The Servant Joseph Losey (UK; 1963) Script: Harold Pinter. with Dirk Bogarde; James Fox; Sarah Miles; Wendy Craig
During lockdown I decided to re-watch some films that had made a considerable impression on me when I first saw them. One of these films was Joseph Losey’s 1963 movie ‘The Servant’, starring Dirk Bogarde James Fox and Sarah Miles, which I was able to access on streaming provider Mubi (Blu-ray and DVDs are readily available online). I was also able to view ‘Eva’ on the same platform, the film he made in Italy immediately before shooting the Servant. Both films evidence the effective devices that Losey employed to communicate his forebodings about the entangled nature of human relations. They are both films of ideas.
These movies were shot against ‘classical’ backgrounds, Venice and Rome in the case of Eva, and a Georgian London terrace for ‘The Servant’. Losey chose these settings and exploited their character so that they are not just backcloths, rather they underlie and are intrinsic to the stories that unfold.
‘The Servant’s’ opening shot is a stunning 360º pan. The film begins with a shot of a spaciously appointed Georgian London terrace, the location of the house where the action will unfold. At first the camera locks onto a gated neo-classical building, perhaps a church or a college, before panning anti clockwise across some nondescript buildings then up through leafless plane trees moving round to a busy London street where finding the huge shop front signage of Thomas Crapper, sanitary engineers, we see the eponymous servant (Hugo played by Dirk Bogarde) and follow him as he crosses the busy road, walks into the terrace and makes his way towards the grand classical structure seen at the top of the shot.
This shot introduces a specific thematic concerns that Losey weaves through his film: the passage of time and our reading of images . The fine classical structure and the Georgian terrace that leads up to it, exude an image of timelessness. But as the camera pans we see that these buildings, with their classical porticos and fine panelled doors, these discrete architectural expressions of wealth, are surrounded by recent upstart structures made up of all sorts of buildings in all sorts of styles. The initial image of an unchanging Georgian street is in fact misleading: if you look back the other way you see the vista is deeply compromised by its urban situation. But many people don’t turn round, they just see what they want to see.
In the course of ‘The Servant’ Losey returns to this opening shot, the exterior of the Terrace, a number of times. Using it with ironic effect to intercut and break up both the action and the emotional charge of the film. In its repeated use, the shot implies a number of interrelated ideas and purposes: ideas about the entrapment of time, the predilection to look only at the image presented, not to turn over to the other side of the postcard; as the emotional intensity builds between the protagonists these cool white painted regular exterior forms contrast with the dark destructive forces within; and intercut this terrace shot suggests that behind the surface of an unblemished exterior, corruption can spread through the interior of a body eating away at its flesh.
Losey’s interest in time is evidenced in both ‘Eva’ and ‘The Servant’ where he uses shots such as ticking clocks and dripping taps as blatant references to its passage, time that hastens away with the quick leaving the dead behind. More subtle is the director’s use of mirror shots throughout ‘The Servant’ calling attention both to time and its reading. These mirror shots, often of long duration, split the subjective reading of time into two discrete sections: first to what is seen indirectly through the mirror, then as the camera pans off the mirror, to that which is seen directly. The shots move from the virtual to the actual.
For the viewers, the mirror shots cause a momentary disorientation, a need to reframe what they are watching. At some point in the camera movement the audience understand that initially they have mis-read the scene: “Ahhh! I see it’s a mirror shot!” Having to reframe what you are looking at, breaks the integrity of the shot sensitising the viewer both to the issue of accepting the images presented on trust and to the idea of time as a subjective dimension. Losey’s use of long durational choreographed mirror scenes where the action flows out of the reflected into the actual splits the shots into two temporal sections, before realisation and after realisation. The cognitive fissures caused by the mirror shots are quickly assimilated; the effect is perhaps confounding but rarely disruptive. But movement through or across a mirror causes a subtle re-orientation in the seer to the manner in which time and space have been experienced.
Crudely in the ticking clocks, subtly through mirror image manipulation, time is a basic building block for Losey in ‘The Servant’. Events are running on fast in ‘The Servant’. Society, the pampered elite living off inherited wealth who live in the expensive houses, are running out of time so fast they can’t see what is happening. Admiring themselves in the mirror they don’t see the camera has panned round. They live as if they were insulated from change but are actually complicit with the forces which will inevitably destroy them.
‘The Servant’ is Losey’s morality tale; a contemporary allegory. Losey’s vision is pessimistic, perhaps cynical. Not for him the righteous outcome of the servants and the dispossessed inheriting the earth in a bloody but glorious revolution. In Western society Losey sees that traditional class oppositions have been fatally compromised and undermined by emulative consumerism. The servant, intelligent clever and adaptive, doesn’t want to overthrow the toff, he just wants to turn the tables on him, and experience for himself the life of a leisured aristo. The servant’s intention is to use his increasing position of power to garner for himself the life style of the other.
In ‘The Servant’ Losey and his script writer Harold Pinter suggest that those in close contact with the system of inequality will never overturn that system but simply enter the more deeply into collusive relations.
Losey’s script for ‘The Servant’ charts a process of role inversion between master and servant. The script is a psychic machine ripping Tony (James Fox) apart finally consuming him and spitting him out as the spent husk of a retarded child. But it is the atmospherics of the film’s scenario registering the dynamics of the homoerotic relationship between Tony and Hugo, that charges the film with its intensity. The rising emotional tensions as the women, in particular Susan (Sarah Miles), are emotionally squeezed out, demeaned, barred from this dyadic male world. The sexual tensions are all the more potent for being implicit in the action, and given the script is by Pinter, in the pauses between the action; they are not made explicit in the flesh. Less is more. Were the film re-made today the script would almost certainly include a full on sex scene between Tony and Hugo, and perhaps between Vera (Wendy Craig) and Tony. In Losey and Pinter’s work this type of roly-poly would simply have reduced the relational complexities to a banality.
Ultimately ‘The Servant’ reads as Losey’s allegory for the the country in which it was made: Britain. A country sliding into psychic melt down: corrupted by the wealth of Empire, married to privilege and unable to change. Some of the things seen in 1963 by this ‘Un-American’ director and Pinter, that in 2020, still ring true.