At the Movies

Michael Wood

Joseph Losey’s The Servant hasn’t lost any of its mystery over the years since 1963; it might even have gained a bit. This is odd because the film seems in many ways so obvious, giving off unmissable hints and signals at almost every moment. But then this obviousness itself is not what it seems to be. What’s obvious about the hints and signals is that this is what they are. But of what? Of how many things? And about which of the characters? As regards these questions we are as much in the dark as ever, even with an elegant new Blu-Ray print to look at.

This enduring darkness is the combined achievement of Losey, Harold Pinter and Dirk Bogarde, but it can’t have been certain from the start that the combination would work, because each of the three specialises in a different, potentially conflicting act. Losey is always a stylist, often mildly baroque, his camera always literally looking for angles, deeply fond of mirrors in which to reveal subtly distorted reflections, keen on frames where faces or people are positioned in ways that comment on their relationships. You would never think Losey was saying too little in a film, or was absent from a single shot. Pinter by contrast is the master of silence and disappearance, finding language so apparently ordinary that it does most of the talking on its own, especially when it stops, as it so often does. Bogarde neither appears all the time nor disappears; he’s always there, he makes small gestures, some of them almost invisible but only almost, he gives us plenty of text to read, so to speak, but it’s in tiny print. So we could ask: how are the baroque and the cryptic and the miniature going to get along?

One way of thinking about the question would be to look at a stark query that surfaces in the film itself. Wendy Craig as Susan the fiancée, if that is what she is, gets suspicious of the servant, and abruptly asks him: ‘What do you want of this house?’ It’s her way of asking what he wants of the master of the house, but it’s also a good question in its own right. The house is a major player in the film. It’s on Royal Avenue in Chelsea, Colin Gardner tells us in Joseph Losey (2004); the film opens with a view of Wren’s Royal Hospital at the end of the perspective, tracks down the promenade of dust that separates the two sides of the street, pauses over the almost bare trees, takes a deep interest in the sky, then settles on a row of houses and then on one house in particular. A slight, tidy figure in a porkpie hat and belted overcoat is making his way there, rings the bell, and getting no answer, pushes gently at the open door. This is Bogarde as Hugo Barrett, the servant, come for his appointment right on time.

Craig (and we) can ask what he wants of the house because the house seems to be waiting for him; it’s empty, recently bought, badly needs decorating and furnishing. In the early days when the owner and the fiancée want to make out they have to lie on the floor on a mixture of coats and newspapers. It seems empty when Bogarde gets there, but he finds the owner, Tony, played by James Fox, asleep in the kitchen after a few beers too many at lunch. What Bogarde wants is a job, and he gets one. But the house becomes part of his wanting on first sight. And it’s tempting to think the question, like so much of what happens in the movie, needs its mirror-image for completion: what does the house want of Bogarde? The house is a scene that needs a master, someone to fill it with action – the sort of creepy action any oldish house would want if it had the chance. At one point Fox jokingly says Bogarde is a vampire in his spare time. He isn’t; he is something darker and more dilettantish, less needy. But he does know that an Englishman’s home is not just his castle. It’s a home that dreams of being Castle Dracula.

Much has been written about class relations in the film, and about forms of power, and most of it is true. But watching it now I couldn’t feel these issues were central, were the main worries sparking off all the hints and signals. The main worries seemed to be vulnerability in the notional master, a sort of waiting for, or longing for invasion or infestation; and a permanent appetite in the supposed servant for playing around with such vulnerability, finding it out and making it do tricks. Of course this is all about class and power, or rather class and power are full of such opportunities and yearnings, but we may lose the strangeness of the film if we use the names of things we think we know about.

Fox hires Bogarde, and their relationship goes through a series of seasons rather than adding up to a plot. At first, things are quite proper, ideal from Fox’s nostalgic, slothful point of view: Bogarde is the sort of servant you can’t find nowadays, and couldn’t find very often in any days; a Jeeves without the advice and the superiority. Things become a little eerie when Bogarde, the soul of discretion, starts committing indiscreet acts, interrupting a romantic scene between Fox and Craig, for example. Craig quickly gets the idea that Bogarde wants her out of the way, and she just as eagerly wants to get rid of him. There’s a lot of bleak Pinterian comedy here about how awful the upper classes can be, dry, insulting, malicious, and Losey adds his own touches, an especially elegant one taking the form of a tableau where live characters are posed as if for their future statues. But Craig is right, Bogarde is up to something. Fox probably knows this too, but must already be halfway into the homoerotic fantasy that develops more fully later; at this early moment he is still hanging on to the old idea of the gentleman’s gentleman for the sake of self-deception. But this orderly dream is threatened almost immediately: Bogarde introduces his sister, Sarah Miles, as a possible housemaid, and it seems as if the two are planning some sort of robbery. They are, but not of worldly goods. Miles seduces Fox, turns out not to be Bogarde’s sister, and the film seems almost to end, to have got where it was going, when Fox and Craig come back from a jolly snowball fight in the park to find the servants having sex in the master’s bedroom: downstairs upstairs, you might say. The class situation is reversed, the servants are the new masters, the masters are humiliated.

Actually, one of the films within the film does end there. Bogarde and Miles are sacked, everything seems to be over. And then in what is surely the best turn in the script, Bogarde effectively picks Fox up in a pub, apologises, says he’d like to come back, and they set up a ménage à deux that is a sort of apotheosis cum parody of gay marriage as Oscar Wilde might have pictured it. They squawk, squeal, prance, hit each other, make peace, get along divinely. By this time it’s clear that the servant is the master in all kinds of senses, and not just for a day, and Bogarde is not content until he has converted the house into a brothel, and Fox into a drooling drunk who can only slump on the landing as his house and his life fall away from him. Craig returns at this point, and volunteers for a bit of humiliation of her own.

Is this an answer to the question about the three acts, Losey’s, Pinter’s and Bogarde’s? It’s not a full answer, there would be much more to say – about the John Dankworth score, for example, and about Robin Maugham’s novel. But it does suggest – all right, offer hints and signals – that there is a gothic ground where too much, too little and too subtle happily go together. In fact, you couldn’t do this bit of Chelsea gothic – where the count is not an eternal aristocrat who drinks blood, but a bloke from Manchester who loves devising new humiliations for his victims – without quite a lot of all three of them.