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Don't Forget Your Place: On Joseph Losey's The Servant

Dirk Bogarde’s face has a certain, blunt pugnaciousness that makes sense of his transition from matinee idol into a mainstay of the challenging, transformational works of artists like Basil Dearden, John Schlesinger, and Luchino Visconti throughout the 1960s. There’s a certain haunted quality that shades his deep-set eyes, too, a downturn to his mouth that hints at the horrors he’s seen and the confessions he dare not name. Bogarde served five years in the British Army during WWII and, throughout seven memoirs and a collection of his articles for The Daily Telegraph, recounted the atrocities he witnessed: civilian casualties, children, of Allied bombing runs, their heads “lined up like footballs” in an alley collapsed into rubble, and visions of hell at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where he was among the first Allied officers to enter after its liberation. Notions of right versus wrong, what could be justified against what could not, blurred for him, a man of conscience. 

In his personal life, Bogarde was gay at a time when homosexuality was a criminal offense in the UK, but refused to enter into a lavender marriage to further his career by disguising his truth. It was a decision that stunted any kind of move to Hollywood despite his early stardom. Bogarde carried the weight of these histories, ultimate and proximate, on his brooding countenance. Though he’s not often thought of as such, he must be considered among his generation's best, most nuanced and complex, most moral and intelligent actors. 

We first see Bogarde as Hugo in Joseph Losey’s “The Servant” (1963) from across a busy street as he’s standing before a storefront, clad in a black hat and overcoat with a closed umbrella serving as a walking stick. He’s waiting for an opportunity to cross, to transgress as it were, in a film about violating social boundaries. When he does, he does it with verve. It’s the first of two streets he crosses during these opening minutes before letting himself into a recently let row house that’s filthy and stripped to the wires save for a folding chair where wealthy, aristocratic Tony (James Fox) is sprawled in a midday drunk. 

Hugo wakes Tony for their appointment, a job interview in which Hugo hopes to become Tony’s manservant. Tony is towheaded and aquiline, aristocratic in a specifically British landed gentry way, and Hugo is Bogarde, dark-featured, heavy countenanced, a midnight cove harboring black secrets. Tony is the light of idealized class, carefree with pretensions to elegance; Hugo is his shadow, the manifestation of shame of the things done to make atrocities like Tony possible. The question of the film will be the identity of the title’s “servant” in much the same way Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” wants to know who’s the leech and who is its host. It seems clear at first, as Hugo needs Tony because of the employment Tony offers. But without a person who owes his well-being to him, the casually thoughtless, thoroughly ordinary (but for his wealth) Tony feels less ... superior. A feudal lord without a serf, after all, has to work his own land.

If Bogarde was a matinee idol looking for a hard turn into work that would reflect the hard-bitten realities of his war trauma, the social divisions that exacerbated his disillusionment and made his private life private under penalty of law, he couldn’t have found a better partner than Joseph Losey. Wisconsin-born Losey also fought in WWII, directed and co-adapted (with Charles Laughton) his friend Bertolt Brecht’s “Galileo” in its first English-language production, and left for Europe after refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951. He returned briefly to the United States in 1952 to test the waters and, finding them turbulent still for men of social conscience, left for good in 1953. “Galileo” tells the story of a man of principle and science raked over the coals by a plutocratic Christian theocracy. Losey not only found himself living out a version of it but found unexpected allies in Bogarde and Nobel Prize-winning playwright Harold Pinter. In Britain, where Losey spent the largest chunk of his time in exile, he collaborated with Pinter on a trio of masterworks: “The Servant” (1963), “Accident” (1967), and “The Go-Between” (1971). 

Losey collaborated on no less than six features with Bogarde, of which “The Servant” is the third. Between the three of them emerged the image of Losey as the most “European” of American filmmakers: a voice for the outsider, the intruder through which his protagonists, by the very act of their intrusion, shed light on the crass bigotry of the British class system. Circumstance and morality tend to spark the powder kegs of genius and revolution. Pinter gave voice to Losey’s acidic disappointment over systemic hypocrisy and the cruel solipsism of the privileged; in Bogarde, Losey saw etched the toll of it.

The first thing you’ll notice about “The Servant” is how beautifully it is shot. Veteran cinematographer Douglas Slocombe (who would work with Losey again on his ill-fated, under-estimated “Boom!” [1968]) makes stunning use of extreme angles, deep focus, strategically-placed mirrors in which characters are caught surreptitiously entering and exiting, listening without being seen or adjusting their expressions to hide their secret faces. Watch how the quality of light deteriorates in Tony’s flat as Hugo steadily increases his hold over the household, how long the shadows begin to stretch, and how Hugo begins to be captured in low angles that increase his stature even as high ones diminish Tony. Eventually, any pretense that either of them is powerful is made into a cruel joke by Slocombe’s Dutch angles and wheeling, handheld delirium. 

“The Servant” is shot similarly to James Wong Howe’s work on John Frankenheimer’s hallucinogenic “Seconds” (1966), with both films sharing similar themes of identity, privilege, and sexual politics. Susan (Wendy Craig), Tony’s high society girlfriend, sees through Hugo’s obsequiousness from the start. She’s rude to him, calls him a “peeping tom,” and giggles when Tony jokes Hugo’s schedule is vampiric. She is painted for her prescience as an intolerant prig. “I don’t trust him,” she says. She doesn’t know why. “Don’t make him so bloody important,” Tony says, and it’s clear his weakness is his unwillingness to even consider Hugo noteworthy enough to be a threat to his status. Perhaps he’s right. 

