Archive for April 7, 2020

Acting the Gentleman

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on April 7, 2020 by dcairns

When Joseph Losey and Dirk Bogarde were thrust together for juvie delinquency drama THE SLEEPING TIGER, both men agreed that they could do valuable work together, just not in THE SLEEPING TIGER.

By the time they got back together, Losey had done more flawed junk, but also THE CRIMINAL and EVE, so his career had begun its second stage — he was now partway a European art film maker, and THE SERVANT continues this journey.

It’s interesting that leftwing Losey never had anything to do with the British new wave’s working class social realism. From SLEEPING TIGER through FINGER OF GUILT and EVE, he identifies more with the jazz-listening middle class, of which he was one (his friend Richard Lester another). Bogarde’s character in THE SERVANT is an exception, but being a gentleman’s gentleman he’ middle-class-adjacent. The light northern accent he and Sarah Miles put on is lovely.

It probably surprised everyone that Bogarde could play working class, his roles until then (and largely afterwards, OUR MOTHER’S HOUSE being an exception) had tended to be pretty upper-middle, or even aristocratic. It’s still startling when he says his army nickname was “Basher,” and then smuttily amusing when he explains it: “I was very good at drilling.”

James Fox, eh? His credit reads “Introducing,” but as a boy he was in pictures including the main role in THE MAGNET, as “William Fox” (his real name, I think) and he’d had a major but strangely uncredited role in THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER. So this fantastically posh lad had more connection with the Free Cinema than his former commie director.

The cinematic excellence of Wendy Craig will remain unappreciated until Robert Fuest’s JUST LIKE A WOMAN gets its due, but until then we have this and THE NANNY. Her later success on TV in Butterflies and The Nanny (no relation, at all) has tended to erase her more essential early work. She has a shot in the Fuest where she nods towards a toilet which, we are to infer, is not in the best condition, and she does it like someone pointing out the corpse of a small child: tragedy rather than disgust. Very amusing.

Webp.net-resizeimage10

Sarah Miles was dismissed by Robert Bolt as “a west country slapper” or something, before he changed his mind and married her. She’s absolutely at her most alluring here (those gleaming eyes): she makes sense in a way that’s not really apparent in a lot of her work. Losey and Pinter really, really help, with the dripping tap/ringing phone seduction scene (nobody answers phones in a timely fashion in this film, the filmmakers shrewdly exploiting out Pavlovian unease at the insistent ring in a way not topped until Leone in ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA) and the staging which makes the sex look like murder…

Webp.net-resizeimage8

 

No Gentleman

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on April 7, 2020 by dcairns

Webp.net-resizeimage5

The biggest surprise about THE SERVANT is what it’s not.

It sounds, from synopsis, as if we’ll get a critical commentary on the British class system. One would expect, from director Joseph Losey’s history as a man of the left (fleeing American and HUAC) that the theme might come out in the dialogue, ponderously, as it does in his US films such as M and THE LAWLESS, or more subtly, in the action, as it does in the superior THE BIG NIGHT or THE PROWLER. The latter is about “false values,” as Losey put it, which meant the story could simply illustrate where those values might get you, without the need for commentary, and it would be a perfectly clear morality tale from a left-wing perspective.

Webp.net-resizeimage6

But we have to factor in Harold Pinter as scenarist, and the source novel I guess, though I’m afraid I don’t know anything about it. Pinter’s involvement guarantees that things won’t be so simple, or direct.

What I was expecting, nevertheless, was a structure where Dirk Bogarde’s manservant, Barrett, is exploited by his “master,” Tony (James Fox), and then rebels. Instead, Barrett is mysterious, conspiratorial, from the start, and Tony is weak and arrogant, occasionally mean, and crumbles with little apparent assistance from Barrett. His girlfriend Susan (Wendy Craig) seems to be on to Barrett from the start, so that her genuine nastiness towards him (some great Pinteresque questions, “Do you use a deodorant?”) are almost justified.

Webp.net-resizeimage3

And then, hilariously, just when you might expect persecution, master and servant turn into schoolkids in one scene, a bickering old married couple in the next. There’s not really a sense of escalation, just frequent and perplexing transformation. And then, after the fabulously louche party scene, it stops. I can imagine being quite frustrated with that conclusion if I’d seen it in the cinema.

What the movie resists most obviously is taking sides, even though Bogarde is frequently seen as sinister and Fox never is. Wendy Craig’s casting makes me think of THE NANNY, which starts with the little boy as antagonist and then switches sympathies to make Bette Davis the monster, and then manages to find sympathy even for her. I like that film a lot. But THE SERVANT manages to do something much more complex, where our sympathies rarely land squarely anywhere, the natural class enemy gets more sympathy and is more comprehensible than the worm-that-turns underdog, and maybe PERSONA is a better comparison? Also, the suggestion that, when class barriers crumble, we’re all going to lose our identities and enter a delirious, hazy flux of psychological disintegration, feels more like a right-wing anxiety than one of the left, in a way.

Webp.net-resizeimage2

All of which is a confession, really, that I don’t “get” THE SERVANT the way I get other Losey or Pinter films, but I like the feeling of disorientation it produces. More on it as the day goes on.

A Gentleman’s Gentleman

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , on April 7, 2020 by dcairns

Webp.net-resizeimage1

Once again I’m inviting my students to comment on a film on MUBI — this time it’s Losey and Pinter’s THE SERVANT (from a novel by Robin Maugham). I only sprang this on them yesterday so I don’t know if they will.

QUITE an interesting piece of work, with some of the most marvelously louche casting, composition, design, music, performance and movement (of actors and camera). It’s the point where Losey’s films start to become real objets d’art.

I got very nostalgic for the era, one I never inhabited, though I note that the plumbing is always leaky.

I will be sticking posts up about this movie throughout the day, but this is the main one for general comments.