The Movie Waffler Re-Release Review - THE SERVANT | The Movie Waffler

Re-Release Review - THE SERVANT

the servant review
A wealthy young man hires a servant, unaware he has ulterior motives.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Joseph Losey

Starring: Dirk Bogarde, James Fox, Wendy Craig, Sarah Miles

the servant poster

Joseph Losey's 1963 adaptation of Robin Maugham's novella The Servant might be one of the most influential movies ever made. Films as disparate as Pasolini's Teorema, Landis's Trading Places, Hanson's The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread and Bong Joon-ho's Parasite all bear its mark. Yet in recent decades Losey's Harold Pinter scripted film seems to have become somewhat forgotten. Hopefully this new 4K restoration will introduce Losey's film to a new generation of cinephiles, who will likely recognise many of its elements in more recent fare.

Maugham was reportedly inspired to write his story by an incident in which his man-servant seemingly attempted to honey trap him into sleeping with a rent boy, presumably with some sort of blackmail in mind. The film swaps this out for a heterosexual scenario, but The Servant is still one of the gayest movies of the 20th century.

the servant review

Dirk Bogarde is the eponymous man-servant Hugo, who is hired by Tony (James Fox), an immature young fop who has just purchased a home in central London. Tony is essentially a man-child who requires Hugo to look after his every need, as though replacing his own mother. This is seemingly something Hugo was counting on, as he harbours nefarious plans to take over the house for himself. Recruited into his scheme is Vera (Sarah Miles), who Tony hires in the belief that she is Hugo's sister. She's actually Hugo's lover, and the pair have a plot to seduce Tony and destroy his life.

For a movie directed by an American, The Servant is sure tuned into that very British obsession - class. The class war of mid 20th century Britain might have been a cold war, but here it's a bloody battle. Losey and Pinter draw such a social divide between their characters that viewers will likely take sides early on along their own class lines. Those of a working class background will no doubt find themselves initially rooting for Hugo's scheme, particularly when it comes to Tony's obnoxiously snooty middle class girlfriend Susan (Wendy Craig), who treats her lover's servant like dirt - we're really longing for her to get her comeuppance at Hugo's hands. I imagine at the time of its release The Servant must have played as a straight thriller for those who were feeling threatened by the rise of the working class in British culture.

the servant review

What The Servant gets so right about the class war is that it's never really been fought between the upper and working classes, but between the middle and working classes. As a working class man myself, I've only had pleasant experiences with the few members of the upper class I've met, while most middle class people make me feel like something they might scrape off the sole of their shoe. This is a war that's fuelled by aspiration and ambition. The upper classes usually have no aspirations or ambitions because they've already got everything they could want. The working classes learn early in life that aspiration and ambition are foolish notions best put aside. The middle classes however are so obsessed with social climbing that they torture themselves with how out of their reach the next rung on the ladder seems to be - knowing they can't reach the upper classes, they instead look down on the working classes to make themselves feel elevated. I'm beginning to sound like that old comedy sketch with John Cleese and the Two Ronnies, but the point I'm trying to make is that the upper class Tony might be an ignorant plonker, but he's essentially a nice guy who treats Hugo like a friend. The middle class Susan on the other hand, treats him like dirt, because she feels threatened by his presence.

There are likely two reasons for Susan's fears regarding Hugo. For one, she resents the working class because she knows she's only a few bad decisions away from joining their ranks. Tony is her ticket to the upper classes, and she's not about to let some Mancunian oik steal him away from her. This brings us to the secondary reason for her resentment towards Hugo - she views him as a sexual threat. Not to herself, but to Tony. Long before homosexuality was accepted in wider British society, it was considered an upper class indulgence, something many wealthy men experienced and experimented with in their time in boarding schools. With this in mind, Susan can see how Hugo might prove a competitor for Tony's affections.

the servant review

Later in the film you can see why Susan's fears aren't entirely unfounded. By the film's final act, the lines between Tony and Hugo's master/servant relationship have been so blurred that they now resemble a gay couple, bickering over who's responsible for the messiness of their home. In a remarkably candid bit of dialogue for a 1963 film, the two essentially confess to experiencing homosexual dalliances while serving in the military. Knowing what we now do about Bogarde's personal life, it's easy to see why he was attracted to Losey's film.

By the end, Hugo has inflicted such psychological torture on Tony and Susan that even the most bolshy of viewers will feel that Hugo has gone too far in his war against the higher classes. He's like a Cambodian revolutionary smashing an infant's brains against a tree - we can understand his rage but we can't condone his actions. By the end of the movie we're left needing a shower. Losey and Pinter have exploited our class resentments and rubbed our faces in the dirt. If you have your own man-servant, you might ask him to run you a bath after viewing Losey's film.

The Servant is in UK/ROI cinemas from September 10th and on 4K UHD Collector’s edition Blu-Ray, DVD and Digital from September 20th.