The Servant Review
The Servant opens innocently enough with wealthy young playboy Tony (James Fox) being awoken in his empty house by servant-to-be Hugo Barrett (Dirk Bogarde). Tony informs Barrett that he will be moving into the house in a few weeks, and will need a servant to cater for his needs. At first, Tony is the ultimate master of the house, treating Barrett as nothing more than a slave. However, slowly and assuredly, Barrett begins to grab his own hold onto the power reins, using his own sister Vera (Sarah Miles) as a sort of sexual bait for Tony to lose his supremacy in the house. Eventually, both Tony and Barrett himself are dragged into a homoerotic sexual battle that could spiral out of control.
The Servant was released in 1963 and was based on a controversial novel by Robin Maugham. Playwright Harold Pinter, whose work on the script usurped the credit of Maugham's original novel, supervised the film adaptation. Maugham failed to capitalise on the critical acclaim the film was receiving, and was angered when the work was seen as Pinter's. This was the first cinematic collaboration between Pinter, Bogarde and director Joseph Losey. The film was released at a time in English political history where the period of sixties' exuberance had not yet struck the country socially, and it received both high praise and disdain for daring to shake the establishment of cinematic convention.
The Servant deliberately keeps the audience at arm's length. It doesn't wish for the heroes or villains to have clear, distinct boundaries, nor does it wish for an emotional point of identification on the part of the audience. If anything, the film is an experiment, testing out three different moulds of the Servant-Master relationship. Firstly, there is the professional relationship being tested, in that Tony is the master and Barrett is the hired servant. Secondly, there is the social relationship, represented by the higher class of Tony and Susan (Wendy Craig) battled against the working class resilience of Barrett and Vera. Thirdly, there is also a gender battle working through the film, in which the male and female sides battle for domination, and the right to the title of master. Whichever side wins each of these battles in unimportant in the film's eyes; it merely wishes for the audience to acknowledge the fact that not only do they exist but the share of power isn't as pre-determined as traditionally regarded. The four central characters of Tony, Barrett, Vera and Susan all have interlocking battles of power with each other, and it's always unclear as to who has the upper hand. At times, The Servant is suggesting the same themes Wells was suggesting in The Time Machine, that the affluent upper-class are so dependent on the slavery of the working classes that they are unable to function without them. At other times, the film is merely suggesting that the working class see social order as nothing more than an obtainable rank system, free for anyone who is determined enough to be elavted. For a film close to forty years old, it's interesting how The Servant can remain both powerful and ambiguous in its dramatic impact.
Maugham himself was a closet homosexual, and his repressed sexual tension is heavily crammed into the film adaptation. It's always hard to tell whether both Tony and Barrett's characters contain more heterosexual or homosexual tendencies. Indeed, there are times when their relationship seems completely based on the typical 'married couple', with Barrett playing the part of the 'Nagging Housewife'. These two central performances are the key to the film, but Dirk Bogarde effortlessly steals the limelight away from James Fox, who at times can be accused of possessing an overwhelming blandness. Bogarde is menacing, at times he casually balances the notion that he can either be the film's villain or anti-hero, and the fact that he never tips his hat either way demonstrates his ability to keep the audience guessing. Wendy Craig and Sarah Miles both perform admirably, but seem resigned to mere supporting players, as if Bogarde and Fox are the main event.
Losey directs with a constant and confined tension throughout the film. Along with the vivid cinematography by the master-of-black-and-white Douglas Slocombe, Losey gives the film a thick, suspenseful interior that seems to act like a ticking time-bomb; you sense the film and its characters could explode any minute. Losey delights in the recurring motif of mirrors throughout the film, as if suggesting that the image of power is just as important as the possession of power itself.
The final act is slightly skewed in comparison to the first two acts of the film, and The Servant loses its way by the conclusion, taking almost a turn towards the surreal. Even so, it's one of the classics of sixties' British cinema, and can represent an age in which intelligent adult drama shook the dusty conventions of an ignorant society struggling to find itself.
Presented in anamorphic widescreen 1.66:1, with short black bars on the side of the image, the transfer is very good, with a fine sharpness of picture and good, natural monochrome tones. Slight edge enhancement can be detected in some of the exterior sequences, but this doesn't mar proceedings.
Presented in the film's original mono soundtrack, the sound mix is very good for a forty-year-old film, with sound events full of clarity and a well-balanced mix that complements every element from the dialogue to the score and background effects.
Menu: A static menu comprising of a few stills from the film.
Packaging: Despite being released by Warner, this is presented in an amaray case due to it being co-distributed by Studio Canal, and so the design is very sleek and minimalist, embodying a mainly black and red colour scheme.
Trailer: The re-issue trailer for the film is included, and is typically sixties in style even if little of the plot summation is revealed.
Again, another classic slice of sixties cinema is given a barebones release. Still, the film itself, along with the picture and sound qualities of the DVD, all ensure that The Servant is a worthy film to buy in the cheap and slot into any collection.