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The aristocratic Tony moves to London and hires the servant Hugo Barrett for all services at home. Barrett seems to be a loyal and competent employee, but Tony's girlfriend Susan does not like him and asks Tony to send him away. When Barrett brings his sister Vera to work and live in the house, Tony has a brief hidden affair with her. After traveling with Susan and spending a couple of days in a friend's house outside London, the couple unexpectedly returns and finds Barrett and Vera, who are actually lovers, in Tony's room. They are fired and Susan breaks with Tony. Later, Tony meets Barrett alone in a pub and hires him back, and Barrett imposes his real dark intentions in the house, turning the table and switching position with his master. Written by
Claudio Carvalho, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
I first watched Losey's most famous work - but not quite his best, in my opinion - on the big-screen at London's National Film Theatre in 1999, just a few months after star Dirk Bogarde's death; it's certainly one of the latter's most significant roles (along with the homosexual composer of DEATH IN VENICE , perhaps his most representative), though I still feel that VICTIM (1961) is the finest film he's ever been associated with!
Even so, Bogarde's performance (recipient of the BAFTA award) is understated most of the time - which rather suits his enigmatic title character, a self-described "gentleman's gentleman" but actually harboring sinister ambitions. Interestingly, when Joseph Losey fell ill in mid-production, the directorial chores were thrust into the hands of the leading man until his recovery - who, amusingly, initially turned Losey down by saying that he "couldn't direct a bus" if his life depended on it!
While he was still some years away from the deliberate formalism that virtually characterized all his later output, Losey's style is here more controlled - for lack of a better word - than in, say, THE CRIMINAL (1960) or EVA (1962); this may have been due to the 'failure' of the latter (see my review elsewhere), or perhaps his collaboration with screenwriter (and influential playwright) Harold Pinter may have had more to do with this than anything else. Still, Douglas Slocombe's sleek black-and-white cinematography (also a BAFTA award winner) of the gloomy London settings - abetted by Johnny Dankworth's wistful score - is certainly among the film's most notable assets.
James Fox's fine performance as the usurped master of the house led him to short-lived stardom (and even copped the young actor the "Most Promising Newcomer" award at the BAFTAs); his career went on an extended hiatus some years later (which ended in the mid-Eighties) following his traumatic experience on the set of PERFORMANCE (1970), curiously enough a film dealing with a similar role-reversal situation! Though the women are subservient to the central relationship between Bogarde and Fox, both Sarah Miles and Wendy Craig serve their characters well; especially interesting is the battle of wits between the latter (as Fox's upper-class girlfriend) and Bogarde, whom she mistrusts from the get-go and is obviously proved right beyond her wildest imagination!
For a two-hour dialogue-driven film, the plot is pretty sparse - typically of Pinter, dealing in symbolism rather than presenting a straightforward narrative (despite being based on a novel by Robin Maugham) - but the tension between the various characters holds the viewer's attention all the way...though the final descent into depravity and degradation comes off as rather too abrupt and now seems more farcical than shocking (as it must have seemed at the time)! The cast also includes bit parts by two alumni of Losey's THE CRIMINAL - co-star Patrick Magee and screenwriter Alun Owen, sparring amusingly as a couple of clergymen in a bar! - as well as Pinter himself (a former actor in his own right, appearing as a 'society man' in the same scene, actually one of the very few set outside Fox's mansion).
There's a hilarious scene in which James Fox goes with Wendy Craig to visit her "mummified" high society parents. This enables Bogarde and Miles to live it up at the house during their absence. However, they cut short their visit and catch them romping about in their master's bedroom, whereupon he sacks them on the spot. This leads to the film's best scene, in my opinion: the chance meeting in a bar between Bogarde and Fox (who has, in the interim, fallen on hard times) where the Mephistophelean Bogarde paints a pitiful picture of himself which, inevitably, leads the lonesome Fox to engage his services once more. The way Losey shoots this marvelous sequence is masterly - with a minimum of camera movement and the actors strategically placed within the frame.
Trivia note: I own a British periodical from the early 80s called "The Movie" - a collection of essays strung together more or less by theme and running for an impressive 158 volumes - in which THE SERVANT was among the films chosen for a two-page critical evaluation, accompanied by a detailed synopsis and illustrated by numerous stills; I've leafed through it and read the review (written by Derek Prouse) so many times that these images from the film have become fixed in my mind and, as I lay watching, I was actively looking out for each one of them!
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