Saturday, May 4, 2019

THE SERVANT 1963

At an early age, I came to be aware that a significant part of the allure of motion pictures for me was their “magic mirror” ability to illuminate and interpret the hidden sides of human behavior and psychology. Particularly those darker aspects of our natures we’re conditioned to suppress or deny. To a shy, somewhat sheltered gay black teen intent on forging an independent self-image away and apart from familial and social preconceptions, movies afforded a safe, vicarious means by which I could explore complex matters of ego and identity. To be able to watch people grapple with the shifting, fluid nature of image and personality (with the added bonus of not actually having to interact with said people) felt marvelously intimate, wonderfully personal, and too good to be true.
Truth Through Distortion
Inspired by my own desire to better accept and reconcile the ofttimes conflicting sides of my own nature, it was thus at a not-so-early age when I, at last, came to understand that, like it or not, duality and contradictions are a fundamental part of simply being human. The result is that I found myself gravitating to (and developing an acute fondness for) movies whose themes relate to the topics of identity, personality, and duality. Decidedly dark movies, to be sure, but all of a similar breed.
They can take the form of allegorical ruminations on the dichotomy between the physical and the spiritual (Steppenwolf, Dorian Gray); hallucinatory musings on personality-theft (3 Women, Secret Ceremony); splintered-persona melodramas (Images, Black Swan); tales of psychological co-dependency (Dead Ringers, Single White Female); or psychosocial conflicts (The Maids, The Ceremony). No matter how they’re structured, they all fascinate the hell out of me.

A film that actually manages to incorporate all of the above and which I consider to be a genuine, five-star classic in the annals of Identity-Crisis Cinema is Joseph Losey’s mind-bending, multilayered meditation on manservants, mutuality, and malevolence: The Servant.
Dirk Bogarde as Hugo Barrett
Sarah Miles as Vera
James Fox as Tony
Wendy Craig as Susan Stewart

In The Servant, adapted by Harold Pinter from the 1949 novel by Robin Maugham, Dirk Bogarde is Hugo Barrett, the devoted and dutiful gentleman’s gentleman recently hired by aristocratic layabout Tony (James Fox). Assigned to look after the daily creature comforts of his high-born, high-maintenance master—"I’ll need, well…everything! General looking-after, you know”—Barret is live-in cook, housekeeper, dresser, barman, decorator, and nursemaid. Which is a good thing, since Tony does little but drift about imperiously giving orders in a bubble of lazy entitlement that appears to have come built-in with his inherited Georgian townhouse in London’s affluent Chelsea district, maintained on an independent income he lives on while awaiting the materialization of an indistinct development job in Brazil.

Barrett brings eager-to-please efficiency and order to Tony’s world of self-absorbed disarray, both men seeming to thrive under a mutually advantageous arrangement that sees each contentedly assuming their clearly-defined, socially-assigned roles respective of their individual status and station. Considerably less pleased with this alliance is Susan (Wendy Craig), Tony’s upper-crust, frostily snobbish fiancée. She and Barrett take an immediate dislike to one another, she mocking his genteel pretensions (white serving gloves) and lowbrow contributions to the décor (“Tomorrow I’ll organize a proper spice shelf for the kitchen”), Barrett resenting her intrusion into what he has clearly come to regard as his territory.
As per the presumptive tradition of the class system, Tony and Barrett’s master/servant relationship bears the surface characteristics of polite decorum, but Losey’s sly camera—always lingering on faces a second or two after you’re sure a scene has concluded—captures the reductive (if not downright contemptuous) looks Barrett shoots Tony’s way whenever his eyes are averted or back is turned.

To be sure, there’s nothing unusual in an employee harboring resentment toward an employer, as Barrett endures his share of daily micro-humiliations, what with being subtly condescended to and ordered about with nary a please or thank you. But there’s a faint trace of maliciousness behind Barrett’s gaze. Something hinting at a duplicitous nature which has viewers of the film asking of him, “What do you want from this house?” long before Susan combatively confronts him with the same question.
Confirmation that Barrett is indeed plotting some type of intrigue comes in the form of Vera (Sarah Miles), his teenage "sister" he has persuaded Tony to take on as housekeeper. A witty tip-off that Vera is not Barrett's sister but is, in fact, his lover, appears during their cab ride from the train station. Vera places her hand a little too high on Barrett's thigh, resulting in a most perceptible rise in Barrett's suggestively fondled umbrella handle. 

