Close Up

7 - 16 August 2015: The Servant

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The Servant
Joseph Losey
1963 | 111 min | B/W | 35mm

"Adapted from a short story by Robin MaughamThe Servant (1963) was the first of three collaborations between Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter. It was followed by two further quintessentially English films Accident (1967) and The Go-Between (1971).

The Servant is a savage indictment of the English class system, and its waning hold over all aspects of the working and cultural life of Britain. Set almost entirely within the smart new townhouse of foppish aristocrat Tony (James Fox), the film plays out the struggle for power and dominance ignited by his duplicitous manservant Barrett – an energetic and genuinely ominous Dirk Bogarde.

The opening sequence of stark, leafless trees outlined against a cold English sky suggests the clinical austerity of 1960s Britain and hints at the cold manipulations that follow. The first shot of Barrett, passing Thomas Crapper Sanitary Engineers, slyly insinuates the theme of the film as the 'flushing away' of the old order. His clipped appearance and punctuality tells us he means business, while the first shot of Tony (a 'businessman') finds him vulnerable, asleep in a chair.

The drama revolves around issues of both class and gender, and the relationship between the two. While Barrett slowly insinuates himself in the house and manipulates his master by slyly rearranging the decor, it is through sex (in the shape of his alluring and sexually permissive 'sister', Vera (Sarah Miles) that he finally brings about Tony's downfall. The calculating allure of Vera, in contrast to the stuffy, over-bred Susan (Wendy Craig), cuts through the class barriers and brings Tony down to the same level as his servant. Soon the boundaries between master and servant break down, as Tony succumbs to the will of his stronger adversary.

Belonging to an era of filmmaking which for the first time dealt explicitly with issues never before seen on screen, The Servant (in common with many of the contemporary British New Wave) is also artistically ambitious. Several scenes (particularly those between Tony, Barrett and Susan) are seen through the distortion of the big, round, convex mirror which sits on the living room wall, reflecting the unnatural, misformed relationships between the people in the room. Each shot is directed with precision, often framing Susan or Vera between Tony and Barrett, or positioning one of the two men close to the camera while his rival lingers in the background." – Caroline Millar. Courtesy of the BFI

Part of our British New Wave season