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The Servant

The Servant(1964)

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Manservant Hugo Barrett (Dirk Bogarde) initially seems like a paragon of domestic virtue and efficiency. Hired by the aristocratic, lay about London bachelor Tony (James Fox), Barrett brings order and comfort to his employer's life. But fault lines quickly begin to reveal themselves in The Servant (1963), directed by Joseph Losey from a script by Harold Pinter. As the film progresses, the too-cozy relationship between servant and employer begins to deteriorate. Tony's fiance Susan's (Wendy Craig) visits to his Chelsea townhouse are greeted with barely-disguised contempt by Barrett. He "accidentally" interrupts the couple making love on the living room floor, and banishes the flowers Susan has given Tony to cheer him up during an illness to a remote hallway. Though the terms of their war of wills are largely unspoken (Pinter's biographer Michael Billington describes the writer as working in "delicate shades and half-tones"), the two engage in a spirited battle for control of a man we increasingly sense, has a fragile, easily manipulated state of mind.

When Barrett's "sister" Vera (Sarah Miles) - really Barrett's lover-moves in to the townhouse to act as maid, the psychodrama escalates. Vera soon insinuates herself into Tony's bed and into his mind in a manner openly encouraged by Barrett. The pair appear to be working together to play upon Tony's vulnerabilities, whether for fun or profit. As their perverse psychological grip on Tony tightens, he plunges into a vortex of alcoholism and dementia. Soon, a cast of debauched hangers-on are visiting the townhouse, and the power dynamic between Tony and Barrett dramatically flip-flops. In their increasingly mutually dependent, often erotically-charged relationship, Tony becomes the eager-to-please lackey and Barrett holds the reigns of power.

Despite its setting in a white-gloved, well-ordered London, The Servant has a debauched and decadent air, invested with the realism and incisive take on human relationships of the British New Wave. Drawn from a 1948 novella by Robin Maugham (nephew of Somerset), The Servant was inspired by Maugham's own experiences renting a friend's house after the war. The home came with a manservant, whose sinister presence greatly unnerved Maugham. Power is at the heart of the film, set on the precipice of social revolution, as the British class system begins to wobble. In The Servant power is expressed in several forms, in the sexual power wielded by Vera against Tony, but also in the power balance of the British class system that initially keeps everyone in their place.

Heralded by the British Film Academy as the Most Promising Newcomer in The Servant, James Fox made a name for himself early in his career, with ambitious, artistic films such as Tony Richardson's The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962). Fox was suggested by Bogarde for the role in The Servant because of a quality Bogarde noticed when watching the 23-year-old actor on television. Beneath his grace, said Bogarde, there was "a muted quality of corruptibility. This young man could spoil like peaches: he could be led to the abyss," he recounted in John Coldstream's biography Dirk Bogarde. It just so happened that another actor Bogarde much admired and hoped might consider The Servant, Sarah Miles, was dating Fox at the time. After a period cavorting with London's hippie glitterati like Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull, Fox dropped out of acting after Nicholas Roeg and Donald Cammell's Performance in 1970. The strain of making that film along with personal problems led to a nervous breakdown and later a religious conversion. He eventually returned to film in the Eighties, and wrote an autobiography called Comeback in 1983.

Director Joseph Losey and writer Harold Pinter (who has a brief cameo in The Servant) collaborated on two other films, Accident (1967), also starring Dirk Bogarde, and The Go-Between (1970). After a directorial career working for MGM and RKO in America the left-leaning Losey fled to England after the Communist witch-hunt of the Joe McCarthy era had blacklisted him from working in Hollywood and driven him from the States. During the production of The Servant Losey was struck with a brutal case of pneumonia. In order for the film producers not to shut down the film, Losey asked Bogarde to direct the film for ten days in his absence. Bogarde managed to keep the film on schedule, though he later said the experience made him determined never to direct.

In his introduction to Margaret Hinxman and Susan d'Arcy's The Cinema of Dirk Bogarde, Losey calls Bogarde, a frequent collaborator, "a thinking actor, a skilled one, an honest one." The actor managed to distinguish many a film by his sheer presence. "He would often, in fact, suggest unsettling currents at work in otherwise modest and/or humdrum films," according to screenonline. The Servant not only radically advanced the British film industry in terms of what the regional cinema could achieve, it resurrected Bogarde's career, allowing him to move beyond his status as a popular matinee idol in the 1950s hailed as the British Rock Hudson. He signaled his release from a 14 year contract with the Rank Organization by playing a gay barrister in a maverick film treatment of homosexuality, Victim (1961), directed by Basil Dearden. Two years later, The Servant underscored Bogarde's complexity and depth and won the actor his first British Academy Award. He went on to win a second British Academy Award as a man who leaves his family for Julie Christie in John Schlesinger's Darling (1965). Working on The Servant paved the way for even bigger opportunities over the course of his nearly seventy film career.

Bogarde went on to work with some of the most esteemed names in European cinema including Luchino Visconti in Death in Venice (1971) and The Damned (1969), Alain Resnais in Providence (1977), Rainer Werner Fassbinder in Despair (1978) and Bertrand Tavernier in These Foolish Things (1990), his last film. In 1984 Bogarde was the first Briton ever to serve as president of the jury at the Cannes Film Festival and in 1992 he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. Later in life, Bogarde also became a bestselling writer of autobiographies and novels before his death of a heart attack in 1999.

The Servant was dark and ambiguous enough to be threatened with shelving. But its release proved reassuringly positive: The Servant was a popular critical and arthouse success. Time praised Bogarde for "the most substantial role of his career," and the Daily Telegraph proclaimed, "he has never done anything better-a wonderfully macabre suggestion of a brutal nature beneath a smooth surface."

Producers: Joseph Losey, Norman Priggen
Director: Joseph Losey
Screenplay: Harold Pinter; Robin Maugham (novel "The Servant")
Cinematography: Douglas Slocombe
Music: John Dankworth
Film Editing: Reginald Mills
Cast: Dirk Bogarde (Hugo Barrett), Sarah Miles (Vera), Wendy Craig (Susan), James Fox (Tony), Catherine Lacey (Lady Mounset), Richard Vernon (Lord Mounset), Ann Firbank (Society Woman), Doris Knox (Older Woman), Patrick Magee (Bishop), Jill Melford (Younger Woman), Alun Owen (Curate), Harold Pinter (Society Man), Derek Tansley (Head Waiter), Brian Phelan (Man in Pub), Hazel Terry (Woman in Bedroom), Philippa Hare (Girl in Bedroom), Dorothy Bromiley (Girl in Phone Box), Alison Seebohm (Girl in Pub), Chris Williams (Cashier in Coffee Bar), Gerry Duggan (Waiter).

by Felicia Feaster

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