dirk Bogarde. It was a major turning point for Losey’s career, as it followed the release of Eve (1962), a film that Losey said was “as close to being a great film as I had ever achieved” before it was taken away from him and radically recut, losing some 40 minutes of footage and greatly altering his vision. Such misfortune did not befall The Servant, which remains the dark, pessimistic, and morbidly engaging story Losey and Pinter intended it to be.

Based on the 1948 novella by Robin Maugham, The Servant centers on the complex, mutually destructive relationship between Tony (James Fox), an idle, wealthy young heir and his manservant, Barrett (Dirk Bogarde). Tony is arrogant, lazy, and entitled, which is why he needs someone like Barrett to tend to his needs and whims. When we first meet the characters, Barrett is meeting Tony for an employment interview in an empty, dilapidated Chelsea townhouse that Tony plans to renovate. The townhouse proves to be a crucial component of the film’s drama, not just because so much of the action unfolds within its walls, but because it comes to stand as a kind of indicator of Tony’s state and his increasing dependence on Barrett. When Barrett, who is put in charge of decorating the townhouse and therefore impresses upon it his own sensibility, is not there, it falls into disarray. When he is there, it is kept tidy and organized. And when the power balance between the two men shifts, the townhouse becomes a psychological war zone that bears many, many scars.

And that primarily is what The Servant is. Despite the title and the early suggestion that the film will simply be a dramatization of the manner in which the aristocracy exploits the underclass for servitude, it is actually a twisted, dark, and wildly unpredictable psychodrama in which power fluctuates between Tony and Barrett. Calling it “class warfare” would be overly reductionist since their economic and social standing is just one component (albeit a very important one) of their complicated relationship, although part of the film’s sadistic pleasure is seeing Barrett wresting control away from Tony and turning the tables on him, forcing him into a state of near infantilism. Yet, as much as Tony is an insufferable product of extreme privilege and wealth that he has done nothing to earn, we can’t help but feel for his predicament and wince at his various humiliations, especially when Barrett convinces him to allow his supposed sister, Vera (Sarah Miles), to live in the house with them.

When he directed The Servant, Joseph Losey had been living in exile in Europe for the better part of a decade after being blacklisted in Hollywood for his ties to leftwing artists, including playwright Bertolt Brecht, with whom he had worked in the theatre in the 1940s. He had directed a number of films in Hollywood, including his debut, the allegorical The Boy With Green Hair (1947) and a 1951 remake of Fritz Lang’s M. After moving to Europe, he found steady work as a director, making a film almost every year, although sometimes under pseudonyms. Nevertheless, Losey’s style was always apparent, especially his penchant for intense camera movements and ornate, stylized settings, all of which characterize The Servant, which is arguably one of the best examples of how effectively he externalized his characters’ psychology onto the world around them. Losey makes frequently amazing use of stairwells, doorways, and mirrors, not to mention light and shadow (the cinematographer, Douglas Slocombe, was a 20-year veteran who had worked with Alexander Mckendrick and John Huston and would go on to work with Ken Russell and Steven Spielberg). Pinter’s biting dialogue gains additional sting in Losey’s compositions, which slowly turn the film into an escalating nightmare of depravity.

James Fox, who was early in his career and largely unknown at the time, portrays Tony as a fundamentally weak man who has become so accustomed to others serving him that he has literally no sense of how to manage himself when Barrett unleashes on him. Which, of course, brings us to Barrett. Dirk Bogarde, who was in the midst of a major career transformation from young, matinee idol leading man to middle-aged character actor, plays him as a cunning viper, well-seasoned in the manners and norms of the serving class, but always coiled and waiting to strike. Tony’s girlfriend, Susan (Wendy Craig), intuits Barrett’s darker impulses and tries to stand between him and Tony, but it is futile. Barrett embodies all the repressed anger of the underclass toward the ruling class, and his vengeance is so cold and ruthless that it burns away any potential pleasure in upending the system. It turns out the cruelty is just as ugly coming from the bottom as it is from the top.

The Servant Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.66:1
  • English Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Video program on director Joseph Losey by film critic Imogen Sara Smith
  • Audio interview from 1976 with Losey by critic Michel Ciment
  • Interview from 1996 with screenwriter Harold Pinter
  • Video interview with actor Dirk Bogarde
  • Video interview with actor James Fox by Richard Ayoade
  • Video interview with actor Sarah Miles
  • Video interview with actor Wendy Craig
  • Trailer
  • Essay by author Colm Tóibín
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJune 20, 2023

    According to the liner notes, a 4K restoration of The Servant was conducted by STUDIOCANAL from the original 35mm camera negative and soundtrack negatives. The resulting image on Criterion’s Blu-ray is excellent, with impressive detail, depth, and texture. Blacks, which come to dominate much of the film’s second half, are spot on, and the finely tuned contrast emphasizes the film’s noir-ish cinematography by Douglas Slocombe. This is one of those films that I can imagine looking muddy and undistinguished in a subpar transfer, but here it really shines. The monaural soundtrack is clean and clear throughout. Perhaps because Joseph Losey has, until now, not been included in the Criterion Collection, this release of The Servant is fairly stacked with supplements that provide a great deal of background and context for his career and this film’s placement in it. A good start is “The Look of Losey,” a half-hour interview with critic Imogen Sara Smith about Losey’s recurring themes and stylistic approaches (especially his use of space). We also get to hear directly from Losey himself in a rare 30 minutes of audio excerpts from a 1976 interview by critic Michel Ciment, which was conducted as part of his research for what would become the definitive book on Losey’s life and career, Conversations With Losey. The excerpts are categorized as “Origins,” “Pinter,” “Shooting,” “Themes,” “Design,” and “Legacy.” We also get to hear directly from screenwriter Harold Pinter in 23 minutes of excerpts from a videotaped interview recorded in 1996 at London’s National Film Theatre by his official biographer, Michael Billington. And, if that weren’t enough, Criterion has also culled interviews with all of the major actors in the film: Dirk Bogarde, James Fox, Sarah Miles, and Wendy Craig. Bogarde’s interview is excerpted from the 1992 documentary Dirk Bogarde: By Myself, while the others were recorded in 2013, with Fox being interviewed by his son-in-law, the actor/comedian/filmmaker Richard Ayoade. Finally, there is a theatrical trailer and an essay by author Colm Tóibín.

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    Overall Rating: (3)

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