Previously at the Auckland Film Society: Losey and Pinter’s masterful first collaboration.
The late Harold Pinter was a writer of unparalleled talent. Although influenced by the theatre of absurd, his style was utterly his own. His plays, including the likes of The Birthday Party and The Homecoming, capture a feeling of displacement and unease in seemingly banal domestic settings. Menace seems to lurk around every corner but not in any predictable manner. Yet despite his towering reputation as a Nobel award-winning playwright, his forays into film have been largely overlooked, or at least lost in the sands of time. During a period between 1963 and 1971 he collaborated with director Joseph Losey on three films. The first of these was The Servant, based on the novel by Robin Maugham. While I’m not personally familiar with the original source material, the resulting screenplay shines with Pinter’s signature characteristics.
The setup is quite simple: Tony (James Fox), a wealthy young man, purchases a new house in London and hires a live-in manservant (Dirk Bogarde) to go along with it. But this servant isn’t everything he seems, and the rest of the film becomes a power struggle between the two of them. While it might be easy to sum The Servant up as a mere battle of the classes—master versus servant, rich versus poor—it is anything but straightforward. Certainly it could be said to evoke the violent psychodrama of Jean Genet’s The Maids or Claude Chabrol’s La Cérémonie, but here the class differences are ultimately just a veneer to examine the destructive qualities of a distinctly sadomasochistic relationship. A late altercation between the two makes the homoerotic subtext quite clear, intentional or not. We watch them goofing around on the staircase tossing around a ball, but the game eventually turns ugly, and the resulting argument is more reminiscent of a lover’s quarrel than anything between employer and employee. But this film isn’t really about class or even sex. It’s about power. Power in all its forms, and the way we wield it.
As the titular servant, Bogarde conveys more with Pinter’s spare dialogue and some quick glances than most actors manage with breathless monologues. Each icy glare is loaded with meaning and implication. It’s a role that, if miscast, could result in hammy villainy rather than the subtle machinations on display. And if Fox’s so-called master of the house is unable to match Bogarde’s performance, it isn’t any detriment to the film. If anything, the imbalance underlines the inevitible trajectory of the film, tipping toward the servant’s favour, resulting in a hysterical and insane ending.
But let’s not forget about the ladies. Pinter’s portrayal of women tend to gravitate towards the enigmatic and dangerous. Less fully-developed characters than mysterious creatures. Their sexuality is ultimately something to be feared. Vera (Sarah Miles) is the archetypal Pinter femme fatale here, oozing a playful but assured sensuality. And on the opposite side of the spectrum is Susan (Wendy Craig), a prim-and-proper lady of class. There’s a sense that the females operate as mirrors or doubles to their male counterparts. Ultimately they are chess pieces or playthings for our central duo more than agents of their own destiny.
An obvious carryover from Pinter’s playwrighting is dialogue that lacerates with razor-sharp precision. He manages to get across what he wants with the minimum amount of dialogue needed. Nothing is dealt with head on, it’s practically all show and very little tell. Scenes are played out so we understand them intuitively rather than explicitly. The seduction of Tony by Vera, in particular, drips with a restrained but undeniably erotic tension. When the phone rings in the middle of the scene we don’t know with certainty who is on the line, but we have a good idea. In fact, there’s almost no question that it is none other than Tony’s fiancée Susan.
But film is ultimately a visual medium and Pinter doesn’t let his reputation as a playwright overshadow this fact. There’s a rare synergy between words and images where some films get lost in becoming dialogue-heavy. It’s a delicate balance juggling both, but Pinter and Losey manage to do it. Any risk it might devolve into a filmed play is prevented by Losey’s proficient yet restrained eye. As the film progresses it slowly but surely achieves a dream-like quality. The claustraphobia of the apartment, too, is impressively captured, not unlike Polanski’s better known Repulsion which it predates—though this is also deservedly attributed to the cinematography of Douglas Slocombe, shot in crisp black and white, elevating the aesthetic from b-movie to polished domestic tragedy.
Summarising Pinter’s stories is usually difficult and always reductive for a reason. They hit you below the surface, never concerning themselves with a psychologically obvious progression of events. But neither are they rooted in anything other than reality. In Pinter’s worlds, people are just animals dressed up in nice clothes wielding fancy words. Propriety is a thin layer separating us from the wild, and once it comes undone, everything comes crashing down. The Servant is exemplary in this regard and deserves to be better known as a British cult classic, every inch a masterpiece alongside the rest of Pinter’s disarming body of work.