Entering the house of his future master without knocking: that is what the servant in Joseph Losey’s film of the same name does in the opening sequence, thus inaugurating the first collaboration between the blacklisted American director and Harold Pinter. The Servant (1963) is chamber-class drama shot through with a destabilising sexual tension. Tony (James Fox), a puerile aristocrat just back from Africa, hires Barrett (Dirk Bogarde) as his servant. Barrett will help him refurbish the townhouse where they both live, displaying an obliging and attentive character that masks a malicious ambiguity. He does not meet the approval of Susan (Wendy Craig), Tony’s fiancée, who will in fact try to have Barrett sacked after intuiting the sway that the servant exercises over her boyfriend.
“For god’s sake!” exclaims Susan when Barrett intrudes on an intimate moment. “Restrict him to quarters,” she adds after the servant leaves. “Couldn’t he live out?” “No he couldn’t,” replies Tony brusquely. Something begins to crackle – sexual tension has already altered the established order of things. Things don’t get any better when Barrett’s alleged sister, Vera (Sarah Miles) moves in and seduces Tony who will then find her in bed with his alleged brother. But Vera and Barrett are just lovers. Disconcerted, Tony fires Barrett on the spot only to accept him back a while later – not as his servant any longer. After having first upset and then demolished the social and sexual divisions Tony and Susan hid behind, Barrett is now the maitre fou of the house.
The Servant is a refined psychological arabesque. Maintaining a carefully calibrated balance between literal and allegorical meaning, Losey realised an essay on class relations with the logic of a thriller. Delicately, if mercilessly, the film rubs away at the foundations of social status, debunking behavioural codes so as to expose the insecurity they disguise. Once deprived of their certainties and privileges, Tony and Susan fall into a despondent state of confusion; unable to react they allow Barrett subdue them without offering any resistance. Losey exploits the figurative potential of Pinter’s script. Rejecting all moralism, the cinemaphotography allows the sordid light of mistrust to pervade the mise-en-scene. Deforming mirrors and oblique reflections litter Tony’s apartment that will soon turn into his trap. Every gesture, every camera movement and exchange between the actors is charged with malice.
Back in 1963, when the closet was the only place for homosexuality to hide, Tony and Barrett’s relationship must have seemed “peculiar”; today it is clearly charged with homoerotic attraction. But theirs is not exactly an affair, more a coercive class action that sees Barrett manipulating Tony’s sexuality for his own perfidious ends. An oblivious pawn in a game whose rules and goals remain obscure, Tony stares impotently as Barrett follows his dark, vengeful impulses. Moral corruption is an intrinsic part of the world Losey portrays – sex and power are its emanation and violence its result.
The claustrophobic spaces and exploitative relations are reminiscent of Fassbinder, but if, in the German director, there is a melodramatic despair, in Losey a lucid, cold detachment prevails. Bogarde’s performance is monumental, accompanying his every unpredictable and ruthless move with an iniquitous grin. While playing hide and seek with Tony, Barrett whispers in a devilish tone: “You have a dirty secret, you shall be caught” as his former master awaits him, terrified, behind a curtain.
“The Servant” will be screened daily at BFI Southbank, London SE1 until 2 April.