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  Servant, The My House My Rules
Year: 1963
Director: Joseph Losey
Stars: Dirk Bogarde, James Fox, Sarah Miles, Wendy Craig, Catherine Lacey, Richard Vernon, Ann Firbank, Doris Nolan, Patrick Magee, Jill Melford, Alun Owen, Harold Pinter, Derek Tansley, Brian Phelan, Hazel Terry, Philippa Hare, Dorothy Bromiley
Genre: DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 2 votes)
Review: Barrett (Dirk Bogarde) arrives in this chilly street in a fashionable part of London for an interview; he is after the job as manservant to Tony (James Fox), and rings the bell of his town house only to find the front door open. Pushing it, he ventures inside and has a look around the undecorated interior until he sees the owner asleep in an upstairs room, and clears his throat to make his presence known. Tony awakens and is friendly, asking Barrett about his suitability and confiding in him that the other men he has seen have not been appropriate, but they hit it off and soon Barrett has been hired. His new master is resolutely upper class, an investor who is planning a major development in Brazil, but what if the butler wanted to take him down a peg or two?

And that he does, in a film whose plot was best approached as an allegory of class differences and what was about to happen to that social divide as the nineteen-sixties wore on. For that reason, if you were watching it as a straightforward drama you were not going to be satisfied, as it was more of an exercise in baiting the status quo from a bunch of filmmakers who were not necessarily angry young men, indeed Bogarde and director Joseph Losey were getting to middle age, and writer Harold Pinter had been on the scene for a while himself, though his success was taking off in this decade where experimentation was becoming a watchword. If there was a New Wave in British cinema in the manner there had been in France, The Servant could be identified as an entry.

The tension revolved around the justification Tony had for ordering Barrett about, as we quickly perceive he has more to lose if the butler goes than the butler does if Tony sacks him: this is an unbalanced relationship in more ways than one. But Tony becomes so reliant on the man that it’s no surprise Losey had cinematographer Douglas Slocombe shoot his sets as if this were a horror movie, with low angles and deep, looming shadows abounding, making this resemble one of the Hammer Horror excursions into psychological chillers that were The Servant’s contemporaries. However, those were dismissed by the cognoscenti as potboilers whereas Losey's efforts were being spoken of in the most glowing, intellectual terms.

That in spite of the pattern this adhered to very much in the mould of the black and white shockers that were surely an influence even if nobody involved would have admitted it if they wanted to keep their level of debate at intelligentsia degrees. Naturally, watching it now it's best to indulge it in the horror genre as otherwise it begins to come across as very arch, this turning of the class tables, and while we should really be on the side of Barrett as he upsets the toffs, or one toff in particular, he is presented as a conniving villain, leaving us pondering the weak Tony as the piece's unlikely hero - or maybe victim was more apt a description, our sympathies with the powers that were losing their hitherto unchallenged influence. Perhaps we were not intended to side with either of them, merely observe as coldly as the filmmakers did.

Barrett has a partner in crime in the shape of his sister Vera (Sarah Miles) who he calls down from the North to seduce Tony, except she's not really his sister. She's the earthy, giggly counterpart to the distinctly less warm Susan (Wendy Craig), Tony's fiancée who in a significant early scene the butler interrupts a canoodling session between the couple which was set to go further; at first you think it's because he wants Vera to supplant Susan in his master's affections, but in the latter scenes when the two men are bickering like an old married couple it could be Barrett wanted him for himself. In fact, so dedicated is he to Tony's downfall that ultimately his actions make little sense unless Losey, Pinter and Bogarde were shaking a finger at the audience to teach us a lesson, and if they were it was a long-winded one that could be clearer now anti-authority has grown to be such a huge part of modern life. Fortunately, if you were restless, the interplay between Bogarde and Fox remained captivating, rendering the effect less artificial than it might otherwise be. Music by Johnny Dankworth.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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Joseph Losey  (1909 - 1984)

Cerebral, at times pretentious, American director, from the theatre. His American career (The Boy with Green Hair, a remake of M, The Prowler) was short-lived due to the Hollywood anti-Communist blacklist, and Losey escaped to Britain.

Almost a decade of uninspiring work followed, but come the sixties he produced a series of challenging films: The Criminal, Eva, King and Country, Secret Ceremony, The Romantic Englishwoman and Mr. Klein, and Harold Pinter collaborations The Servant, Accident and The Go-Between. He even directed science fiction like The Damned and Modesty Blaise. Not always successful - he also has turkeys like Boom and The Assassination of Trotsky among his credits - but his best films have a cult following with a particularly European flavour.

 
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