British sociologist Richard Hoggart once wrote that “class distinctions do not die; they merely learn new ways of expressing themselves.” Although stratified social classes are not exclusive to the Brits, in the United Kingdom, social class divisions are understood as an essential element of life, an intricate and elaborate structure that finds in the concepts of royalty and nobility its main symbols. How possible is it to move between different classes, what are the ways unprivileged people can succeed, and how do these dynamics play themselves out? Countless are the British films that examine such it, with director Joseph Losey’s “The Servant” deserving a spot amongst the very best.
Tony (James Fox) is a bon-vivant aristocrat Londoner. Having just returned home from an around-the-world journey – he’s been from Africa to India, he’s explored the Brazilian jungle – he hires Hugo (Dirk Bogarde) as a manservant. He hopes Hugo will be able to put his once empty house in order and be there to tend to his many, often unforeseeable needs. The differences between them are clear from the very beginning. Stiff, straightforward and very dignified, Hugo stands in stark contrast with the relaxed and slightly spoiled master who is prone to drinking.
But is resentment natural when one navigates life by inheriting everything and another has to work long and hard to survive? While their first interactions seem to fulfill precisely what society expects from them, this fragile balance quickly begins to change with the introduction of Susan (Wendy Craig), Tony’s girlfriend who hardly misses an opportunity to express her despise for Hugo and what he represents. Soon, Hugo and Susan find themselves in a passive-aggressive power game, where each hopes to conquer space and defend their territory at Tony’s home. But even when she tries hard to humiliate him, Hugo never bites back directly. And yet, his demeanor hardly suggests he’ll just let it slide.
Could there be any logical reason, any at all, for Susan to behave towards Hugo like she does, or is she merely attempting to assert her “dominance” as a member of a higher class over those she deems below her? Hoping to tip the scales off in his favor, it’s Hugo who introduces yet another character to this story. In comes Vera (Sarah Miles), initially introduced as Hugo’s sister to work as a maidservant. If Tony and aristocratic Susan’s romance seems lackluster and uncomfortable – to live and to watch – from the very beginning, Vera’s arrival adds a strong erotic overtone to the story, one that will sustain itself until the very end. And more.
Vera’s body language plus the unholy smiles and alluring looks she throws Tony are incredibly effective. She is unapologetically sexy and direct. Losey marks her arrival with the use of external night shots that are beautifully crisp, both seducing and mysterious, just like Vera herself. It’s almost impossible for Tony to resist her, and the romantic scenes between them are both poetic and wickedly subversive. Cleo Laine and John Dankworth’s tune “All Gone“, initially used to accompany Tony’s colourless relationship with Susan, now soars much higher when it becomes the backdrop to Tony and Vera. It’s a brilliant way to illustrate the powerful effect she has over him.
Working together, Hugo and Vera quickly start reversing roles with their masters. Doused in ennui, Tony seems either unable or unwilling to counter-react to these advances – this is, after all, an opportunity for him to get out of his boring routine – and the more space Hugo is able to conquer, the stronger is the sense of dependence between the two men. Can Tony ever regain control of his house and life? The more destructive this relationship becomes – even if one can’t quite call it unforeseen – the more these characters and actors shine.
Dirk Bogarde, with eyes that evoke Peter Lorre’s dangerous roles, becomes arrogantly vocal. Tony, on the other hand, switches between shameless begging for attention and engaging in physical violence. Ultimately, like it’s often the case, it is the women who are used as scapegoats, as Hugo and Tony remain involved in a dangerous symbiosis. If the suggestion of a homosexual involvement between master and servant was kept subtle until then, now it’s fully put in the open, finally “blessed” by Laine and Dankworth’s tune.
Centered around very few characters, with scarce – but sharp – dialogue, a marvellous play of light and shadow, and low-angle shots, at times “The Servant” feels like a subversive and surrealist dream, one that allows the working class the chance to keep control and, in turn, exploit those who’ve exploited them for so long. In this experiment, Losey dares to push the limits and boundaries of society, creating a superb film, one that is as much of a drama as it is a thriller, a romance and an erotic story. By its very final scenes, I could hardly believe my eyes. When cinema can finally achieve that, it’s certainly fulfilled one of its main goals.
Director: Joseph Losey (also known for “The Damned” and “Mr. Klein.”)