Wednesday, 27 March 2013

The Servant (1963)

The first in a trilogy of playwright, Harold Pinter and director, Joseph Losey collaborations that also included Accident (1967) and The Go-Between (1970). The Servant (1963) is tense psychological drama that studies the themes of servitude and like the aforementioned collaborations, offers a brutal indictment of the British class system. The film stars legends of British cinema Dirk Bogarde and James Fox, Wendy Craig and the delectable Sarah Miles. Fox stars as Tony, an outlandishly wealthy young Londoner, who hires a valet by the name of Hugo Barrett (Dirk Bogarde). Initially, Barrett takes to his role and subtly suggests that the house could do with some alterations and as a result Tony ends up spending a tremendous amount on maintenance.

Gradually Barrett begins calling the shots, yet he and Tony form a seemingly friendly bond, whilst dually retaining their conflicting social positions. The arrival of Tony's girlfriend Susan (Wendy Craig), who dislikes Barrett and loathes all that he represents marks a dramatic shift in the" master and servant" dynamic. Barrett brings Vera (Sarah Miles) into the house, introduces her as his sister and integrates her into Tony's household as a maidservant, but there is more to Vera than meets the eye as her libidinous behaviour soon affects relations between Tony and Susan. Both servants work together to insidiously manipulate their boss and as Tony gradually becomes dominated by his employees, social standings and sexuality become dazed and confused as the house descends into madness. The complexities of the screenplay are composed with utmost dexterity by one of Britain’s greatest ever playwrights. Pinter’s expertise ensures that the spoken word is not always key to the film’s visceral affect. Often, the moments of silence speak volumes, adding to the rich intertextual layers that have maintained scholars interest since its original release.

Long pauses in dialogue, short abrupt sentences and dramatic shift in tone all provide the ingredients to Joseph Losey's cerebral creation. Pinter’s words are utilised faultlessly, interweaving them through episodes of increasing tension, including the drip of a tap, the tick of a clock and the roar of a thunderous passing lorry that subtly mutes the film’s one controversial expletive. Breaks in dialogue are filled with a jazz score, as wildly unpredictable as the films events. Cleo Laine’s ‘All Alone’ begins backing music for an early romantic scene with Tony and Susan, but through multiple use, the haunting lyrics take on a whole new meaning as Tony's circumstances become increasingly perverse. Fox excels in his role as the wealthy simpleton and shows great vulnerability at the hands of the servant and his seductive “sister” Vera.

Played faultlessly by Sarah Miles, Vera cranks up the heat in one of the most erotically charged kitchen scenes in British cinema history. She flaunts her sexuality through suggestive movements and lingering stares as she plays pawn in her “brother’s” twisted game. However, it is Bogarde’s performance that really seals the deal. As relentlessly manipulative and menacing as his presence is, Bogarde provides Barrett with an unblemished, charismatic exterior, that is as alluring as it is chilling. Fox and Bogarde bounce sharp dialogue back and forth and are captivating as the psychosexual tension increases between them. Through subtle visual clues Losey artfully blurs sexual boundaries to create one of cinema’s most original and memorable relationships. Packed with homoerotic subtext, The Servant is a seminal title in British cinema and British New Wave. Meticulously created and perfectly played, this “master” piece is the most proficient portrait of class warfare ever to burst out of the celluloid closet.

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