They also serve who only stand and annihilate
As Hugo Barrett, the manservant with a private agenda, Dirk Bogarde achieves more with a glance or a slight movement in Joseph Losey’s The Servant than another actor would have accomplished bringing a lifetime of stage technique to the part. Barrett is a phenomenally complex, delicate role, and the wrong actor could have easily thrown the entire film out of balance simply by leaning too heavily on a line or holding a beat just a second too long. What it needed was an actor possessing both prodigious intelligence and intuition, and Bogarde was, in that sense, perfectly suited for it. Throughout his career he’d refined his screen acting to such an extent that he was fully capable of endowing even the most hopeless films (The Spanish Gardener, for instance, or I Could Go On Singing) with a measure of eloquence they might not have deserved. Luchino Visconti certainly knew this — Bogarde’s largely wordless performance in Death in Venice was perhaps his finest — and so did Joseph Losey. From the compulsive criminal of The Sleeping Tiger to the tightly wound Oxford don of Accident, Bogarde seemed the best channel for realizing Losey’s chronicles of civilized (and quite often uncivilized) treachery, a Pop Art mess like Modesty Blaise notwithstanding. In one of the most enigmatic films to come out of Great Britain, The Servant, both artists along with screenwriter Harold Pinter succeeded in rendering a study of human power, its limits as well as its possibilities, that, over forty years after its release remains a far more subtle, less baldly allegorical work than critics and some audiences first surmised.
Of course, within the context of British cinema in the 1960s, the prevailing view of The Servant as a social allegory was altogether predictable. From the moment the so-called “kitchen sink” phenomenon of British stage drama and literature began to reach the screen in the late 1950s, moviegoers in Britain had a number of convulsive, angry works dumped in their laps, adapted from the novels, stories, and plays of Alan Shillitoe, John Osborne, John Braine, and Shelagh Delaney. Like their sources, films such as Room at the Top (1958), Look Back in Anger (1959), and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1961) were intensely informed by issues of class, emerging in more or less enraged response to a postwar climate when notions of a truly classless British society were promoted with a straight face by many of its leaders. The movies militated against this sophistry more vividly than their literary antecedents ever could, directly rubbing the world’s nose in stark, incriminating, black-and-white evidence of rigidly enforced class structures, dreary factories, bombed-out ruins, stultifying housing developments, and numberless other visions of a ruinously dull and decaying Britain. The directors in this cinematic movement — the old “Free Cinema” crowd of the 1950s (Karel Reisz, Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson) — utilized their prodigious skills in the documentary arena to give their audience nothing less than Britain’s answer to Italian neorealism: an epoch of human and societal disfigurement, calling everyone’s attention to a terminal malaise that, given the trajectory of their later careers, perhaps afflicted the filmmakers more directly than the country itself. The formal posture of these films so dominated British cinema of this period that practically every movie coming out of England, regardless of its subject matter, was received as yet another moral bench warrant served on the upper classes (even as seemingly benign and cheerful a work as Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night was seen by some to embody this social implication). So what else were moviegoers supposed to think?
Matters of Class may have been a principal subtext of the novel from which The Servant was derived (a novel I confess I have not read), but in no sense are they anything more than a vague underpinning of either the movie Joseph Losey directed or, particularly, the screenplay Harold Pinter wrote. This is a film about power, in its most basic and consuming forms.
Hugo Barrett (Bogarde) arrives at three-on-the-dot for an appointment. His prospective employer, Tony (James Fox), is an upper-class wastrel just come into his inheritance. He’s purchased a pleasant, tastefully appointed house on Royal Avenue, Chelsea, and fixed it up with all the appurtenances proper to a gentleman of his station. He intends to begin life anew, hoping eventually to install his current fiancé Susan (Wendy Craig) as his good lady wife. But all of this is set to happen sometime in the future. For now he’s just a wealthy bachelor, no more. Tony is not in fact an indolent dilettante; he has some ambition. Currently he’s involved in the planning of a frightfully improving and altogether lucrative development project: constructing low-income housing for the peoples of Asia Minor by blasting a few hundred miles of Brazilian rain forest to hell and gone. Such ambitions, however, tend to consume large quantities of a man’s time, so Tony is in need of a live-in manservant, a “gentleman’s gentleman” as they were known so long ago.