As deliberate deception gives way to coerced seduction, The Servant plays it cozy as to a motive for the couple’s charade. But what’s brought into far clearer focus is the way the unfolding of these events has the effect of intensifying the repressed antagonisms and attractions already shadowing the ambiguous, contradictory interrelationships of the characters. Ultimately, as the anarchy of power-plays, humiliation, betrayal, class conflict, and sexual tension come to overthrow the structured formality of the film’s early scenes; the lives of Tony and Barrett become inextricably intertwined, their personalities undergoing a transformation (or unmasking) that finds their roles reversed and their initial power dynamic upended.
James Fox and Dirk Bogarde
Inequity of Power

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
When art is controlled by the mainstream, marginalized artists are compelled to resort to coded forms of expression. Just as queer coding permeates the plays of Tennessee Williams and are an inextricable part of the works of D.H. Lawrence, the dualism dramatized in The Servant reflect the insider/outsider existence of its homosexual (when it was illegal to be so) creator, Robin Maugham.
Tony and Barrett sexually commune with one another through Vera
Prolific novelist Robin Maugham (the openly gay nephew of the deeply-closeted author Somerset Maugham), was a war hero, political diplomat, and lawyer who scandalized his aristocratic family with the homoerotic themes of his work. Keen to (some biographers would say tortured by) the social duplicity that would see him afforded unfettered access to privileges due to his class, yet simultaneously denied basic freedoms due to his sexuality; the themes of Maugham’s work often dealt with characters struggling with opposing natures and splintered identities.
One of the most commented-upon things about The Servant—rumored to be a heterosexualized telling of an autobiographically inspired, near-blackmail experience Maugham had with one of his own servants—is the assertively ambiguous nature of Barrett and Tony’s relationship. 
I've not read the source novel (although Maugham has been quoted as not being very fond of Pinter's adaptation), but Losey’s film does a magnificent job of dramatizing the unique two-sided existence Maugham must have lived with as a member of England’s aristocracy encouraged by family to keep an essential part of his life hidden.

In this way, The Servant shares that twinning quality found in the works of Albee, Inge, and the aforementioned Williams. On the surface, it’s about one thing (in this instance, a class conflict drama about an ordered life thrown into chaos), yet at the same time, it appears to be transmitting an entirely different message on a wavelength intended for those in the know. The Servant's second, subliminal theme plays as a metaphor for the world of pretense, image, desire, and detection that defined homosexual existence at the time. A fear familiar to every person who feels they must conceal their true natures--the fear that the potential intimacy and bonding with another individual holds with it the possibility of exposure, exploitation, and their having power over you.


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Three-time Oscar-nominated Cinematographer Douglas Slocombe (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Julia, and Travels with My Aunt) won UK’s BAFTA award for creating what is truly a striking visual style for The Servant. Brazenly contemporary, the look is part British neorealism, borderline expressionistic, and hovering somewhere around gothic surrealism. Slocomb’s painterly compositions and expressive B&W cinematography create an atmosphere of menace and conflict with every frame.
Tony's townhouse is an active character in the film. Frequently individuals are framed in ways which emphasize their emotional imprisonment. In this shot, a distraught Tony appears hemmed in by both the bars of the staircase and the frame of Vera's bed. That he is surrounded by her muscleman pinups hint that perhaps it's not Vera he's really pining for.
As Tony and Barrett grow more interdependent, the house itself
seems to get smaller...the walls and ceiling closing in on them. 
Convex mirrors (something of a staple in Pinter films). Do they reflect, distort, or reveal?
Throughout The Servant, Barrett...either figuratively or literally...
always comes between Susan and Tony


PERFORMANCES
I’m not particularly familiar with the films of Dirk Bogarde’s matinee idol period (although I did catch one of his “Doctor series” films, about which the only thing I remember is thinking how much he resembled a young Desi Arnaz), so I was never able to fully appreciate the impact of his transformation from heartthrob to serious actor via films like The Servant and Victim (1961). Knowing Bogarde only as the intensely compelling dramatic actor giving memorable performances in such superb films as Despair (1978), The Damned (1969), Our Mother’s House (1967), Darling (1965), and Death in Venice (1971), it’s really saying something that I consider his performance in The Servant to be his best. 
Sarah Miles' Vera exudes a brand of sexy that can best be summed up as of guileless guile 

