(1963) (Dir. Joseph Losey)
From a slight 1948 novella by Robin Maugham, a script worked on by Harold Pinter, and with director Joseph Losey, racked with pneumonia during a brutal winter, phoning instructions to stand-in director Dirk Bogarde (who was the only real name in the cast), this remarkable film, bleak, grim, black with snowy dashes of white, was odds-on to fail.
Tony, a delusional, well-heeled young wastrel (James Fox) has moved in to new digs and needs a manservant for…”well everything! You know.” Gentleman’s gentleman Barrett (Bogarde) fits the bill, despite a venal, visceral, almost innate hatred between him and Tony’s posh girlfriend (Wendy Craig). Why does she react so nastily towards Barrett? Perhaps because Barrett is a wicked, devious, conscienceless adventurer, and a megalomaniac? When Barrett’s “sister” (Sarah Miles) joins the household as maid, the plot thickens and decorum thins.
Tony’s decline is shown in a series of vignettes and conversations, and beautifully suggested by subtly increasing agitated and erratic behaviour. He is a weak, foolish and vulnerable man, whom friend Susan tries desperately (and vainly) to save from his servant, who is as big a slime-ball in a sea of pus one could imagine, the Cockney version of Iago or Edmund, and intent on complete domination in film’s most classic role reversal. With Barrett’s strong will, unscrupulous world-view, and access to the drugs and depravity of the demi-monde, it all spells trouble for Mister Tony.
As David Shipman commented, “The cinema since Theda Bara onwards has offered us studies of decadence, but earlier films seemed like child’s play beside The Servant.” Indeed. Satisfactory on every level, the heart of its great power is an astounding, mighty performance by Bogarde as Barrett, “Weak-strong” as he described him, loathsome and bitter, calculating and cowardly, clever and sociopathic. Bogarde in his memoir Snakes and Ladders recalled his approach to the character – after selecting the shoes, came the details: “Brylcreemed hair, flat to the head, a little scurfy round the back and in the parting, white puddingy face, damp hands…Glazed, aggrieved eyes…His walk I took from an ingratiating Welsh waiter who attended me in an hotel in Liverpool. The glazed and pouched eyes were those of a car-salesman lounging against a Buick in the Euston Road, aggrieved, antagonistic, resentful, sharp; filing his nails. [Refer to the scene of him sitting at the kitchen table after serving dinner to Tony and Susan – glaring off in the mindless distance, a large beer set before him, picking his teeth.] No make-up, ever.”
Pinter’s weltanschauung here is bleak as in Beckett, its remorseless and callous flavour extending to the minor characters. Even the mock and comical Paddy in the pub, who ruminates over his “bit of bad luck,” seems somehow unwholesome. The Varnished Culture orders you to see it (perhaps when not in a light or frivolous mood) – it is not a matter of cultural urgency, but high importance.