Experience Preferred: The Dangerous Dynamic of The Servant (1963)


To view The Servant click here.

It’s usually compelling for movie fans to see an actor trying to break out of a mold into which they’ve been cast by the public, and few did it so successfully or aggressively as Dirk Bogarde. Though he’d built up a strong reputation among critics and cineastes in the 1960s with darker character work in films like Cast a Dark Shadow (1955) and the daring masterpiece Victim (1961), he was best known to the public as Simon Sparrow, the heartthrob comic lead in Doctor in the House (1954) and four subsequent sequels. Bogarde’s last film in the series, Doctor in Distress (1963), turned out to be aptly named as it came out the same year as the film that would permanently enshrine Bogarde as a major league actor: The Servant (1963).


As chilly as 1960s British films come, this is mainly a showcase for Bogarde, James Fox (who would go on to do another cinematic power play with Performance in 1970), and a beautifully, impossibly young Sarah Miles. Our first view of Fox is lying unconscious in the center of the frame, presumably hungover in his London flat and already in a conquered position when Bogarde’s predatory servant, Simon Barrett, makes his entrance and offers his services. The underlying psychological and psychosexual implications of a master and servant relationship are already hard to ignore as we see Barrett dressed in black with a symbolic feather from a hunted bird tucked into his hat and displaying some chic leather gloves. (No wonder Bogarde was picked to star in the disturbing, kinky The Night Porter eleven years later.) From there we’re dunked into a sleek but creepy London high society, far removed from the colorful Swinging London we’d come to see repeatedly on movie screens a couple of years later, as Barrett uses his wiles and leverage to assume domination over his tow-headed employer.

It isn’t quite noir, even if you see Bogarde as a possibly pansexual version of the femme fatale; there’s enough influence of kitchen sink English realism (with its depiction of an entitled but diseased class system devouring itself) and classical Ealing Films visual style here to make it more of a curious hybrid, all brought to life vividly by director Joseph Losey. An American expatriate, Losey left the United States after he was named during the HUAC red scare interrogations in 1951, with his recent membership in the Communist Party making him a prime target. That turn of events proved to be fortunate for his career however as he would produce his most noteworthy films in the U.K., including a promising start with the minor but evocative noir The Sleeping Tiger (1954) – featuring a young, third-billed Bogarde. It’s clear from all their collaborations that Losey had an affinity for drawing out the best in Bogarde, who’s still a fascinating figure in the film world. Tightly wound but still adept at using those puppy-dog eyes that made him a star, he’s an actor whose performances still don’t feel dated at all. Divorced from both stylized Hollywood acting, English theatrical tics or Method mannerisms, he could easily be the first in a style that would become popular in both Europe and the U.S. in the 1970s and can still be found today in the more serious turns by the likes of Ryan Gosling and Oscar Isaac.


Case in point: the fiery confrontation scene at the 1 hour and 15 minute mark, in which Fox confronts Bogarde about the “criminal offense” he believes has been committed under his own roof, thanks to the info provided to him by well-meaning Wendy Craig. Bogarde is framed in tight shots staring just off center with the two pinpoints of light reflected in his eyes but shining out almost like an insect’s, which is intercut with Fox and Craig positioned at opposite sides of the frame with an eerie convex mirror between them. It’s the kind of theatrical gambit on Losey’s part that could have been laughable (you’ll find a lot of mirrors in this film, a trope that’s been catnip to movie critics for decades), but Bogarde manages to completely sell the scene with the other three superb actors shifting positions and distances from the camera to show how their power dynamics have suddenly been upended. Perhaps even more remarkable, when he leaves the room with Sarah Miles after dashing the other two characters’ perceptions to pieces, his presence is still felt lingering in the room as Fox turns to liquor and the swanky sounds of John (“Johnny”) Dankworth’s soundtrack on a handy turntable to ease the pain. By the way, that’s Dankworth’s wife, jazz vocalist Cleo Laine, crooning the song, “All Gone;” they would work together many times over the years, including dozens of TV projects and a far lesser known British film, Daniel Petrie’s The Idol (1966), which sports some of Dankworth’s best work.

This film would be the first of three credited collaborations with legendary playwright Harold Pinter, followed by Accident (1967) and The Go-Between (1971) with a bit of uncredited ghost writing on Modesty Blaise (1966) to boot. Just to tie things back together, Pinter also wrote the lyrics for “All Gone,” showing off his less famous songwriting skills for the only time in movie history. Just as Losey seemed to bring out the best in Bogarde, you could also say that Pinter brought out the best in Losey. The director had a very up and down relationship with critics and the public, to put it mildly; though his reputation may be solidified today, he’d already had two of his films, Eva and These Are the Damned, butchered by their distributors the previous year in numerous territories, and the Losey-Pinter projects would prove to be a rare example of uniform acclaim in his career before he drew jeers for his nearly abstract plunge into dreamy melodrama with Boom! and Secret Ceremony, both in 1968. (Gotta confess, I love ‘em both.) No matter how you feel about his entire output, though, there’s really no denying that both he, his screenwriter and his most famous leading man were all at the peak of their powers, producing a compelling and deeply chilling work of art that’s lost none of its power to fascinate and unnerve.

Nathaniel Thompson

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2 Responses Experience Preferred: The Dangerous Dynamic of The Servant (1963)
Posted By kingrat : June 21, 2017 12:47 pm

Nathaniel, thanks for the great comments about Dirk Bogarde’s acting style. He’s a much underrated actor whose work I always enjoy.

Losey/Stanley Baker was another great combination of actor and director: EVA, ACCIDENT, and my favorite Losey film, THE CRIMINAL.

And James Fox went on to give the best performance of his career in 1965 in a film called . . . what was the title? . . . KING RAT.

Posted By Rabih Haddad : June 22, 2017 8:38 am

Great revue. But don’t forget Bogarde performance in Visconti death in venice and the damned. And the social class fight allegory in the servant.

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