The Servant (1963)

James Fox and Dirk Bogarde in "The Servant"
James Fox and Dirk Bogarde in “The Servant”

Director: Joseph Losey

Cultures cherish their traditions.  That’s why it’s easy for traditions to transmogrify into cultural debilitations.  Directed by Hollywood exile Joseph Losey, The Servant is a smartly piercing English drama about the unhealthy co-dependence of an aristocrat and his butler.  Blueblood Tony (James Fox) returns to London after years “developing cities” abroad (i.e. perpetuating British imperialism).  He hires a soft-spoken valet named Barrett (Dirk Bogarde), unaware of the gentleman’s malicious alter ego lurking beneath the obsequiousness.  Though trained on the stage, Losey, like Roman Polanski and Orson Welles, generates palpable anxiety through deep-focus compositions.  By stressing the uncomfortable divide between foreground and background, the director insinuates the broader social, political, and sexual tensions of the era.  The film initially utilizes a mannered style to embody that repressive ethos.  Once Barrett recruits his promiscuous sister (Sarah Miles) as a housemaid, the pressure uncorks, threatening Tony’s engagement to the haughty Susan (Wendy Craig) and spiraling the characters toward a decadent abyss.  Though we’re treated to the Schadenfreude of a master-servant role reversal, the movie is not content with some facile switcheroo.  It profoundly intimates that Tony symbolizes the whole aristocracy’s inescapable reliance on the lower class.  A disturbing psychodrama, The Servant reveals a society rendered impotent by its own long history of subjugation.

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