Playing a difficult-to-read character who calculatingly exploits his all-things-to-all people charm, Bogarde registers so persuasively in The Servant because at all times it feels like the actor is navigating familiar territory. Indeed, in the 2008 book “Ever, Dirk: The Bogarde Letters” a note from Bogarde expresses his wish that he was in real-life more like the character he played in I Could Go On Singing (1963), but that he’s “Actually nearer Barret in ‘The Servant,’ which is why it was so easy to do him…people don’t realize.”

Never an actor renowned for his accessibility, Bogarde is the master of the side-eye, knows his way around a double-entendre, and is uncommonly skilled in exposing the art of concealment. The same could be said of Bogarde both onscreen and off (the King of Denial, Bogarde remained closeted his entire life in spite of the fact many were aware that the husband of actress Glynnis John's left her for Bogarde and went on to live with him as his "manager" for 40 years).
One of the delights of The Servant is marveling in Bogarde’s depiction of Barrett’s effortless slides in and out of his Manchester accent and contrasting his “on the job” fussiness with his louche behavior when “off the clock.”
Tony: (Interview question) Do you drink beer?
Barrett: (Primly) No, sir.
Like Anthony Perkins, that other '50s closeted screen star/onetime teen pin-up whose guarded image was changed (arguably, not for always for the better) on the strength of a single role, Dirk Bogarde turned equivocality into an acting style. The Servant was the second of five films Bogarde would make with Joseph Losey.
"I can still think of things that will please you, can't I?"
As embodied by the performance of James Fox (granted an "introducing" credit in the film) the morally-ambivalent Tony also carries about him a provocative air of sexual ambiguity. A characteristic of the slight, blond, actor which would be mined to similar effect in David Cammell and Nicolas Roeg's brilliant identity-switch head trip Performance (1970). Fox is absolutely splendid as the self-indulgent idler who falls under the corruptive sway of his Machiavellian servant, displaying considerable range as he morphs from patrician parvenu to pitiable prisoner. Both Fox and Bogarde deservedly won BAFTA awards for their performances (Most Promising Newcomer and Best Actor, respectively).
Although I think I’m not meant to, I like the character of Susan a great deal. At least the side of her that reminds me of Leroy in The Bad Seed. She's the one character not taken in by Barrett's obsequious fakery (precisely why he sees her as a threat) and doesn’t mince words about it. In a film populated with weak males, Susan may be an insufferable snob with questionable aesthetics, but her questioning candor is the closest thing to principle in Pinter's world. Wendy Craig's performance has such intelligence and depth, she makes Susan unexpectedly affecting.


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
I loved The Servant the first time I ever saw it, an opinion only reinforced by repeat viewings. To me, it stands as the masterpiece achievement of Losey and Pinter’s three collaborations: Accident (1967) and The Go-Between (1971) complete the set. 

The Servant explores the dysfunction, hypocrisy, and false values behind master-servant, upper-class/working class roles and power inequities. Late in the film, this exchange occurs:

“Don’t forget your place, Barrett. You’re nothing but a servant in this house.”

“Servant? I’m nobody’s servant! Who furnished the whole place for you? Who painted it for you? Who does the cooking? Who washes your pants? Who cleans the bath out after you? I do! I run the whole bloody place and what do I get out of it? Nothing!”

And there you have the crucial nugget of truth that festers within the core of social class hostility; Barrett’s ruinous subversion is possible because Tony and his kind don’t really know how to “do” anything (a fact made embarrassingly explicit a while back when the world looked on as a certain reviled 72-year-old public figure demonstrated a lack of familiarity with how umbrellas work).
"A  weekend in the county. So inactive, that one has to lie down." - Stephen Sondheim
Tony and Susan pay a visit to Lord and Lady Mounset ( Richard Vernon and Catherine Lacey)

The morally-soft, easily-corrupted classes like to see themselves as the builders, but their desultory existences prepare them for nothing. Least of all survival. (Headlines—the wealthy, even in a system rigged in their favor, find it necessary to resort to fraud and swindles to win elections or get their children into universities.) Forced, out of necessity to learn to look after themselves, it is the working classes, the servants, who are the builders, the survivors, and the only ones possessing actual skills.

