The Servant (1963)

Joseph Losey directs, Harold Pinter writes and Dirk Bogarde stars in this powerful drama. Optimum UK R2 DVD.

The Film

Tony, a young aristocrat, has returned to Britain after several years working on an ambitious project in the Latin American jungles. He looks to hire a manservant to help him around his house and meets Hugo (Dirk Bogarde) who seems perfect, but Tony's girlfriend Susan is concerned that Hugo does not seem to be taking orders but giving them, especially when he brings his "sister" Vera down to act as a maid. When she seduces Tony, the balance of power begins to shift for good...

The first of three films that Losey would make based on screenplays by the British writer Harold Pinter, The Servant is adapted from a 1948 play by Robin Maugham and retains its key theme of an aristocratic man being mentally overwhelmed and overpowered by his manservant. As with Pinter's other two works for Losey, the key word here is subtlety and the first half of the film builds up the storyline through only the merest suggestions and hints of something being amiss - making the bathroom sequence in particular, which avoids any trace of subtlety, quite shocking, if only to see just how far the balance between master and servant has changed. Although quite slow, the film never manages to drag during these early scenes but instead builds up the characters very well. The second half after Barrett is asked to come back completely changes tack, becoming stranger and stranger until the completely surreal climax that would be notable even in a Jess Franco film.

The one scene in the film, during the first half, that does not work quite as well as it could have done is a short sequence set in a restaurant where Hugo and Susan are dining and where the script focuses on two other tables in the room to show us the characters and some dialogue - the purpose seems to be to show that the main characters are part of a real world, and only a small part, however the focus on a foul mouthed Catholic bishop seems to be merely a cheap shot at the church or an attempt at some light humour, neither of which particularly suit the film and rather detract from the scene.

As usual, Joseph Losey's direction is absolutely magnificant and in his penultimate black and white film he again shows his mastery of the format with some stunningly artistic images and lighting. His direction towards the climax suits the action perfectly and he adeptly switches from social realism to his own brand of European surrealism. An appropriate contemporary soundtrack gives the film a very strong backing.

A decade after first working with Losey on Sleeping Tiger, one of the films that helped establish him as an actor, Dirk Bogarde works again with the American director and gives another superb performance. Throughout his career Bogarde had to switch between playing upper-class academics and officers, and playing the working class - here he is the latter, with a Midlands accent and looking very fitting in a flat cap. James Fox (brother of fellow actor Edward Fox) plays Tony and is particularly well cast, managing the authentically effortless upper-class attitude that one would expect from the character. Wendy Craig and Vera Miles give two very contrasting but effective performances in the female roles. Patrick Magee gives a brief but memorable appearance as the Catholic Bishop.

Powerfully written, with an almost flawless script, The Servant is boosed by a top notch cast and an amazing display of directoral talent from Joseph Losey. Highly recommended to fans of the director and cast, it will certainly appeal to fans of the European New Wave and art-house cinema in general.

In Brief
Anyone famous in it? Dirk Bogarde - the British star who also appeared in Losey's Sleeping Tiger (1954) and Accident (1967)
Directed by anyone interesting? Joseph Losey - an American born director who was driven out by the communist witch-hunts and made a name in European cinema from the British anti-war drama King & Country (1964) to wartime French film Mr. Klein (1976)
Any gore or violence ? None
Any sex or nudity? Several scenes containing sex but nothing seen.
Who is it for? A must see for fans of Pinter, Losey and Bogarde.

Visuals Original Aspect Ratio - 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen. Black and White.
The print is strong and sharp throughout.
Audio Original English mono - sounds fine.
Subtitles None.
Extras This disc includes:
  • Interview with film expert Ian Christie (20 minutes)
  • Original theatrical trailer.
  • Brief filmographies of the main cast
  • Photo gallery
Region Region 2 (UK, Europe) - PAL
Availability Available on its own or in the Dirk Bogarde Collection or the Joseph Losey Collection.
Other regions? Also available from Universal in Scandinavia (including Danish, Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish subtitles and the interview piece) as well as from Studio Canal in France. Previously available in Anchor Bay US's Dirk Bogarde collection, along with Accident and Mind Benders.
Cuts? Believed to be fully uncut. English language print



All text in this review written by Timothy Young - 18th October 2008.
Text from this review not to be used without authorization.

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