Movies Are My Wife

Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog


From the beginning of Joseph Losey’s THE SERVANT (1963, British) we know something is going to go wrong with the central relationship depicted in the film.  Perhaps it is the portentous camera angles or Johnny Dankworth’s jazzy music score which seems the epitome of grim decadence.  Or maybe it is Dirk Bogarde’s first appearance in this unsettling little film.  His is a demeanor of rigid, perfect decorum.  He knows his place; so much so that we can’t be anything but certain that he is bad.  From that point it is just a question of how far Losey and screenwriter Harold Pinter will take us.  In this, the first of their three collaborations, the experience is a potent one.  Potent because it features two of Pinter’s favorite themes: the break down of communication and thus relationships and the presence of a cryptic menace.  But it is also powerful because of Losey’s visual and audio touches, prominent throughout. 

We begin as Tony (James Fox), a symbol of snotty British upper class privilege, interviews a prospective employee, Barrett (Bogarde), who will become his man-servant.  But things get off to a bad start in the new relationship.  A “gentleman’s gentleman”, Barrett is mortified (or so it seems) when he accidentally intrudes on a tryst between Tony and his fiancée, Susan (Wendy Craig).  The interrupted lovers are not too pleased either.  Especially Susan (perhaps already aware that her own relationship is about to go bad), who is most demonstrative in revealing her displeasure with Barrett.  Interestingly enough, Tony castigates his lady-love.  “He may be a servant but he’s still a human being.”  We discover through the course of the film that Barrett is very human – with all the nastiness that entails.  For the moment, Tony is in control.  But Barrett has plans…

The devolution of the relationship is subtly depicted with carefully composed camera shots.  In an early scene Tony, who is standing, towers over Barrett who is meekly sitting, hat on lap in a wooden chair.  The high angle of the camera emphasizes the domination of the upper class over the servant class.  Slowly,  Barrett takes over the dominant role.  By the end, we have the one time subservient butler towering over Tony as he crawls on the floor in a drunken stupor – a defeated and deflated man.  But before we get to this point, we are treated to several bravura passages of visual and audio effects (including clever mixing of dialogue in the restaurant scene), often showing the manipulation of Tony by Barrett:  When the servant’s sexy sister, Vera (Sarah Miles) comes to visit (through Barrett’s chicanery), Tony finds himself alone with her in the kitchen.  A dripping faucet stands in for Tony’s heart beat, the sound getting louder and faster as Tony becomes increasingly aroused.  And when that faucet gives way to a ticking clock, we know it is only a matter of time.  Vera finishes her seduction of Tony in a plush, high back chair, turned away from us,  hiding the assignation from the eager eyes of the audience.  All that is alowd us is a close up of Vera’s feet hanging over the arm of the chair as she wiggles in ecstacy.  And what can be said of all the close-ups of feet throughout the film?  A close up of Vera’s feet begin the kitchen scene.  There is a tight shot of Tony’s feet splashing in a puddle followed by his feet soaking in a bath, close shots of a woman’s feet pacing in front of a phone booth and more.  But we must allow filmmakers their fetishes and perhaps shouldn’t delve into things that unlike the rest of the film, may be no deeper than that puddle of Tony’s. 

CREDITS: Directed by Joseph Losey.  Written by Harold Pinter.  Based on a novel by Robin Maugham.   Photography by Douglas Slocombe.  Music by Johnny Dankworth.  With Dirk Bogarde, James Fox, Sarah Miles, Wendy Craig, Catherine Lacey and Richard Vernon.

June 14, 2012 Posted by | British film, class system | , , , , , | Leave a comment