As the opening credits played at a screening of the 50th anniversary restored version of Joseph Losey’s film, The Servant (1963), I sat in my seat in the third row of the Film Forum next to my daughter Kajsa and reflected how something in the visuals spoke to a bond between us. Not just that I raised her, but that I raised her to watch with me certain kinds of movies. The gray skies and leafless trees in those opening shots, filmed in pristine black and white on streets of posh London townhomes, betokened a kind of shared cinematic space of the soul. It felt like an eternal world of Saturday or Sunday matinees, where the world outside—of no matter what era or time in our lives—could be held at bay while we pursued an imaginative interaction with worlds preserved on celluloid.
On that note, I began my viewing of the film rather bathed in nostalgia, not only for our comradely viewing of so much vintage art-house cinema in Kajsa’s early teens through her twenties and beyond, but for that space one inhabits as a willing revenant to the cinema of yesteryear, a space that feels like eternity. It could simply be a matter of certain neurons sparking that hadn’t sparked since whenever last I sat before smooth dissolves of black and white shots, but it felt more telling. I don’t mean “it’s 1963 again,” exactly. Since, to be sure, I have no real recollection of 1963—except, ok, a grim November day and hushed and stunned and sniffling adults gathered before a television set. But that’s not where I was while I sat in the Film Forum. That recollection is from me talking now. In my seat, I was only aware of being transposed to a world known to my inner landscape as “black and white Britain.” I gratefully entered.
The early going of the film seems paced to make us drink that world in. Losey’s oh-so-crisp images in the early going seem bent upon making us savor how things look. It’s a feast of textures. And the voices—the partly rushed and swallowed syllables of the manservant Barrett (Dirk Bogarde), the lilting and outgoing capriciousness of the upper-class and tony Tony (James Fox)—immediately clue us in to the distance between these two men. These two men and Susan (Wendy Craig), the fiancée of the latter.
With the introduction of “the female element,” the film’s pace becomes that of opening moves in a soon-to-be-sinister game, one I was quite willing to let go on for the entire afternoon. Let’s watch how Barrett insinuates himself between these two brittle lovebirds, with Tony only too conscious of how much he stands to lose if he lets his bachelor domain come under the sway of the woman he has not yet got around to marrying. And Susan—why shouldn’t she be irritated by the way that servant is constantly underfoot, so cunningly serviceable. And Barrett, well, yes, Barrett. Dirk Bogarde is one of the greatest film actors of that era, able to communicate so much with just the smallest hint—like whether or not his eyeballs shine or grow cold, like whether or not a few stray hairs flip across his brow, or whether or not his lips curl ever so slightly—or precisely when. At this point, we’re watching the mouse putting the cats through their paces.
The film doesn’t stay there, though. And at some point in the next segment—featuring big-eyed, mobile-mouthed Sara Miles as Barrett’s alleged sister Vera, a maid who makes a different kind of threesome with Barrett and Tony—I began to think that the change was a sop to viewers who want more sex, less frigidity. It was as if, unable to show an actual romance between Barrett and Tony, the film had to introduce a surrogate—“the sister.” Of course, we soon learn, as Barrett lets Vera tart the place up a bit, that the two are lovers and in league to seduce their superior. But why? That’s not quite clear, and that’s where the headgames really begin. Miles’ Vera is not nearly subtle enough for Barrett as he was when we assumed he was gay, and so everyone has to come down to a more deliberately carnal level. Certainly, that has its place in any ménage à trois, and it's not like the species is ever likely to outgrow it. So, yes, Vera, then, as the game little piece promoting class relations and giving her supposed fiancée, Barrett, the thrill of consorting with his master through their access to the same bit o’ stuff.
All well and good—after all, Susan is rather left out of things as she’s too uppity for anything like what Tony’s willing to get into behind her back. And isn’t that always the way? In any case, a trip to a lovely estate out of town finds Tony and Susan as hot for each other as they ever were—except that Tony seems to pine for his townhouse. A surprise return in the middle of the night and…who’s been sleeping in my bed and – why here they are, still in it! This scene is captured by Losey with all the discomforting irony of the situation. Don’t you hate it when you come home with your lady love only to find that your “man” is above stairs in your bed making “incest” with a near relation whom you’ve been having cordial relations with yourself upon occasion? What can you do, lord and master that you be, but stand at the foot of the stairs feeling, well, humilated and impotent as you hear their quite-at-ease-thank-you voices drifting down to stick daggers in your most vulnerable spots, while your not-yet-missus stands there looking as though she were watching an immolation, concerned that it’s bad form. And then, when the shadow of the naked “Man” stands there between you two…
Where can we go from there? Tony can call Barrett for a dressing-down but, since Susan stoically refuses to depart, that also means certain revelations—particularly when delivered by a blubbery Vera who, after all, was genuinely keen, you see—will cause no end of ill will in Tony’s above-board relationship. So, yes, he can send Barrett and his strumpet packing—his manservant’s cheeky “I’m well within my rights” still ringing in his ears—and then try to get back to where he once belonged. Until a chance meeting in a pub when Barrett, now enduring a service position that feels like hell after the bliss of his former employer, tells him how Vera ran off on him and begs to return.
A return with a difference we can say, for now the two—master and man—disport themselves one minute like a bitchy couple and the next like frat boys on a bender or brothers mucking about till mummy comes home. We could say the film is lurching back to the path it might have been on at the start, but then it can’t stay there either. We can’t have them live happily ever after with each other when they can’t possibly have been in school together! Bring back Susan.
And return she does, just in time to catch one of those orgiastic set-pieces that were all the rage after La Dolce Vita (1960)—decadence isn’t for kids, kids, because it’s never really much fun, particularly when all the participants really do know better—and, when Tony goes to pieces, why there’s no one to master him like his man. Au revoir, Susan, it’s been swell.
Each segment of this little psychodrama has its own visual feel and presentation, and the transformation of Bogarde displays reserves of psychological nuance that beggar most actors’ grasp of the relation between externals and internals. There is lots of fun with mirrors and compositions of two and three and four characters, knowledge about what lighting does to faces that is nothing short of revelatory and, for real comic glee, a scene in a restaurant that lets us tour a few tables to eavesdrop on the psychodramas we might be following instead of this one—while Harold Pinter, who makes these characters speak the way they do, shares a bottle with a bird at a table in the corner.
There’s also a visit to some bohemian coffee bar where a white guy with a moustache—quite outré—bangs out the blues. Clearly, the class system is going to hell, the thin end of the wedge, and all that.
When I was a teen, what I loved best was the 1967-68 period when it all went technicolor, psychedelic even. Now, I find in the artefacts of the early Sixties a more subtle grasp of the seismic shift because things have to be more subtle when you can’t just let it all hang out. Looking back through the constraints is liberating, perhaps? In any case, as the very short end credits played we returned to 2013 and our vicarious and possibly cathartic contemplation of the masterly control certain artists were capable of bringing to the messy shambles of sexual and societal roles—for our continued amusement. Yes, it felt like old times, in so many ways.