Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Short Take: The Servant

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.


The first two-thirds of The Servant (1963) is a terrific black farce--taut and marvelously droll. A young London playboy (James Fox) comes into his inheritance, buys a townhouse, and hires a “gentleman’s gentleman” (Dirk Bogarde), a live-in butler who will attend to every household need. At first, the butler proves an ideal servant: devoted to his job, an excellent cook, and he never leaves a detail out of place. The only downside is that his presence drives the playboy’s fiancée (Wendy Craig) right up the wall. Things then take a delightfully sinister turn. The butler brings his “sister” (Sarah Miles) to the house, and convinces the playboy to take her on as a maid. However, the butler’s real purpose in having her there is to undermine the playboy’s relationship with his fiancée. The director, Joseph Losey, and the screenwriter, Harold Pinter, are masters of both cadence and portent. They keep the viewer so attentive to nuance that the slightest discord--a misplaced word, a slight shift in voice, a stray gesture--ratchets up the suspense to thrilling levels. They take the viewer right inside the quiet hostility between the butler and the fiancée, and the sexual tension between the playboy and the “sister” is nothing less than dazzling. Dirk Bogarde is superbly unctuous in the title role--the character goes from unassuming to devious to malevolent, and the shifts feel effortless. James Fox makes the playboy the perfect foil; the fellow’s surface confidence is impeccably conveyed, but one never doubts what a weak-willed twerp he is underneath. As the “sister,” Sarah Miles is teasing, slatternly perfection. While Wendy Craig lacks the bravura of her co-stars, she isn’t diminished by them, either; she hits every note with precision. The first two acts are so strong that one may want to put the disappointment of the final one out of mind. Losey and Pinter build the second act to an electrifying climax, but they never regain their momentum. The third act has the playboy becoming subordinate to the butler, and the film devolves into an uninspired theater-of-the-absurd piece. But it’s a great movie until then, and one’s inclined to say it’s a great movie regardless. Douglas Slocombe provided the excellent black-and-white cinematography. The witty art direction, which Losey uses for hilarious symbolic commentary on the characters, is by Richard Macdonald and Ted Clements. The screenplay was derived from a novella by Robin Maugham.

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