The first and probably most famous of the collaborations between playwright Harold Pinter and director Joseph Losey, The Servant appeared at that moment (the early 1960s) when filmmakers could deal with previously taboo subjects as long as the results were kept implicit. As a result, The Servant’s horror story of Tony (James Fox), an upper-class young man gradually destroyed by his manservant, Barrett (Dirk Bogarde) is remarkable for how little it shows. Instead, hints and suggestions accumulate to immerse us in fevered rot.
You can, of course, take the story of The Servant at face value as a moralizing fable about personal weakness, and thus distance events by attributing them to Tony’s failings and Barrett’s malevolence. Such a reassuring reduction is likely to make the film seem ponderous, overwrought and just possibly ridiculous, as if all of Tony’s problems could be rectified if he would only man up, kick out Barrett and get on with his life.
A rejoinder to such dismissal can attribute the pathological situation to the destructiveness of the British class system, making Tony and Barrett something like the negative flip side of Jeeves and Wooster. Such a reaction may be intellectually respectable, but it is rather unconvincing since the social relationship between Tony and Barrett feels a bit dated, even in the film itself. When, for example, Tony tells his girlfriend Susan (Wendy Craig) that he has found a manservant, her reaction (“A what?”) suggests that the very idea of a gentleman’s gentleman is anachronistic. A sociopolitical interpretation also ignores how the characters’ idiosyncrasies contribute to their decline, thus enabling the viewer to remain safely distant from the subject.
Combine individual psychology with social examination, however, and a third, more disturbing reaction seems warranted. For if the master and servant situation makes it impossible to view the story as just Tony and Barrett’s problem, it is but a small step to recognize domestic service as only one kind of power scenario, a stand-in for all the abusive emotional games people play with one another. It is no doubt this third reaction that sustains the film’s insidious fascination. It is detailed enough for us to feel Tony’s disintegration personally, while general enough for us to recognize his twisted relationship with Barrett as an example of something larger than either the characters or any social categories used to justify their story.
If your vision is blinkered, The Servant can be dismissed as a tempest in a teapot. If you prefer to ignore emotional content in favor of an abstraction, Tony and Barrett can be held at arm’s length as both pitiable and despicable victims. For anyone who has had to deal with the dark corners of human conduct, however, The Servant is likely at best to seem all-too familiar. At worst, it brings out suppressed fears, self-recriminations and memories best forgotten. It is a great movie, but not one to watch very often.