As an institution, manservants were indispensable to Britain’s upper classes in earlier decades of that country’s social history. They were essentially male nannies, superannuated babysitters. Quaint, quiet men whose tasks were to protect the interests of a gentleman; service his household needs with fixed devotion; and, most important, suggest no evidence of an independent will. But they were also largely obsolete by the latter half of the twentieth century, existing exclusively as a hangover from feudal traditions that were dead before the newly privileged were born. Tony, being a freshly minted member of Britain’s vanishing aristocracy, doesn’t seem to be aware of this, and it’s unlikely he’d care very much if he was. He sees the employment of a manservant as a positive necessity, a way of observing the forms so essential to his status. And Barrett looks to be the best candidate for the job who’s ever drawn a breath. He’s well mannered, decently turned out, exudes competence from every pore. What’s more, the man can cook.
Critical response to The Servant was laudatory, bordering on the ecstatic. It seemed everyone — from Penelope Gilliat, Philip Oakes, and Richard Roud in Britain to Andrew Sarris, Eugene Archer, and Brendan Gill in the U.S. — found the occasion sufficient for superlatives (though Archer’s encomium was somewhat mitigated by his recent behind-the-scenes effort at persuading Losey to adapt Faulkner’s The Wild Palms, an example of the ethical conflicts American auteurists were falling prey to under the Cahiers influence of those heady days). Even newspaper critics who people actually read, such as Bosley Crowther and Judith Crist, found much to praise, little to damn. They noted the uniformly fine performances, particularly those of Bogarde and Fox; Losey’s fluid, beautifully understated direction; as well as the overall impenetrability of Harold Pinter’s screenplay. In fact, much of what makes The Servant such a remarkably compelling work is the manner in which these elements converge in a still-rare formal harmony. But when it came to analyzing The Servant, cinemagoers were soon laboring under the dolorous weight of a view that simply took it for granted that the movie was obviously some form of allegory, a social morality play beating the deadest horse in Christendom: Britain’s tired class system. It was an unfortunately limited reading of The Servant that nevertheless obtains to this day. Numberless critics concluded that Barrett and Tony had, in the end, simply exchanged places, that Barrett’s skillful manipulation of his employer from passivity to dependence to dissipation and outright depravity represented a form of victory, however pyrrhic, for the working classes. To be fair, Joseph Losey’s background as an expatriate who fled Hollywood’s anti-Communist pogrom a decade before helped codify this view. The same, however, could not be said for Harold Pinter.
Although Pinter was a contemporary of John Osborne and Arnold Wesker — and was often cited as an essential figure in the “Angry Young Man” school of British theater those men had largely forged — his work resembled theirs only superficially. While Osborne’s plays, for example, couldn’t have been more direct about their social concerns, Pinter’s were obscure to the point of abstraction. If he was “angry” about anything, it was impossible to determine what he was angry about. His work was simply never concerned with the larger issues of society, and the only politics he routinely confronted were those in the language of human interaction, He was endlessly preoccupied with the treacheries inherent in the most time-worn relations. In fact, it was the only theme he returned to again and again: the subtle determination of some to undermine and destroy one another while maintaining a façade of order and civility. In this respect, his screenplay for The Servant is one of his greatest works, the equal of anything he wrote for the stage. With his devastating economy of dialogue and explication, he unblinkingly chronicles the savage destruction of one man’s will at the hands of another; not the half-bright social parable of some critics’ dreams. This, and not a barely existent subtext, is what makes The Servant such a disturbing film.
Viewers and critics who sought to drown The Servant in sociopolitical syrup were avoiding the obvious. There is something indeed tragic about the decline of this upper-class twit that failed to register with more class-conscious critics. In the final sequence, when Susan sees for herself the sodden, hopeless laudanum freak Tony has become, and flees from what she suddenly realizes was always Barrett’s house, she clings to a tree and weeps uncontrollably. And along with her, we can’t help but feel that, despite Tony’s basic lack of character, something has been irretrievably lost. But anyone who imagined that some fundamental reversal had taken place between Barrett and Tony at the end needed glasses. Barrett is no more the “working-class hero” of The Servant than Tony is. Though Barrett has laid waste to Tony’s will more thoroughly than if he’d murdered him, he’s still the man’s servant. He continues to cook the meals, fix the drinks, answer the doorbell, lock up at night. He has attained an enduring power over Tony, and can now indulge himself with the impunity of a Tiberius. But it is a limited power. A power achieved only by performing his duties, by pleasing his employer.
It’s his house, yes, but he still observes the forms. And he still has his job to do.