Joseph Losey (director)
Cert 12 (certificate)
20 September 2021 (released)
19 September 2021
This multi-award winning psychological drama from 1963 is the first of four collaborations between director Joseph Losey and playwright Harold Pinter (who adapted The Servant from Robin Maugham’s novella). Dirk Bogarde stars as the sly and scheming manservant who is hired by aristocratic fop James Fox in good faith but the master-servant façade soon begins to crumble – culminating in a gradual role reversal and shift in dynamics. To celebrate the centenary of national treasure Dirk Bogarde, Studiocanal presents the film in a brand new 4K restoration.
When spoiled and wealthy aristo cum developer Tony (James Fox) decides to move into a new house in London’s posh Chelsea district it becomes clear that the new pad not only needs a fair bit of re-decorating but Tony – a bit of a slob and seemingly incapable of looking after himself – is in dire need of a manservant. Enter Hugo Barrett (Dirk Bogarde), an outwardly perfect candidate for the job with an impressive resume and an even more impressive attitude towards his profession. Convinced that Barrett is indeed the underling which he needs (he’s required to cook as well and prides himself in making exquisite soufflés) Tony hires him and – over the ensuing weeks – the master-servant role is quickly established. Occasionally behaving like the spoiled child that he is Tony expects Barrett to cater for his every whim, in turn he comes to appreciate Barrett’s expertise and apparent loyalty. Things change, however, when Tony’s snobbish fiancée Susan Stewart (Wendy Craig) makes it blatantly clear to Tony (and later to Barrett himself) that she dislikes the new manservant, triggered by his sudden interruption when Tony and Susan are about to get cosy and romantic by the fireplace. What Tony doesn’t know (but Susan senses) is that the ‘interruption’ was intentional… because Barrett has his own agenda as to why he applied for the position in the first place.
Despite Susan’s protests and her increasingly rude behaviour towards Barrett the master of the house refuses to sack him, even reprimanding his girlfriend with the words: “He might be a servant but he’s still a human being!” Once the renovation of Tony’s swank new abode is pretty much completed, Barrett suggests that he may benefit from an additional live-in maid and he knows just the right candidate: his sister Vera (Sarah Miles) who currently resides in Manchester. Such is Tony’s trust in Barrett that he agrees to have the young woman come down to London and take up employment in his house, he even arranges for her to have her own room next to Barrett’s on the top floor. When Barrett meets Vera at King’s Cross Station it becomes clear within minutes that they are not brother and sister but are in fact lovers. The pair have conducted a conniving plan to worm themselves more and more into Tony’s psyche, not to mention his wealth…
During a visit to the stately mansion where Tony’s parents Lord and Lady Mounset (Katherine Lacey and Richard Vernon) live, it becomes only too evident just how snobbish and ignorant the upper classes are towards ‘normal’ folk – namely when Tony discusses his plan to build more cities in Brazil (thus no doubt exploiting the penniless natives in the process). “Are you sure those ‘Ponchos’ will agree to your plans?” asks Lady Mounset, to which Susan remarks: “’Ponchos? Are you sure these South American cowboys are called Ponchos? I thought a poncho is an item of clothing with a hole in the middle which you throw over your shoulders?” To which Lord Mounset replies: “To my knowledge these people were called ‘Ponchos’ the last time I inquired…” Of course, the correct phrase for South American horsemen is Gaucho and not Poncho and this hilarious scene perfectly demonstrates just how far the Mounsets’ haughty and aristocratic world is removed from reality.
Meanwhile, Barrett has instructed Vera to seduce Tony one evening while Susan isn’t present. Dressed in a skirt which is ever so slightly on the short side and looking seductive with her long hair and eyeliner Vera has no difficulties in wrapping Tony around her finger – of course Tony, who still assumes that Vera is Barrett’s sister, fully expects working class girl Vera to sleep with him without giving it a second thought. Several days later after having dined in their usual pricey restaurant with his girlfriend/fiancée Susan the couple decide to return home early from a night out in town and by doing so surprise Barrett and Vera loudly making love in his room upstairs. Shocked and incensed in equal measure Tony demands an explanation, even threatening his manservant with legal action for his ‘criminal offence’ of incest. It is then that a smugly smiling Barrett really lets the cat out of the bag by calmly informing his master that Vera is in fact not his sister but his girlfriend and the two are planning on getting married. Tony then receives a further blow when Vera seductively comes down the stairs, grinning from ear to ear and – in full presence of Susan – hints that Tony and she have slept together on numerous occasions, prompting a devastated Susan to walk out of the house and of Tony’s life. An hour or so later Barrett and Vera also leave the house with all their belongings.
Over the following weeks Tony becomes a shadow of his former self, unable to look after himself and with Susan not answering his phone calls. Aimlessly drifting from one bar and restaurant to another he has a particularly difficult time getting served by a waitress in what appears to be a downtown Beatnik club with live music – thereby further demonstrating how far his sheltered world is removed from the real world. On another occasion when he enters a traditional pub who should sit at the bar? An apologetic Barrett who immediately begins to spin an almighty yarn as to how Vera had both men over and made off with all of his savings… Begging to give him another chance, Tony – who has nothing to lose – reinstates Barrett though by now the dynamic between the two men has shifted and the former manservant, realising how incapable Tony is when it comes to all things domestic, gradually takes over while his employer becomes hopelessly depended on him. Soon Barrett arranges for parties and orgies to take place in the house which turns into a den of decadence and it doesn’t take long before Vera appears back on the scene either – have they finally achieved their goal?
The story starts in winter and ends in winter, thereby not only implying that from start to end one year has passed but by setting the action during the winter months it also implies the emotional coldness of the characters, in particular Barrett.
Dirk Bogarde is magnificent as the manservant with a more sinister and ulterior motive – perfectly set against James Fox’s upper crust fop whose main concern in life are his clothes and which drinks he should take with his meals. Equally in top form is Wendy Craig as Tony’s fiancée Susan whose arrogance stems in fact from her insecurity in knowing that she is not quite in the same class as he is whilst Sarah Miles simply doesn’t get enough screen time. Harold Pinter himself appears in a cameo and Douglas Slocombe’s inventive cinematography enhances this masterpiece.
The fabulous 2-Disc Collector’s Edition offers generous Bonus Material including trailer, still gallery, location featurette, interviews with some of the cast and crew including James Fox interviewed by Richard Ayoade plus a lengthy video essay with Matthew Sweet and Phuong Lee – all three of them University graduates, naturally!