||The Servant is the British film that lurks like the Grim Reaper over the shoulder of the nation's past claims to its Empire, an almighty punishment for anyone who hankers after the "good old days" where Britannia ruled the waves and everyone in the entire world was supposed to know their place, either through the class system or through being conquered. It began life as a novella by Robin Maugham, nephew of W. Somerset Maugham, the great writer, though Robin's legacy appears to be mostly wrapped up in this book he penned in the nineteen-forties and took over a decade to be filmed, not that he was happy with the results.
Plenty of other audiences were, however, as The Servant became a sensation in 1963, the must-see British movie to have an opinion on: whatever did it mean? What was the real relationship between master and servant? What was star Dirk Bogarde trying to tell us about his personality? These and many other questions were thrown up as it turned talking point, showing the way to a more progressive, post-Empire society yet also making what we believe should replace it as much as a mystery as Bogarde's motives, in character and behind the scenes. He had already made moves to destroy his matinee idol status with groundbreaking gay thriller Victim, but this was something else.
Bogarde had started his career as something of a bad boy of the screen in the forties before light comedy and drama beckoned and the likes of Doctor in the House consolidated his megastar status. Had he continued in that vein, he would have been forgotten now as contemporaries like Anthony Steel, but he hungered for more, at once embracing the passage of time to essay the roles he would never have had the chance to play in the fifties, yet also simmering with resentment that it had taken so long to get to this stage. Had he been as experimental before the sixties, he may have been happier in his skin, but there is the reason we still discuss him to this day: all those contradictions.
By the point The Servant went into production, Bogarde was too old to play the upper class head of the house as he had initially planned, but there was a happy accident as it is clear to anyone who watches the film that he is giving the performance of his life. Not with the visible strain that might imply, as he smoothly incorporates all the conflict of Harold Pinter's screenplay into one enigmatic package, a prim but slightly seedy "gentleman's gentleman" who becomes the manservant to upper class Tony, played by James Fox, one of the faces of the Swinging Sixties whose own cult status was boosted by being so traumatised by starring in Performance at the end of the decade that he retired from the screen.
Their characters' connection is in a state of flux, one moment Tony is ordering Bogarde's Barrett about, but by the end this has abruptly altered to turn the tables and have Tony as the whimpering battered wife to Barrett's bullying manipulator: the danger of the repressed gay element is not to be underestimated as the film seems fascinated that Tony could be seduced by Barrett's "sister" Vera, played by Sarah Miles at the beginning of her career - that's three cult British stars in one movie - but also relinquish his masculinity to the increasingly overbearing servant. This Bunuelian avenging angel at times resembles a meek underling, but then goes to spurned lover to victimiser, and for what?
To teach the toffs a lesson that they are no longer at the top of the tree, even if that merely meant they were ripe for satire but stayed more or less where they were. This fits with Pinter's view of the establishment, at least, one on display across a body of work characterised by conflict both personal and more wide-ranging than that, and Losey's outsider's watchfulness at the society he wound up in once the Blacklist in his native Hollywood bit, his left-wing views in tune with the Brits now reeling from the Profumo affair which exposed beyond doubt the ruling classes' feet of clay. And do not dismiss Wendy Craig's character of Tony's girlfriend Susan, doing her best to maintain the status quo until realising her ultimate vulnerability.
It is Susan who attempts to put Barrett in his place, or back in his box, for good, and that particular genie was out of the bottle. This was the magic of The Servant, you can read so much into it since British society is far more complex than its politics tries to simplify it as, so you can draw it in and discern a profundity that may be there, or may all be in what you bring to it. An absorbing puzzle box of a film, its ideas of decadence may have been limited by what the censors of the day would allow on the screen, but you got the idea of how louche a downward spiral the nation could be trapped in after the sexual and social revolutions tried to level the playing fields. The playing fields of Eton would be ever with us, that was apparent this far after The Servant, but its admitting that the flaws were always there too would never go out of fashion since it became so attractive to say so. All that said, you could simply watch the film as a battle of wills between four terrific characters, superbly delivered, with Bogarde at his best, which is assuredly saying something.
[THE SERVANT opens in cinemas on September 10 2021 and on 4K UHD Collector's Edition Blu-Ray, DVD and Digital on September 20 2021.
Here are those disc extras in full:
NEW: Locations featurette with Adam Scovell
NEW: Video essay with Film Historian Matthew Sweet and Film Critic Phuong Le
Interview with Wendy Craig
Interview with Sarah Miles
Interview with Stephen Woolley
Harry Burton on Harold Pinter
John Coldstream on Dirk Bogarde
Audio Interview with Douglas Slocombe conducted by Matthew Sweet
Joseph Losey & Adolphus Mekas at the New York Film Festival in 1963
Harold Pinter Tempo Interview
Joseph Losey Talks About The Servant
James Fox Interviewed by Richard Ayoade
Click here to watch the trailer.]