50 years, 50 films: The Servant (1963)
We begin our countdown of one film a year from the last half century with an icy Joseph Losey classic
It’s summer and a hint of silly season fever is kicking in. Certain significant half-centuries will be celebrated at Screenwriter Towers towards the end of this year. With these facts in mind, we have decided to launch a countdown of movies from 1963 to the present. Each post will mention one film of which you really should be aware. We are not, of course, so foolish as to argue that these are the best films from each particular year. We are not even going so far as to suggest the lucky movie is our favourite. These are merely very fine films that, we hope, convey something of the era in which they were released. A short paragraph will offer some notes. Obviously, it would have made more sense to start this project at the beginning of the year. If we’d done that then we would have had slightly fewer than one post a week. This way, we have slightly more than two a week. Oh well.
We begin with Joseph Losey’s brilliant The Servant. It’s 1963 — the year in which, according to Phillip Larkin, sexual intercourse (or the 1960s) really began. But movies had certainly not yet begun to swing. Other tempting options for this year included The Great Escape, 8 1/2, The Leopard and Le Mepris. But we’ve gone for this deeply sinister translation of Harold Pinter’s study of obsession, class, sexuality and the dynamics of power. It is, in many ways, a film that sums up its time. Dirk Bogarde plays Barrett, a taut, savagely camp northerner hired by James Fox’s slightly ineffectual toff to act as manservant. Initially the “Servant” appears to know and savour his place. But, as time passes, his influence over his employer increases and the roles end up being somewhat reversed. “I’m a gentleman’s gentleman and your no bloody gentleman,” Barrett famously barked.
Pinter wisely never discussed the meaning behind his plays or scripts. So, he would, no doubt, be appalled to hear us argue that the picture spoke to the rise in social mobility during the 1960s and of the upper classes’ discomfort with that situation. There is also some consideration of good-old English homoeroticism. Pondering both those themes, it’s hard to escape comparisons with another Fox film from the fag end of the 1960s. In Nic Roeg and Donald Cammell’s Performance, that actor played a hoodlum holed up in a house owned by Mick Jagger’s messianic pop star. A new hierarchy is in place. But it too can be usurped.
At any rate, Losey’s film remains an endlessly spooky, witheringly incisive piece of work. Check out the obsession with mirrors and the often nauseating camera angles. Shiver at the coldness of Douglas Slocombe‘s crisp monochrome. Speaking of anniversaries, this could hardly be a more special year for Mr Slocombe. The director of photography on Kinds Hearts and Coronets, The Italian Job, Rollerball and the first three Indiana Jones is still with is at 100. Good for him.