by Andrew Sarris
The Servant is the first work in Joseph Losey’s tortured career to bear his personal signature from the first frame to the last. Since Losey has always displayed a tendency to invest his most conventional projects with personal and social overtones of a perverse nature, it is hard to believe that he would collaborate with Harold Pinter on a trivial melodrama patterned after Kind Lady or The Green Bay Tree. Yet some critics have objected to the slackening of tension in the second half of the film as if they were back on Angel Street. Part of the confusion may be caused by the preciseness and fluidity of Losey’s camera style. It’s too beautiful to be anything but melodrama, our dreary realists would argue. But it must be remembered that Losey was an admirer of Brecht long before such admiration was either fashionable or feasible, and that if he is any kind of realist at all, he is a symbolic realist. Still, no matter how symbolic you get, if the psychology is false, the sociology is equally false. Where many critics have gone wrong is in assuming a psychology for the Losey-Pinter characters in accordance with the preconceptions of a genre. If Dirk Bogarde’s Servant is immediately identified as half Mephistopheles and half Machiavelli out to corrupt James Fox’s innocent Master, half Faust and half Dorian Gray, then we are no longer in the realm of the why but of the how. Intellectual irony gives way to formal allegory, and the turns of the plot transcend the turns of the screw.
Now let’s stop and think a moment. Why would a Brechtian-Marxist like Losey be unduly concerned over the possible corruption of an upper-class Englishman by his servant? The answer is that Losey is not particularly interested in this aspect of the plot. What must have interested Losey from the beginning was the opportunity provided by Robin Maugham’s conventional novel of decadence to dissect British class society within a controlled frame. By concentrating on four characters—master, servant, master’s fiancé, servant’s mistress—Losey could establish all the necessary lines of communication between classes and then snarl them up with insolence and ignoblesse oblige. One critic has asked why the servant undertakes to undermine his master. The servant’s references are in order. He doesn’t do this as a hobby. What’s his motivation? Well, “motivation” is a kind of Sammy Click script-conference word left over from Hollywood’s traumatic experience with the talkies. What is Hamlet’s motivation? If we knew for sure, perhaps Hamlet would not fail so dismally as a straightforward revenge play. Too much slackness in the second half, you know.
There is one staggering episode in The Servant that provides the key to all the motivations. It is the famous restaurant scene with the snatches of bullying conversations from three unrelated couples. This is not an extraneous sample of Pinter’s virtuosity for comedy relief. It is the evocation of power as the dominant passion of a collapsing class society. Why, then, does the servant take over his master? Simply because someone has to take over someone else. Every relationship—indeed, every conversation—is a power struggle. Lacking a plan, the servant has to improvise. Each nastiness, like Hitler’s, leads to unexpected gains, and the process continues until the servant is as corrupted by power as the master is corrupted by sloth. The servant goes too far. He is fired, then rehired. Chaos. Utter perversion. Then, finally, a fine house where everyone once knew his place has been converted into a seedy brothel where everyone now knows his vice—in short, Losey’s vision of contemporary England.
The ensemble acting is extraordinary. Dirk Bogarde gives the performance of his life with a skillful blend of charm, rascality, and uncertainty. Sarah Miles exudes sex as a rousing stimulus rather than a rhetorical symbol, and no one since the early days of Joan Greenwood has been more delectably suspicious of her own sensuality. Wendy Craig is uncommonly expert in the difficult role of the upper-class character with too much character and not enough fagade to play the chess game to the bitter end. In the most difficult part, James Fox manages his upper but not higher role without a trace of caricature or condescension.
The Servant is undeniably the most exciting movie of the year so far. There is some overelaboration of Losey’s circular camera movements that trace the shape of his deterministic conceptions, and there is also some leakage of meaning through hysteria. It must be acknowledged, if only on the most sublime level of movie-making, that Losey lacks the unified vision of a Renoir in The Rules of the Game, Nevertheless The Servant is a genuinely shocking experience for audiences with the imagination to understand the dimensions of the shock. In years to come The Servant may be cited as a prophetic work making the decline and fall of our last cherished illusions about ourselves and our alleged civilization.
Village Voice, March 26, 1964