The subject of The Servant (1963) is the English class system and its tensions in swinging sixties London. The battleground for this class struggle is mainly confined to a single location, a house owned by Tony (James Fox), an eligible bachelor and upper-class naïf who fancies himself a businessman. Into this abode enters the enigmatic Barrett (Dirk Bogarde), eventually employed as Tony’s manservant, the Jeeves to Tony’s Wooster, a butler savvier than his master. However, there is a mysterious side to Barrett, and it gradually becomes clear that although he seems to serve his employer faithfully, he has ulterior motives.
The Servant is the first film collaboration between writer Harold Pinter and director Joseph Losey, and skilfully combines their two distinctive styles. As Nick James notes, “Pinter’s claustrophobic scenario enabled Losey to employ all his European art-cinema riffs at the service of a very English interior made sinister – the London house as a kind of nightclub cum prison – and a very English problem: the class system.”1
The affluent, foppish Tony seems to have it all, and initially his new home is full of possibilities. Tony proudly tours the house with Barrett as it is decorated, and later Tony reveals its decor to his fiancé Susan (Wendy Craig) when they share an intimate night in, which is rudely – and deliberately – interrupted by Barratt. Tony’s ideal home gradually becomes a more like a jail cell, with Barratt seemingly dominating every nook and cranny of the house, both upstairs and downstairs, the servant as prison warden. The staircase is a key location, featuring prominently throughout the film, serving as the locus of power exchanges and the focus of one-upmanship, as shown most clearly in the ball game scene between Barratt and Tony later in the film. The staircase boldly encapsulates and symbolises the class antagonism in society (just as the ascension and descension of stairs are a similar, recurring motif in the recent Parasite (2019)). As The Servant progresses, the bannisters seem to become prison bars, trapping Tony in a hell that he inadvertently created when he permitted Barrett to have dominion of the property.
In addition to the serpentine staircase, mirrors and reflections are frequently featured in many scenes, obscuring and distorting the characters and locations. Long camera takes and wide-angle lenses are also strikingly used, which both reveal and conceal the various activities in the house. Strategic camera moves and framing hint at more sexually explicit moments, but the technical obfuscations during these scenes feel less a necessity to fulfil the censorship requirements of the time and more a way of deliberately averting a viewer’s gaze from the sordid excesses in the house. These potentially graphic moments oddly gain more power through suggestion, such as the moment of implied nudity when Barrett’s large, menacing shadow is cast on the staircase, hinting at his illicit behaviour and suggesting his dark, enigmatic nature.
The first appearance of Barrett in The Servant neatly sets up the ideas behind the film. The lengthy opening pan shot, a recurring camera move, introduces Barrett as he approaches the entrance to Tony’s flat. Barrett does not even have to force his way in, as the door has been left unlocked, and enters the residence with nothing impeding his access. Dressed in dark clothes, Barrett finds Tony, who wears lighter colours, inside the house and asleep. Barrett stands still and virtually silent above the prone, unconscious Tony, who slowly rouses from his slumber. Barrett hovers over Tony like a ravenous hawk above a vulnerable rodent, waiting for the right moment to make his move. Raymond Durgnat summarises the differences between, and aims of, Barrett and Tony thus: “Tony’s rather subtle, ordinary mix of aimlessness, pretension, innocence, and ineffectiveness becomes a metaphor for upper-middle-class: not swinging, but dangling. Barrett, however, has a purpose – to make himself indispensable – and succeeds beyond his expectations. It’s The Admirable Crichton inverted.”2
To consolidate his power and influence over Tony, Barratt brings Vera (Sarah Miles), his accomplice and lover, into the home as a housekeeper, telling Tony that she is his sister and laying the groundwork that will lead to Tony’s moral corruption and gradual decline. Tony’s aloof upper-class manner conceals a weak-willed personality that can be easily and ruthlessly exploited by an individual like Barrett, who seems more worldly and cultured than his master. Aside from Barrett, Susan is the other strong personality in the film. Unlike Tony, her instincts tell her that Barrett is trouble. In a tense scene filmed in a single take, Susan visits the house while Barrett is in and Tony is out. She coldly orders Barrett around, puts him in his place and dominates the space and the frame for most of the scene (she in the foreground, he in the background), asserting her authority and exploiting her privileged position. Unlike Tony, who tries to see the humanity in Barrett when Susan criticises the manservant, she is suspicious of Barrett early on. This manservant may appear to blend into the background inside the house, but he is a constant and influential presence.
Looking at The Servant in the context of the British film industry at the time of its release, James suggests that the teaming of Losey and Pinter sets the film apart from the kitchen sink dramas of the era (such as Look Back in Anger (1959), and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)) and stakes out new cinematic territory: “The Servant’s fusion of Losey’s sensitivity to spaces and objects with Pinter’s stark approach to image and language – seen through cinematographer Douglas Slocombe’s magnificent black-and-white photography – initiated a new kind of cinema in the UK, one distinctly more ambitious than the social realism of the Woodfall films.”3 A fascinating flipside to the domestic situation of Barrett and Tony in The Servant is presented in another key British film produced in the late 60s, as noted by James: “A few years later Fox would play a lost young thug opposite Mick Jagger’s reclusive rock star in Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s Performance (1970)…”4. In Performance, Fox is the interloper in a house and Jagger the aimless master of that domain. However, while Performance suggests that identities are fluid and class differences can be overcome, the motives of Barrett in The Servant are more – and literally – black-and-white: a cold, calculating exchange of identities and a ruthless assumption of power. 5
• • •
The Servant (1963 UK 112 mins)
Prod Co: Landau Releasing Organisation, Elstree Distributors Limited Scr: Harold Pinter Prod: Joseph Losey & Norman Priggen Dir: Joseph Losey Phot: Douglas Slocombe Ed: Reginald Mills Prod Des: Richard Macdonald Mus: John Dankworth Cast: Dirk Bogarde, Sarah Miles, Wendy Craig, James Fox
- Nick James, “Joseph Losey Harold Pinter: In search of poshlust times,” Sight & Sound 19, No. 6 (June 2009): p. 32. ↩
- Raymond Durgnat, “Skin Games,” Film Comment 17, No. 6 (November-December 1981): p. 29. ↩
- James: p. 35. ↩
- James: p. 35. ↩
- For further details on Joseph Losey and The Servant, see Dan Callahan, “Great Directors: Joseph Losey,” Senses of Cinema 2 (March 2003), http://sensesofcinema.com/2003/great-directors/losey/; Caroline Millar, “The Servant,” BFI Screenonline (2003-14), http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/450491/index.html. ↩