Monday, December 10, 2007

The Servant

You can see why ‘The Servant’, with its themes of class hypocrisy, sexual politics, role reversal and power games, shocked audiences of 1963 … but with Bogarde in the lead role they should have seen it coming. From the delinquent gunning down George Dixon in ‘The Blue Lamp’ to the tortured Melville Farr in ‘Victim’, the man had already established himself as British cinema’s dark horse, no matter how many ‘Doctor’ films might have persuaded a swooning female fanbase to the contrary.

‘The Servant’ opens with Hugo Barrett (Bogarde) crossing a busy street on his way to a job interview with layabout toff Tony (Edward Fox). Behind him, framed so that it occupies the top third of the screen, is a sign reading ‘Thomas Crapper’ – the business premises of the company named after the sanitation magnate. A popular misconception is that Thomas Crapper invented the flush toilet, the word ‘crap’ deriving from his surname. Both were in use before Crapper’s prominence in his chosen profession. But these are asides. Losey may have included the shot to trade on these misconceptions. If so, then it works well. Barrett is a decidedly unsanitary character.

Arriving for his appointment, Barrett finds his prospective employer napping. “Too many beers at lunchtime,” Tony says candidly. Again, a first impression that gets to the heart of the character. Tony’s drinking worsens as the film progresses and his icy society girlfriend Susan (Wendy Craig) leaves him.

The events leading up to said split occupy the first half of the film, Barrett happily running Tony’s bachelor pad until Susan moves in and threatens his centrality to Tony’s lifestyle. By this point, Barrett has prevailed upon Tony to employ as maid a woman, Vera (Sarah Miles), whom he introduces as his sister. Tony carries on a dalliance with Vera behind Susan’s back.

So far, so sleazy. And ‘The Servant’ could easily have unfolded as an examination of louche, degenerate upper-middle class habits … except that Barrett, against whose working class pretentions Tony’s weak-willed aristocracy is contrasted, is every bit as degenerate himself.

Arriving back early from a weekend away, Tony and Susan find Barrett and Vera in the proverbial compromising position. “She’s your sister, you bastard!” an outraged Tony declares. Barrett swiftly robs him of the moral high-ground: “She’s my fiancée, sir, which sort of puts us in the same boat, doesn’t it?” At which point Tony throws the pair of them out; a case of too little too late as Susan gives him the elbow on the spot.

This, remember, is just the first half of the film. Barrett then inveigles his way back into the (now Susan-less) household, claiming that Vera has left him and taken his money (“she did us both, sir”). What follows is as if scriptwriter Harold Pinter (in the first of several collaborations with Losey) had pre-supposed ‘The Odd Couple’ but with all the New Yoik humour stripped away and laced instead with a dark, perverse, bitter strain of social satire.

Scenes between Barrett and Tony take the form of verbal battlegrounds. Bogarde and Fox strike sparks off each other. A homo-erotic subtext bubbles towards the surface. There’s a reference to shared experiences in the army. Both men have slept with Vera. Come the uber-cynical final scene, Susan and Vera have re-appeared, only to be herded out by Barrett, his dominance over Tony now complete. The last scene is of Barrett and a spectacularly wasted Tony alone together, no women between them anymore.

Lindsay Anderson’s ‘If…’ has famously been described as “a hand-grenade of a film” (Evening News). ‘The Servant’ is a letter-bomb, dropping through the front door of well-heeled society and blasting away the veer of good breeding and elegant manners. “I’m a gentleman’s gentleman – and you’re no bloody gentleman!” Barrett yells at one point, a standout line in a literate, intelligent and acerbic script. Losey’s direction and Douglas Slocombe’s cinematography are perfectly matched, particularly in the never-bettered use of mirrored images, a perfect visual encapsulation of the film’s sense of distortion, duplicity and reversal.

‘The Servant’ is taut, gripping and rewards repeated viewings. Next to ‘Death in Venice’, it is arguably Bogarde’s finest hour.

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