Thursday, August 21, 2014

Review - The Servant (1963)

August 21, 2014

The Servant – Great Britain, 1963

Pay close attention to the very first scene of Joseph Losey’s eerie film The Servant, for it reveals more than we may think it does at first glance. In the scene, a well-dressed man named Hugo Barrett (Dirk Bogarde) makes his way to a home that has recently been sold. After knocking and not being received, he enters on his own, only to behold one of the barest homes one is likely to see. On the second floor, he comes across the sleeping form of Tony (James Fox), a young man who can hardly remember that he scheduled an interview for three o’clock. Interestingly, he half-jokingly blames the local bars for being open in the afternoon. The comment seems innocent enough, but later it seems more like the kind of accidental admission that he would not have let out of the bag if he’d had his wits about him. See, it reveals a flaw.

The interview that follows is anything but formal, this in spite of Tony’s best efforts. Sure, he asks all the right questions, yet he seems content with the simplest of answers. The question he gives the most weight to involves Hugo’s cooking skills, and he follows this up with this rather telling comment: “Apart from the cooking, I’ll need…everything.” And so Hugo is hired, and per Tony’s request, he does everything. He cooks, handles the home’s furnishings, and gets to know his employer so well that he is able to anticipate when he will arrive home in dire need of a hot foot bath. At this point, Tony can be viewed as either a man-child who can’t take care of himself or a man whose aristocratic upbringing has given him the belief that success and privilege mean never having to do anything yourself.

There is an immediate clash for Tony’s attention (and perhaps for his affection). Soon after Hugo is hired, Tony brings his girlfriend, Susan (Wendy Craig), over, and she and Hugo clash almost instantaneously. Their awkward rapport is reminiscent of the kind that can occur when your roommate’s girlfriend moves in and decides to take charge of the apartment. Here, it’s much worse. You get the feeling that Susan is trying to establish herself as being above Hugo in both authority and taste, and many of her words are rather emasculating. In one scene, Susan even suggests that Tony restrict him to his quarters. Their early interactions are so incredibly uncomfortable to watch that I found myself regarding Hugo with great empathy.

The second half of the film is a mind-bender, and its twists and turns cause us to rethink all that has come before and to wonder just where our allegiance should lie. It all starts innocently enough when Hugo requests that his sister Vera (Sarah Miles) be brought in as a maid. However, from the first moment we see Hugo and Vera together, it is clear that she is not who Hugo says she is. And as events unfold, we are forced to reconsider our earlier assessment of Susan. Perhaps she was right about Hugo all along.

The Servant is well directed, and Losey is clearly a director that can get great performances out of his cast. I was particularly impressed with the way he uses close-ups of small reactions, the significance of which may not yet be apparent to the audience. The result of this is that viewers are continuously looking back and reassessing what had seemed like simple personality quirks or innocuous comments. Losey also demonstrates an uncanny gift for using music effectively. He combines the rebellious, free-spirited nature of jazz with the haunting melody of Cleo Laine’s “All Gone” to create a world that is constantly in motion and where danger and heartbreak are always lurking in the shadows.

The film won three BAFTA Film Awards: Best British Actor (Bogarde), Best British Cinematography (Douglas Slocombe), and Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles (Fox). It could have won more, for the film contains strong performances all around. Bogarde has the more challenging role, for he is called upon to create two characters for Hugo: the first one, quiet, diligent, and slightly insecure; the second conniving, immoral, and somewhat sadistic. The problem with the role is that as good as Bogarde is, he is not able to make Hugo’s final incarnation entirely believable, and the character ends up bearing a little too much resemblance to Clare Quilty from Lolita, a character that now seems so out there as to stretch credibility. Also giving a commendable performance is Craig. However, she too exhibits behaviors in the film’s final act that seem designed to shock rather than explain. It is as if the film’s screenwriter, Harold Pinter, is going out of his way to create a sense of depravity and desperation without thinking about whether the acts the characters engage in are entirely justified by what has preceded them.

As for the film as a whole, I have a feeling that it worked slightly better in the 1960's, when films like this had a shock value that they may no longer have. Current audiences may even read things into the film, such as a homosexual undercurrent, that may or may not have been intended. However, even if one was intended, it is of little consequence, as it is neither acted upon nor restrained in any obvious way. Audiences in 1963 may also have been stunned by the film’s final scene; I was more confused - Such a giant switch in character must be earned, not simply revealed.

The film is part of what is now recognizable as the “stranger” genre. In this type of film, two people meet and one of them decides to make the other person’s life a living hell, sometimes for no apparent reason. With The Servant, we have the stranger, the victim, the accomplice, and the would-be redeemer, yet we don’t really have a motive, and without one, the film lacks the final punch that it deserves. Still, the film remains fascinating for most of its running time, and fans of films like The Hitcher and Bad Influence will likely find it thrilling. (on DVD)

3 stars 

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