Either word applies, iconic or milestone. Neither Britain nor British cinema was the same after The Servant appeared, not bad for a movie that cost less than £150,000. Timing is everything, and in 1963 the Beatles released their first record and Harold MacMillan resigned as Prime Minister. The Servant was based on a 1948 novel by Robin Maugham but the movie caught the changing mood. The culture needed freshening from untapped sources, and people wanted to talk about social class. The contraceptive pill arrived in 1964, and after that people talked about sex. The successful talked to people who would have previously been ignored. And so it went.
Compared to what was being shown on screens in mainland Europe in the 60s the sex in The Servant is not explicit. There was nothing that troubled the British censors. The Servant, though, is the first British movie where the characters look as if they are in heat and possessed by desire. In British movies prior to The Servant there were seducers and the seduced, the calculating and the misguided, but all made an intellectual decision about what they would do next. There was desire but an absence of lust. In The Servant animal instincts prevail. Although it is not clearly audible The Servant has the first muttered obscenity in British cinema.
In the original novel the servant who engineers the decline of his aristocrat master is foreign born and sinister. Joseph Losey directed the film, and Harold Pinter wrote the script. Between them changes were made to the story. The servant became English working class and he had a mother in Manchester. Modern readers of the novel by Maugham will be sensitive to the original descriptions of the servant, which have racist overtones. The relationship in the novel suggests a crisis in the British upper class caused by the loss of Empire. This is toned down in the film but it exists somewhere in the subtext along with notions of class and a changing social system. Either way there are challenges for the British elite.
The upper class used to be called the ruling class. Both film and novel versions of The Servant make it clear that without the privilege of rule and domination, either over foreign lands or their own citizens, the members of the upper class will perish. Self-preservation is important, and the members of the upper class have no alternative but to oppress the rest of us. It is more than simple privilege. It is how they survive in the struggle between those who are supposedly sophisticated and those who are practical but perceived as mundane. In the last thirty years this message has been regarded as heresy but in 1963 it was almost accepted wisdom.
In 1964 the Profumo affair confirmed the suspicions. The Servant anticipates the future. The manservant has a role similar to the one Stephen Ward had in the Profumo affair. Ward provided both temptation and consolation to his upper class friends and customers. The temptation was booze and beautiful women. The consolation was a supposed supportive shoulder. Tony the aristocrat calls his servant Barrett but his first name is Hugo, and not only is he going somewhere he will take some of his betters with him.
In The Servant the aristocrat Tony intends to marry his upper class fiancée, Susan. The woman has more sense than the boyfriend but it does not prevent her from being an unpleasant bully. Susan, of course, is fighting for survival. In the final scene in the film Susan walks into a debauched party. In classic Pinter style Susan compromises herself and embraces Hugo before she runs away from the man in disgust. Losey and Pinter created a moment that reminds us of the role of the aristocratic wives in the Profumo affair. The world of Stephen Ward and his aristocratic friends demanded capable well-bred women who for money and wealth were prepared to act like elegant whores.
Joseph Losey had been driven out of the USA by McCarthyism. In 1963 The Servant was regarded as a radical look at the corruption and the hopeless myopia within the British upper class. Today it can be interpreted as a conservative warning about the future and the permissiveness that will undermine the British stiff upper lip. Dirk Bogarde was more complicated than his left wing colleagues. He was not sympathetic to anyone that he regarded as uninspired or insufficiently gifted. His misanthropy helped him as an actor. His best performances are without pity. Bogarde is great as Hugo Barrett. His Northern accent is reduced to nothing more than a hint, a consequence of good manners and aspiration. ‘I am a gentleman’s gentleman,’ says Hugo. This is how the class system operates, how ordinary people can use their oppressors as tools and weapons against others.
We have moved on a little and today we use our proximity to celebrity and an awareness of gossip as weapons. In one of his more sensible moments Tony throws the scheming Hugo and his girlfriend Vera out of his house. Later Tony and Hugo meet by accident in the local pub. The scene is underwritten but Bogarde saves it with his presence. He pleads to Tony to let him return to his job as a manservant. Tony says nothing, and Hugo waits. The expression in the eyes of Bogarde reveals a man who is desperate, determined, wilful, vulnerable, threatening, different and dangerous. The Servant is when Bogarde stopped being a movie star and became a serious actor.
The film is shaped like a three act play. Hugo arrives in the first act. In the second Vera joins the household. Tony is seduced by Vera but tries to re-establish his relationship with Susan. She discovers the truth about Tony and Vera. Tony forces Hugo and Vera out of his house. Between the second and third acts Tony and Hugo meet in the pub. In the final act Tony and Hugo share decadence and the relationship has changed.
The script reveals the considerable talent of Pinter but his strengths can also be weaknesses. The script is pared down until there is minimal characterisation and a poor connection between the second and third acts. Perhaps Losey and Pinter felt that they were exposing universal truths. The movie can be interpreted as social criticism or a statement about the paradox of human relationships and our simultaneous need to depend and exploit. There are also religious overtones. As he did in Our Mother’s House, Bogarde acts like he might be the Devil.
The movie has plenty of directorial detail. Some of the detail is style, and some adds content. Losey likes to see his characters reflected in mirrors, and there are plenty in The Servant. Mirrors reflect the difference between what we are and what we pretend to be. The impressive staircase is much used and becomes a battlefield where master and servant battle for status. Control of the castle is the prize. There is also snow which one evening disappears from the streets without trace. The snow is not just the oppressive weight of the British class system but also recognition of how the repressed British may have sex but somehow never lose their virginity. Inevitably, the relationship between servant and master is examined. Susan regards Hugo as a threat. He is the controlling servant that she anticipates becoming after marriage. Hugo rejects the idea that he is a servant because he is the man who does everything in the house. This particular conversation finishes with the servant giving orders to the master.
Joseph Losey was interested in relationships that crossed boundaries. Before he arrived in the UK he made the film noir The Prowler in which a low-paid policeman seduces a rich housewife. In Britain the odd relationships continued. An agricultural labourer has a secret liaison with an aristocratic lady in The Go Between, and university lecturers obsess over a female student in the movie Accident. And there was The Servant. The three movies all had scripts written by Harold Pinter and depended on the British class system and its prejudices to make the subtle drama consequential. The real struggles in the life of Joseph Losey were left behind in the USA. In the UK he was allowed to work and observe. What he saw in Britain was a society defined by alliances and taboos.
Losey died over thirty years ago. The world has changed but the struggle continues which is why Theresa May has appointed truculent bigot Toby Young as the Director of the Office for Students. Days after he was appointed he deleted 54000 tweets from his account. Young has described these tweets as politically incorrect. Thanks to eagle eyed activists some of the missing tweets have been made available. The antics of the over-heated Toby transform Donald Trump into something polite and restrained. Young was once expelled from the Groucho club. He took cocaine and sold some to his friends. Cocaine usage and dealing are not breaches of club rules. Talking about it is. Toby Young is supposed to make Universities accountable to the students they serve. Most expect him, like Jeremy Hunt in the NHS, to have a hidden agenda. Universities provide critical thinking, and that is a problem for the present Government and the people it represents. The new upper class warriors are pugnacious, aggressive and as twisted as Hugo Barrett.
Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, a travel book and collections of film criticism. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.