June 18, 2012

The Servant (1963)
Grade: 82/100

Director: Joseph Losey
Stars: Dirk Bogarde, Sarah Miles, James Fox

What it's about. This curious British class drama stars James Fox as a young wastrel with inherited wealth and Dirk Bogarde as his valet. Bogarde is initially efficient and devoted, but nonetheless, he is despised by Fox's girlfriend and eventual fiancée Wendy Craig.

It seems that Bogarde must choose between his invaluable servant and his lovely but sharp-tongued girlfriend. He is unable to do so, but events decide for him after Bogarde brings in his "sister" Sarah Miles as a maid. Soon the promiscuous and low Miles is having an affair with Fox as well as continuing her sexual relationship with Bogarde. Craig is stunned and breaks up with Fox even though both Bogarde and Miles are sacked.

Now alone, Fox falls deeper into despondency and drinking. He encounters the equally glum Bogarde in a pub, and, because it is a movie, again hires Bogarde as his valet. But Bogarde no longer feels the need to hide his dark side, and soon Fox and Bogarde become debauched roommates, with Miles and eccentric party girls adding to the fun.

Because it is a movie, Craig shows up at the Fox house and stares in disbelief at Fox's incoherence and Bogarde's carousing. The screenplay is by celebrated writer Harold Pinter, and jazz alto sax player and composer John Dankworth provides the soundtrack, along with his singer wife Cleo Laine.

How others will see it. The Servant is the best known film in the canon of director Joseph Losey, who made a few dozen movies, most of them obscure. Losey attended the same high school as famous Hollywood director Nicholas Ray. An encounter with the Communist witch hunt during the 1950s forced Losey to England, where his films were better received anyway.

Although mostly ignored in America, The Servant was praised in England. BAFTA nominated it for eight awards, all in major categories. Bogarde won Best British Actor, Fox won Most Promising Newcomer, and Douglas Slocombe won for his black and white cinematography.

Nearly a half century later at imdb.com, the user vote total is 3,417, a respectable number for a British film of its era. The user ratings are very high at 8.0, with a slight dip to 7.7 among women over 45. Most view the movie as a role reversal between Bogarde and Fox. The servant becomes master, the master becomes servant. Viewers note homoerotic tension between Fox and Bogarde, and the descent of Fox from his upper class station into a lower class lifestyle, or at least its stereotype.

How I felt about it. The Servant is surreal enough that it is open to multiple interpretations. I propose that Bogarde and Fox have much in common. They are both lonely and troubled alcoholics who like their parties wild. But they pretend to be something else for most of the movie. Only at the film's end are they where they want to be, debauched close friends.

The proverbial fork in the road for Fox arrives when he must choose between his servant and his girlfriend. Fox is too weak-willed to decide, so the more aggressive Bogarde imposes himself. Of course, Fox is better off with Craig, but he might be more happy with Bogarde. Instead of Fox having to live up to Craig's demanding expectations of him, he can be in a carousing stupor with Bogarde, who, like the Devil, expedites his path down the dark side. In any event, it is better than being alone, which for Fox is the worst fate of all.