The Servant - Film (Movie) Plot and Review





UK, 1963


Director: Joseph Losey

Production: Springbok Films-Elstree; black and white; running time: 115 minutes; length: 10,382 feet. Released 1963.

The Servant
The Servant

Producers: Joseph Losey, Norman Priggen; assistant director: Roy Stevens; screenplay: Harold Pinter, from the novel by Robin Maugham; photography: Douglas Slocombe; editor: Reginald Mills; sound: John Cox, Gerry Hambling; sound recordist: Buster Ambler; art directors: Richard Macdonald, Ted Clements; music: John Dankworth.

Cast: Dirk Bogarde ( Barrett ); James Fox ( Tony ); Wendy Craig ( Susan ); Sarah Miles ( Vera ); Catherine Lacey ( Lady Mounset ); Richard Vernon ( Lord Mounset ); Ann Firbank ( Society Woman ); Doris Knox ( Older Woman ); Patrick Magee ( Bishop ); Alun Owen ( Curate ); Jill Melford ( Young Woman ); Harold Pinter ( Society Man ); Derek Tansley ( Head Waiter ); Gerry Duggan ( Waiter ); Brian Phelan ( Irishman ); Hazel Terry ( Woman in Big Hat ); Philippa Hare ( Girl in Bedroom ); Dorothy Bromley ( Girl outside Phone-box ); Alison Seebohm ( Girl in Pub ); Chris Williams ( Coffee Bar Cashier ).


Awards: British Film Academy Awards for Best Black and White Cinematography, Best British Actor (Bogarde), Most Promising Newcomer Actor (Fox).


Publications


Script:

Pinter, Harold, The Servant , in Five Screenplays , London, 1971.

Books:

Leahy, James, The Cinema of Joseph Losey , New York, 1967.

Baker, William, and Stephen Ely Tabachnick, Harold Pinter , Edinburgh, 1973.

Durgnat, Raymond, Sexual Alienation in the Cinema , London, 1974.

Hinxman, Margaret, and Susan D'Arcy, The Films of Dirk Bogarde , London, 1974.

Bogarde, Dirk, Snakes and Ladders , London, 1978.

Ciment, Michel, Conversations with Losey , Paris, 1979; London, 1985.

Hirsch, Foster, Joseph Losey , Boston, 1980.

Klein, Joanne, Making Pictures: The Pinter Screenplays , Columbus, Ohio, 1985.

Carbone, Maria Teresa, I luoghi della memoria: Harold Pinter sceneggiatore per il cinema di Losey , Bari, 1986.

Tanitch, Robert, Dirk Bogarde: The Complete Career Illustrated , London, 1988.

Palmer, James, and Michael Riley, The Films of Joseph Losey , New York, 1993.

Caute, David, Joseph Losey: A Revenge on Life , New York, 1994.


Articles:

Variety (New York), 11 September 1963.

Baker, Peter, in Films and Filming (London), December 1963.

Dyer, Peter John, in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), December 1963.

Taylor, John Russell, in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1963–64.

Losey, Joseph, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), March 1964, and June 1964.

Losey, Joseph, in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1964.

Callenbach, Ernest, in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Autumn 1964.

Ross, T. J., " The Servant as Sex-Thriller," in Renaissance of the Film , edited by Julius Bellone, New York and London, 1970.

Brighton Film Review , February 1970.

Image et Son (Paris), no. 274, 1973.

Finetta, U., "Tra il vecchio e il nuovo una varieta di simbola morbosi," in Cinema Nuovo (Bari), August 1979.

Riley, Michael M., and James W. Palmer, "An Extension of Reality: Setting as Theme in The Servant, " in Mise-en-Scène (New York), Spring 1980.

Weiss, J., "Screenwriters, Critics, and Ambiguity: An Interview with Joseph Losey," in Cineaste (New York), vol. 13, no. 1, 1983.

Tronowicz, H., "W kregu sylogizmow moralnych Josepha Loseya," in Kino (Warsaw), March 1985.

"Losey Issue" of Positif (Paris), July-August 1985.

Medhurst, Andy, "Dirk Bogarde," in All Our Yesterdays , edited by Charles Barr, London, 1986.

Listener (London), 7 January 1988.

Amiel, Vincent, "Le désir, et la subtilité des gris," in Positif (Paris), no. 370, December 1991.

