“He may be a servant but he’s still a human being.”
‘The Servant’, directed by Joseph Losey and written by Harold Pinter in 1963, is a British social psychodrama starring Dirk Bogarde and James Fox. Fox plays Tony, an affluent Londoner who returns from abroad to a rundown house. He employs a valet called Barrett, played by Bogarde, and begins to court a middle class woman called Susan, played by Wendy Craig. Barrett helps Tony find a housemaid by employing who he claims is his sister, but turns out to be his lover Vera, played by Sarah Miles, and gradually the pair of servants begin to take over the house. It’s a knotty, twisted movie, one that focuses clinically on the decaying social structures of the 1960s by condensing it down to one house and one relationship. This claustrophobic satire works because of the performances, Fox anticipates his role in ‘Performance’ by demonstrating how his character can fall apart under the influence of another, whilst Bogarde similarly anticipates his role in ‘The Night Porter’ by playing on the tensions between subservience and an almost sexual connection between the two men. Pinter’s script is razor sharp and, in the moments when external characters are introduced, the satire is all-encompassing, like a nightmarish version of Jeeves and Wooster taken to its natural conclusion in which the more intelligent, practical and self-reliant servant slowly takes control. Seen one way, the movie is a frightening depiction of the collapse of society and societal norms, seen from the other side it’s a flamboyant and unflinching revolution against the class system. You choose.
Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s a frosty, surgical satire that says much about the 1960s and the collapse of the British empire. Watch in a double bill with Fassbinder’s ‘The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant’ for a similar psycho-sexual chamber drama.