The Servant Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review: A Scathing, Subversive Film of Class, Sexuality, and Manipulation

Only a few films in cinematic history have ever portrayed the rather complex dynamics between masters and their manservants, but arguably none of them is more deliciously sinister as The Servant, blacklisted American filmmaker Joseph Losey’s chilling 1963 adaptation of Robin Maugham’s novel, made when Losey moved to England to continue his career.

James Fox (in his film debut) plays Tony, a foppish aristocrat returning home to London from working in Africa and buys himself a posh, new townhouse. He needs a manservant to help redecorate and spruce up the place (and his own disorganized life) and thinks he has found the perfect one in Hugo Barrett (Dirk Bogarde, in one of his signature roles). Barrett is a quiet and dutiful servant who seems to change Tony’s whole life, much to the chagrin of his Tony’s fiancé Susan (Wendy Craig), who feels that there is no need for a servant. Tensions increase further when Barrett invites his “sister” Vera (a seductive Sarah Miles) into the mix, which causes even more unrest. After this, a chain reaction is set off, where eventually the roles of master and servant get irrevocably (and perhaps permanently) twisted.

There is a delicious little game that is being played right from the start. You think you’re watching one film, but it turns out you’ve been duped. There is a power struggle (and two different films being played at once). The first film is the established role between master Tony and servant Barrett where each know their place on the social food chain. However, the second film comes into play (especially where Vera is concerned) because when she displays her feminine wiles, Tony can’t help but fall into the trap. And from then on, the psychological warfare (and eventual gay undercurrent) grows. In the end, both of their roles are changed forever.

I can easily single out Bogarde because his performance is marvelous and lethal, but the three other main actors: Fox, Miles, and Craig, are just as riveting. They all bounce off each other quite well and add to the disturbingly crafted study of corruption and depravity. And of course, Losey’s masterful direction, Douglas Solocombe’s striking cinematography, Harold Pinter’s superb screenplay, and John Dankworth’s jazzy score don’t hurt.

Once you see this scathing, subversive film of class, sexuality, and manipulation, you’re probably unlikely to forget it. It’s brilliant.

The new Blu-ray release from Criterion contains some worthwhile supplements, including a new program on Losey by film critic Imogen Sara Smith; a rare 1976 interview with Losey, conducted by critic Michael Ciment; a 1996 interview with Pinter; vintage interviews with Bogarde, Fox, Miles, and Craig; and trailer. There’s also a great new essay by author Colm Toibin.


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