Could “The Servant” be the coldest film ever made? Glaciers might be melting, the polar caps might be crumbling, but not even the passage of half a century has taken the frozen edge off this brilliantly icy film.
Opening in a 50th-anniversary restoration, this 1963 British movie is a heartless study in upper class impotence, sexual ambiguity and the dynamics of personal power politics. It’s also a demonstration of the heights a film can reach when all its collaborators are working at the top of their game.
Directed by Joseph Losey, the coolly proficient expatriate American, “The Servant” was based on a novel by Robin Maugham, but it’s Harold Pinter’s classically enigmatic script that gives the film its characteristic disturbing opacity. (The playwright even has a brief cameo as a restaurant patron, and it’s a treat to hear him giving his dialogue just the right verbal twist.)
Undoubtedly first among equals in the acting department was Dirk Bogarde as Barrett, the supremely devious gentleman’s gentleman, a performance that won him a British Academy of Film and Television Arts award for best actor. And his costars were equally compelling.
James Fox, in his first major role, plays upper class twit Tony, the big baby in desperate need of someone to take care of him. Also expert are Wendy Craig as Susan, Tony’s overmatched fiancée, and Sarah Miles as Vera, whom Barrett passes off as his sister.
One of the things this fine restoration emphasizes is the splendor of Douglas Slocombe’s moody black and white cinematography. Slocombe, who cut his teeth on such classic Ealing comedies as “Kind Hearts and Coronets” and “The Lavender Hill Mob,” smoothly handles the difficulties of this very different kind of situation, which involved everything from complex tracking shots to photographing a convex mirror.
Also essential is composer John Dankworth, whose cool jazz score sets the appropriate mood. It’s typical of the care with which “The Servant” is put together that not only does his wife, the gifted Cleo Laine, sing the film’s “All Gone” theme song (with lyrics by Pinter) but she sings it with three arrangements, so its emotional weight is different every time.
“The Servant” opens on an especially bleak day that creates the scene for what is to come. Barrett comes to see Tony about a job, and the counterintuitive power dynamics are established at once: Tony, the nominal aristocrat, is prone in a camp chair, sleeping off too many beers, while the supposedly lower class Barrett towers above him with the hauteur of an elegant vampire. Tony supposes he will always be the one giving the orders, but that just shows how little he knows.
With his gifts for cooking, decoration and seeming deference, Barrett soon makes himself indispensable to his clueless employer, even soaking the man’s feet in a hot tub to try to ward off a chill.
Susan, Tony’s elegant fiancée, is intuitively suspicious of Barrett and his motives, and even though she is not without weapons of her own, her hold on Tony gets slipperier and slipperier.
Susan’s situation gets especially dire after Barrett persuades Tony that he needs the help of a maid, and suggests his putative sister Vera, a wide-eyed vamp in too-short skirts. Vera play out a game of mutual seduction to the drip-drip-drip of a leaky kitchen faucet that is one of the film’s highlights.
Although the changing power dynamics of “The Servant,” not to mention its sexual ambivalence, can sound schematic, the way everything descends into decrepitude and depravity is much nastier and more perverse than we may be prepared for. When Susan asks Barrett, “What do you want from this house?” and he answers, “I’m a servant, ma’am,” that’s both the biggest truth and the biggest lie of all.
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes
Playing: Laemmle’s Royal in West L.A. and Playhouse 7 in Pasadena.