Class warfare in a Chelsea townhouse in Joseph Losey's corking 1963 psychodrama.
Joseph Losey's hectoring and ungainly exploration of unworkable class interdependence has not aged particularly well. Re-released in conjunction with its 50th birthday, this once-edgy and outre shocker now suffers from a severe lack of subtlety and the knowledge early on that there is only really one way this story can go. In fact it's not that this story is unsubtle, more that its subtlety is cloyingly self-conscious.
That said, as a dramatic, psychosexual two-hander, Dirk Bogarde and James Fox make for fine sparring partners, the former a sinister manservant who happily deflects all abuses of his underling status, while the latter excels as an affluent gadabout for whom material entitlement is a part of his lifestyle.
Bogarde's Barrett is hired by Fox's Tony when this wiry cad returns to London and subsequently settles in a plush Chelsea townhouse. Initially, the master-servant roleplaying appears to be operating as these things do, with Barrett unquestioning in his efforts to please his wastrel boss. But nerves start to fray as Barrett mounts a slow-burn psychological attack on his out-of-touch paymaster.
The tonally divergent performance styles of the two leads emphasise the clash of ideology, while the climactic orgy/wig-out looks ahead to the gender-switching psychedelics of such seminal swinging london relics as Roeg and Cammell's Performance. Also, Losey's use of off-kilter camera angles and an ornamental convex mirror helps to emphasise the stifling architecture of the building while offering eerie portents of things to come.
Yet The Servant's cynicism now feels wearing, particularly the suggestion that the lower classes are building towards some kind of wily and precision-tooled take-down of the monied elite, while the vapid dandies of the upper classes are too stupid, egregious and guilty to see the big red targets painted on back of their Savile Row-tailored threads.
But does the film – and its writer, Harold Pinter – take sides during this quietly raging battle? It's hard to tell. Certainly it's very difficult to empathise with Tony – as it would be to sympathise with any louche layabout on the screen – but then as Barrett begins to assert his powers via the veiled sexual advances of his coquettish "sister", Vera (Sarah Miles), any sense of him being the film's hero go out the window.
A 50th birthday celebration for one of British cinema's lesser-known classics.
An invigorating actor stand-off that's been carefully crafted by director Joseph Losey...
...but it's righteous sense of political anger now feels dated and trite.