The Servant (1963) packs a lot of social commentary, observations on British society at the time, good dialogue and some great cinematography.
Sometimes I get around late to watching things, or realise that something exists and why the hell didn’t I know about it? This was the case with the more recent British series Inside No. 9, created by Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton from the well-loved British comedy series League of Gentlemen. Whereas League of Gentlemen was more of a goofy, weird and humourous look at stereotypes in a small, remote northern English town, Inside No. 9 took a new direction, mixing horror and dark comedy for some great results that carried the show over a number of season.
Even before I had started to watch Inside No. 9 I suspected it would probably be pretty good, namely as both actors have done work in drama and films, and for me specifically with Reece Shearsmith in Ben Wheatley’s psychological horror film A Field In England, where he plays an army deserter in the English Civil War that ends up taking far too many psychedelic mushrooms and giving us the resulting trip-out sequence of the Altered States variety.
In the first series of Inside No. 9 there’s a episode simply called “Toby”, where Pemberton plays a homeless man (named Toby) that ends up infiltrating the life of a school teacher (Shearsmith). Initially Shearsmith is clear, focused and a bit uptight and Pemberton in the throes of desperation. Shearsmith feels empathy toward Toby despite resistant to interacting with him but offers Toby a drink to get out of the cold. As the episode progresses Shearsmith’s character starts to get more slovenly, unorganised and forgetful with the influence of this homeless man in his house and Pemberton in turn becomes more controlling and starting to dictate Shearsmith’s life. The lines between reality and the inner workings of the thoughts of one’s own head start to blur. It’s a pretty good episode and one that hits close to home in terms of how close we all are to mentally falling apart at anytime.
But one thing I definitely noticed was how the premise of this story was very similar to a 1963 film called The Servant, starring Dirk Bogarde, Wendy Craig, Sarah Miles and James Fox. I love a lot of films in the 60s and 70s with Bogarde; Victim, The Damned, The Night Porter and Sebastian being just a few. Bogarde actually won a BAFTA for this film.
Bogarde plays Barratt, an experienced manservant who gets hired to tend to the household of Tony (James Fox), a somewhat naïve, fresh-faced upper class young man in his twenties who works in some sort of investment field. In the early parts of the film he’s rambling on about some housing development they’re building in some rainforest or greenspace — this scenario and how he talks about it sort of tips him off as being a newcomer to the world of business.
Barratt arrives for his interview, he’s smartly dressed while Tony’s slumped in a car in the sun room, having a nap after drinking a few beers at lunchtime. When Barratt starts working for Tony, it’s obvious that Barratt has a lot of experience, cleaning and providing changes to the apartment that Tony would never think of doing. Barratt also seems to have knowledge of current design and interior decoration trends and advises Tony on how to refurbish his London townhouse.
Tony’s fiancée, Susan, takes a disliking to Barratt as he seems to be constantly hovering around and soon enough the class difference becomes apparent as Susan’s discomfort with Barratt starts to turn into treating him with a lack of respect.
The pacing is quite sinister, along with the excellent framing of the shots within the townhouse. Little things that Barratt does when Tony isn’t around starts to unveil some ulterior motive that Barratt is hiding. You first get a sense of this when Barratt is making a call at a phone booth outside of the townhouse.
Barratt asks permission to invite his sister, Vera, to stay, stating that she can assist with the housework. The following events start to unravel Tony’s life as he starts making decisions without really thinking them through, with Barratt and his “sister” Vera starting to use those weak points to take control of Tony’s life.
As the film progresses, Barratt gets fired at one point and then is re-hired, but this time the dynamic changes quite a bit, with Barratt almost being like an “odd couple” housemate, still doing some servant roles but ultimately chastising Tony, getting into arguments and then getting drunk together and playing games throughout the house.
The film starts to take on a dreamy tone toward the end, where Tony and Susan start to act like they’re in a trance as Barratt starts inviting mysterious guests back to the house for drinks and partying and Tony and Susan in states of trance and confusion as they try to retain some grip on reality.
The above describes the key elements of the plot without giving too much away. The great thing about this film is the sinister feeling that underlies the film without making it “dark”. Set in 60s swinging London, there’s also some nice shots of bars, clubs and cafés that Tony and Susan go to and street scenes. There’s even a short appearance by Patrick Magee (most people will know him from A Clockwork Orange).
The way the film is shot makes Tony’s townhouse reflect the various psychological moods of the film. There’s a great scene on the stairs nearer to the end of the film where Barratt and Tony are drunk, hurling a tennis ball at each other on the stairs. Tony, wearing a stripped shirt, sits down on the stairs in the shadow of the staircase bannister, which looks like prison bars and Tony a prisoner in his striped shirt. Some serious symbolism there!
There’s also a smooth, jazz-y track sung by Cleo Laine that repeats numerous times throughout the film as Tony turns on his turntable. In each instance where this track is played, there’s always a drastic change in circumstances in context to where the track is played in the film.
Now while I love you, alone… Can’t love without you.
And the last scenes of the film where Barratt throws a bizarre little soirée in the house are great to look at as well as you really feel that Tony and Susan have really lost their grip on being the “masters” of the house and start to lose their sense of reality.
Bogarde did another great film two years before this one: Victim, where he plays a succcessful, married barrister that deals with blackmail after some events start to reveal his hidden homosexuality. The directors of this film have acknowledged that was designed to be “an open protest against Britain’s law that being a homosexual is a criminal act”. Victim became a highly sociologically significant film; many believe it played an influential role in liberalising attitudes and the laws in Britain regarding homosexuality. The character that Bogarde played mirrored his own life quite closely, as although Bogarde was married at points in his life, it was speculated that they were marriages of convenience as he was close to many male friends over the years, a good number of those early years as well where it was illegal to be in a homosexual relationship.
Anyway, The Servant packs a lot of social commentary, observations on British society at the time, good dialogue and some great shots in it’s environment, most of which takes place in Tony’s townhouse alone.