Before long, Hugo invites his sexually liberated girlfriend Vera (Sarah Miles) into the household masquerading as his sister, a maid to help Hugo with his duties. Tony agrees to Vera’s employment because two servants are better than one, and if the question is still who are the predators and who are their victims, it seems indisputable it’s Tony on the cross. But money is no object for Tony, who spends his life going to parties, eating out, patronizing his dotty but generationally wealthy parents, and drinking to fill the boredom and disappointments of his shiftless existence. How can he afford to renovate a centrally-located flat in London and hire two people whose only job description is taking care of his every whim at any hour? Do parasites have parasites? Can you steal something that is stolen? 

Vera seduces Tony one night on the kitchen island, complaining about the heat as she’s reflected like a phantom against the black surface of the refrigerator. Losey is careful to show it as a predatory act, her taking advantage of a tired, frustrated, and drunken Tony. The progress of their affair threatens violence at every furtive opportunity: her rebuffs and his violent insistence, the reflection of them in distorted mirrors, the glances between Vera and Hugo that indicate that she isn’t engaged in infidelity but rather some malignant honeypot of a devious plan. 

“The Servant” is a noir, a horror film, an “Upstairs/Downstairs” satire, a thriller about power, a romantic comedy for a long middle stretch, a pair of terse love triangles, a survival melodrama at the end when at its most Brechtian. It’s a frightening and funny film, a low story told in high style. It’s an expressionistic psychological piece in which the troubled souls of its central quartet are manifested in the still air of an ever-constricting interior and the frigid air of an English winter on the outside. Tony and Susan are pale, and Hugo and Vera are swarthy: one side, the masters of the universe; the other, the barbarians at the gate. Our allegiances shift between each of them in turn. Tony is pathetic but institutionally powerful. Susan is an intolerant monster, but she’s right to be wary. Hugo is opportunistic and deceptive but is humiliated in his work, and Vera is licentious and rapacious but free in her sexuality and powerful for it. 

Every element of "The Servant," from its direction to photography, script, and performance, is unimpeachable. It is one of the modern classics of world cinema, to be enjoyed as a surface entertainment or dissected as a satire as lacerating as Luis Buñuel’s “Viridiana” (1961) or “The Exterminating Angel” (1962) from the year before. More often than I’d like to admit, I think about Susan’s sigh of disgust when Tony, after the jig is well and surely up, asks Susan to sleep with him in the same bed recently vacated by Hugo and Vera. In just one moment, the existential exhaustion of Losey’s entire career is expressed by her animal grunt of exasperation, dismay, and offense. I’ve made that noise myself too often in the last few years when promises of meaningful revolution are dangled by obviously compromised people for whom change would bring no profit. Tell it to someone else; I’m tired.

Pinter often reminds me of Jean-Paul Sarte, and “The Servant” is the best unofficial adaptation of the revulsion of others and the self of Sarte’s Nausea I’ve ever seen. If it’s not the best Joseph Losey film, it’s in the conversation as the best with “The Accident” and “The Go-Between.” Taken together, this Losey/Pinter trilogy is like a lepidopterist’s needle, crucifying human pretensions to the flickering screen like a butterfly specimen to a card, carefully notated with details of taxonomy and date of collection. "The Servant" turns 60 this year. It hasn’t aged a day.

Criterion celebrates the film's diamond anniversary with a beautiful 4K digital restoration featuring an uncompressed mono soundtrack. Critic Imogen Sara Smith is centered in a new video essay for the release called “The Look of Losey” (20 min) that provides a very fine overview of Losey’s life, career, and particulars of his visual style as his impoverished upbringing informed it. Essential for those first coming to Losey, it’s a well-written and executed piece that provides a strong starting point for further investigation. “Losey on ‘The Servant’” (29 min) collects audio excerpts from a 1976 interview with the filmmaker conducted by author and critic Michel Ciment. It begins with how Losey first heard rumors of the Pinter adaptation aching to be made through to details of casting and production. His recollections of a drunken night (Pinter, not Losey) in which he kept his wits with the famously prickly writer, something he credits for their extended, 14-year collaboration, is gold. He tells a gripping story, too, about the difficulties of directing Sarah Miles during the kitchen seduction sequence. It’s wonderful to hear these stories in Losey’s own voice. “Harold Pinter, Screenwriter” (22 min) is taken from a video-recorded 1996 interview by author Michael Billington in which Pinter remembers his early days consuming French, German, and Russian—and eventually American—film and how that experience eventually fed into his work in the cinema. Pinter is intimidating, but he comes alive when talking about his work with Orson Welles and Losey. Finally, “The Actors” (74 min) collects interviews with Bogard, Fox & Richard Ayoade, Sarah Miles, and Wendy Craig that are each essential. Colm Tóibín provides a lovely essay (A Cruel Servility) for the booklet in which he dissects the British Class system as it intersects with art, leading into a sharp discussion of the greatness of “The Servant.” If you’re not a fan, I have to think it’s just that you haven’t seen it. Here’s your chance, and "The Servant" has never looked, nor sounded, better. 

To order your Criterion Collection Blu-ray of "The Servant," click here.

Walter Chaw

Walter Chaw is senior film critic for He has bylines in various publications including the New York Times, Washington Post, LA Weekly, Vulture, Decider and others.

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