No Gentleman

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.

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.

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.

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.

10 Responses to “No Gentleman”

  1. ehrenstein47 Says:

    I “got” what “The Servant” was “about” to the degree that back in 1963 my first sexual dalliances were with upper-class boys with no real sense of themselves and thus “low-hanging fruit” (in every sense of the term) for a middle-class interloper like me.Of course the class system in the U.S. is never truly acknowledged as it is in the UK, but it’s there.

    It’s for that reason it should never be forgotten that Pinter was born a Cockney. He took up acting and “learned to speak with a Noel Coward accent.” This ability opened his eyes to the class system and how to “play it” to his own advantage. Not his exquisite enunciation in the restaurant scene.

  2. Yes, Pinter’s East End Jewish origins are important. He has an outsider’s eye as does Losey in his very different way. It would seem that Barrett and Tony’s shared military experience of homosexuality gives them some kind of shared language, even though Barrett hasn’t had the public school induction that Tony would undoubtedly have gone through.

    Meanwhile, Losey and Sarah Miles shared an agent, Fox and Miles were an item, and everyone was sloshed to the eyeballs, except Losey, who claims he was briefly on the wagon at this time.

  3. ehrenstein47 Says:

    For the “bottom line” on Sarah Miles be sure to see “The David Whiting Story” by my dear friend Walter Reuben

  4. Do you think the prowler is one of Losey’s best folms?

  5. I don’t generally think of English women as being sexy, but Sarah miles was one of the sexiest women I ever saw in the movies


  6. ehrenstein47 Says:

    “The Prowler” is OK. But is remake of “M” made during the same period is really great.

  7. Andreas Flohr Says:

    According to „Conversations with Losey“ JLo regretted the casting of
    Wendy Craig as an upper class girl. I think he was right ….

  8. ehrenstein47 Says:

    But she’s not an upper-class girl. She’s a middle-class girl aspiring to the upper-classes — which is why she wants to marry Tony. Barrett is onto her and she tries to pull rank, ordering him around. But her taste (or rather lack of it ) in interior décor gives her away.

  9. I like The Prowler a lot. M is very good, but with too much speechifying for my taste. The Big Night is his US masterpiece, imho. It’s the one film that suggests he might have achieved some of the sophistication he showed later, had he stayed in Hollywood.

    I like Wendy Craig a lot in this, but anybody who’s not Danny Green seems posh to me so I didn’t detect any lack of toff-ness. I was surprised to find he thought Miles should have had that role.

  10. ehrenstein47 Says:

    Losey made “The Big Night” while he was packing his bags to “Get Out of Dodge.” Drew Barrymore’s father is superb in it. The FBI ordered him to spy on Losey during the shoot. Years later he told Losey about it ashamedly. Losey told him it was perfectly alright with him and Barrymore shouldn’t feel badly at all.

    “The Big Night” also features the very last performance of Dorothy Comingore. Yes, “Susan Alexander Kane” was blacklisted.

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