The saying goes, "If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu." The Servant suggests that come the day the dismissed and disregarded claim their place at the table, the bill of fare is likely to be all those who have erroneously assumed that to be served by another human being is their birthright.



BONUS MATERIAL:
Harold Pinter, Nobel Prize-winning author, playwright, and screenwriter of The Servant makes a brief appearance in a terrific scene that takes place in a posh restaurant where various couples engage in enigmatic games of one-upmanship and subtle power plays. (That's him in the center with actress Ann Firbank of One of Those Things.)  Pinter also wrote the lyrics to composer John Dankworth's (Darling) song "All Gone," sung by Cleo Laine on the film's soundtrack.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

10 comments:

  1. This is one of those films that I have read and heard about extensively but never gotten around to watch. I'm bumping it up my list.

    One thing I've heard often about this is how all its elements, the direction, cinematography, acting, dialogue, commentary on sociocultural politics... are all perfectly complimentary to each other.

    I've developed an interest in Dirk Bogard's work. I came across a video series done about his body of work by a YouTuber called Infamous Sphere, and it tackles the different ways in which Hollywood depicted homosexuality at that time.

    Anyway, thanks for convincing me to get around watching it finally! I think my local library has a copy.

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    1. Hello, M4E
      What you’ve heard about “The Servant” – that all its elements are complementary to each other – I’d say is very true. It’s as though everyone involved understood the material in the same way and are of a single mind in its dramatization. To my thinking, it’s a really rather remarkable film. Especially if you’re interested in the work of Dirk Bogarde. His work in this and “Victim” are must-see examples of an actor going to places few leading men were comfortable going until possibly the ‘70s.
      I can’t imagine an American film in 1963 tackling any of its subjects with such wit and intelligence.
      I thank you for checking out my post, and I hope, should you have the opportunity of seeing THE SERVANT, you enjoy it. Cheers!

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  2. I saw on Instagram that you’d written about The Servant and rushed this way instantly! Such is my love for this film. You’ve really singled out everything that makes it stand out in a crowd. It’s a singular piece of film-making in that I can’t really pinpoint another movie with such an enchanting, yet disturbing atmosphere. You’re right on in pointing out that the house itself is a character in the movie. The actors are superb - I went on a big Bogarde kick after seeing him in this. It wasn’t the first movie I’d seen him in, but the subtly devilish quality of his Barrett made me perk up, I guess. I get chills every time I hear the theme song, it’s so profoundly melancholic.

    Thanks once again for putting your spin on an absolute classic, Ken! Every cinephile should see this film.

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    1. Hi, Sandra
      Love your enthusiasm for this film! You seem to appreciate both its engaging charm (a kind of cynical wit) as well as its unsettling atmosphere of tension (of all sorts).
      It’s one of those movies where everything comes together so well, it achieves a sort of effortless artistry. The language, the performances, John Dankworth’s brilliant score (I love that theme song, too), the cinematography…they all coalesce to striking effect.
      I’m not a good judge because I like Dirk Bogarde so much, but my sense is that this is the perfect film to suggest to someone who is not a familiar with the actor’s work. He’s just so good in it and it’s such a great showcase for his versatility, I’d think that it would inspire a response similar to yours in anyone.
      I, too, think THE SERVANT is a classic, and I thank you for reading this essay and sharing your thoughts on this superb film. Much appreciated!

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  3. Wow! "The Servant" is a great film: it holds together surprisingly from many perspectives and you've certainly nailed most.

    "The Servant" works best at a macro level when it invokes thoughts about The Enlightenment and the Social Contract, as per Rousseau. In fact, your introduction could very well be an encapsulation of many of Rousseau's brilliant quotes and ideas. As can your resolution.

    In the here and now it's always concerning when modern movies simply reflect the dumbed-down thoughts of a dumbed-down society. We shouldn't have to look to 1963 to be reminded that class issues haven't gone away, but are more insidious and entrenched than ever. Similarly, we shouldn't be seduced into thinking that our identities aren't anything apart from what suits us at any given time.