Piazzo, Philippe, "Une absurde simplicité," in Télérama (Paris), no. 2308, 6 April 1994.

Gardner, C., "Naturalism, Immanence and the Primordiality of Class: Deleuze's 'Impulse-Image' and the Baroque Intriguer in Joseph Lousey's The Servant, " in Iris (Iowa City), no. 23, Spring 1997.


* * *


The Servant marks the beginning of the extremely fruitful Losey-Pinter relationship, although in fact Pinter had originally scripted Robin Maugham's novel (in which Losey had always been interested) for Michael Anderson. When Pinter first took his script to Losey he wasn't exactly thrilled by the latter's reaction but, after this rocky start, the two produced one of the finest works in both their oeuvres. The film also launched Sarah Miles and James Fox, re-invigorated the career of cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, and marked Bogarde's final, decisive break with his matinee idol image (though Losey had also cast Bogarde rather against type some years earlier in The Sleeping Tiger ).

Given Losey's abiding interest in relations of class and power it is hardly surprising that he should have been drawn to this story of a servant, Barrett, who is taken on by an effete young Englishman, Tony, and gradually takes over his master's life. Barrett is aided by his girlfriend Vera, who seduces Tony and eventually displaces his financée Susan, who eventually abandons this household in which master and servant have eventually achieved some kind of equality in degradation.

In many ways The Servant can be seen as a continuation of Eve. Both chart a process of degeneration, and the destruction of one character by another. More specifically, the destroyer in each case belongs to a traditionally exploited and downtrodden social group, has learned the hard way how the world works, and takes revenge through sex. In another respect, the film might be seen as a re-working of the Faust legend or even of The Picture of Dorian Gray. However, this would be to ignore a crucial aspect of the film, namely that by the end of the film all the major characters (with the possible exception of Susan) have been morally destroyed. Losey is not so simple-minded as to stage a simple victory of Barrett over Tony; rather he shows how the rigid English class system corrupts all human relationships by turning them into a form of warfare in which the roles of aggressor and victim seem constantly to be shifting. Thus Tony is weak and rather foolish but nonetheless in a powerful social situation because of his class position. Barrett, on the other hand, belongs to a subordinate class, but one which is needed by Tony and his ilk, and knows how to play on that need. The kernel of this relationship is beautifully conveyed in their very first meeting, Tony asleep after too much to drink at lunchtime discreetly woken by Barrett's deliberate, soft cough but probably unaware (unlike the viewer) of the faintly superior smile which flickers across Barrett's face. The film is haunted by triangular relationships (the most obvious one being between Barrett, Tony, and Susan) whose terms are constantly shifting but all of which are ultimately destructive of all concerned. Indeed, Losey seems to be suggesting that it is not just the rigidity of the class system which is at fault here, but human psychology itself. As James Leahy perceptively put it in The Cinema of Joeph Losey , "the house in which the drama is acted out grows into a womb-like prison in which Tony and Barrett, master and servant, boss and worker, and, at times homosexual couple in a sado-masochistic relationship, husband and wife, son and mother even, are bound inseparably together by bonds of knowledge, hate, guilt and love from which they have not the strength of will to escape . . . . The ambiguity of Losey's symbolism here results from no confusion on his part: he is expressing the underlying identity of all relationships—sexual, marital, economic, political—which involve servility or exploitation rather than the co-operative and collaborative efforts of free individuals. Thus The Servant lends itself to both a socio-political and psychoanalytical interpretation."

As in plays such as The Birthday Party and The Caretaker Pinter's spare, elliptical dialogue, with its pauses and silences, is the perfect vehicle for expressing the unspoken dynamics of human relationships and for establishing a pervasive sense of menace and unease. More important still, however, is Losey's masterly direction, elaborate yet tightly controlled and never merely decorative. Particularly impressive is Losey's consistent use of circular motifs which complement the film's triangular relationships and underline its essentially circular plot structure. Thus the house itself is circular, as are the opening and closing shots, and so on. At the same time Losey accentuates the changing nature of the relationship between Barrett and Tony by changes in the look, tempo, and structure of the film. In particular he works subtle alterations on the physical space of the house itself. As he put it, the house is the "central icon, an index of the characters' taste, their place in society, and their relationship to each other. The house assumes different personalities during the course of the film, reflecting the evolution of the master-servant contract."

—Julian Petley

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