    And yes there's most definitely a sexual attraction component in how most or many men seek to covertly and subconsciously dominate other men. It's often an alternate to violence which nevertheless masks contempt and envy. "The Servant" is a master class in how it crosses still-extant boundaries in the British class system, but there's much to be gleaned along those lines by perceptive non-British audiences.

    I've always disliked Dirk Bogarde, most probably because (as a precocious junior homo)I found him, and most British actors, sexually unattractive. But I'm glad I'm able to get over myself enough to know that he's terrific in "The Servant", and it's a really good movie.

    Again a really brilliant and most enjoyable read to start the week, Ken!




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    1. Hey, Rick
      Superlative points made, Rick. Some directly relating to your recent blog essay about Tennessee Williams, Hollywood coding, and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
      You’re right in describing THE SERVANT as a film that works surprisingly well on many levels. Far too many of them relating to social ills that are indeed deeply entrenched in what passes for civilized culture today.
      I’m always made aware of how films about the British class system always go down much easier in the US because the servant class in UK films are so often white, and American Anglo audiences are used to humanizing characters that look like them. As we all know, the same does not go for brown and Black faces on the screen. Unless they’re portrayed as figures of pity and suffering, Black faces in films mostly make white audiences uneasy. A film depicting PoC expressing justified class hostility, rebellion, and violence would likely cause a state of emergency in America (and more than a few heart attacks).

      Your comment about not liking Dirk Bogarde reminded me of a comedy bit done on the UK talk program- The Graham Norton Show: It’s called “Gay or European?” and it pokes fun at the American perception that most European men come off as gay. When I was growing up, I think this is precisely what drew me to British films. Never interested in the boring, one-dimensional macho types American movies foisted on us as images of manhood, I liked that British men seemed to be cut from a different cloth. They were masculine and feminine, bullyish and erudite, stylish and somehow common. I had major crushes on the Alan Bates, Albert Finney, and most decidedly Dirk Bogarde and James Fox (and his brother Edward).

      Oh, and I want to thank you for referencing Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “The Social Contract”-my unfamiliarity with it sent me off to Google, and in reading of his theories, armed me with a few new perspectives to think of next time I give THE SERVANT a look.
      Thanks for reading this post and commenting so thoughtfully!

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  4. I have never seen this, though of course I had heard of it. I REALLY enjoyed reading this assessment of it and it looks divine! I bet you when I see it I will also love Wendy Craig. And Sarah Miles looks about as pretty as I ever saw her! I always had aversions to Dirk and James (who I constantly confuse with his brother Edward!), but I recently began to appreciate James more and am softening up about Dirk, too, so I will definitely have to see this. I love, love, LOVE whenever movies have little unspoken, purely visual, touches like the umbrella handle and the caged in bed with musclemen on the wall. Gives me joy to spot those. :-) Thanks!

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    1. Hi Poseidon
      Given that I’ve been living in a bubble of adoration of Dirk Bogarde and James Fox for so long (though I won’t tell you how long it took me to not to confuse James Fox with his brother Edward), it’s enlightening to read that Bogarde doesn’t set very well with a lot of people –at least as far as being the matinee idol he was in his younger days. He always seemed so dashing to me. Although from that book of his letters (a must if you like gossip, he tears into Vanessa Redgrave, Glenda Jackson, and countless others).
      I think you would enjoy THE SERVANT, and I’ve no doubt you’d like Wendy Craig as well. She has a lot of biting dialogue and is refreshingly candid where everyone else is hiding so many secrets.
      I was impressed with how pretty Sarah Miles looked in this. Very much a 60s London dolly bird look she is given. She’s also quite marvelous and funny in it.
      And even if you don’t respond to the narrative (some critics feel it loses it’s way in the final third) it’s a staggeringly beautiful-looking film that’s loaded with those visual touches you mentioned.
      Do check it out when you get the chance. Thank you very much for your kind words and for reading this and taking the time to comment!

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    1. Right? A ceaselessly fascinating actor, Bogarde's always reason enough alone to see a film, but in this instance, when he's so at the top of his game, it's the must-see film in his resume. Not sure if you've seen it, Thom, but if you haven't, from what I know about you I feel safe in saying I guarantee you find much in the film to respond you. Of course, Dirk Bogarde in no small measure. So pleased you figured out whatever it was that made commenting such a hassle after Google Plus disappeared, but it's great to see you and I thank you for dropping by this post!

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