Arguably Britain’s first transgressive art-house movie, “The Servant” was rereleased in the UK on Friday, nine months ahead of its 50th anniversary. Directed by the Brecht-influenced American Joseph Losey, a refugee from McCarthyism, the acidulous psychological thriller depicts the shift in power between the effete young toff Tony (James Fox) and his initially fawning manservant Barrett (Dirk Bogarde). It was the early 1960s movie that more than any other exposes the myth of British repression and the cracks in the façade of the class system.
Adapted by Harold Pinter from the gay aristo author Robin Maugham’s semi-autobiographical novelette and shot in black and white by Douglas Slocombe (who became a centenarian on Febuary 10), “The Servant” is a homo-hetero, erotic-verbal ballet of humiliation and enslavement choreographed by the class-envious Barrett’s malevolence. At the end of the decade, it was bookended by Donald S. Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s “Performance” (shot in 1968, released 1970), in which former Guardsman Fox, playing against type, cranked up the decadence as an East End gangster on the run who gets caught up in the gender identity mind games played by a reclusive rock star (Mick Jagger) and his ménage (Anita Pallenberg, Michèle Breton).
Tony Richardson’s bawdy “Tom Jones,” also released in 1963, may have haphazardly augured Free Love, but “The Servant” was more on the zeitgeist. It was seemingly timed to reflect the agonies of the Profumo Affair. At the height of the Cold War, the British Secretary State of War, John Profumo, had slept with the working-class call girl Christine Keeler, who was also involved with the Soviet naval attaché and spy Eugene Ivanov. The scandal toppled Profumo and contributed to the resignation of the Conservative Prime Minister Harold MacMillan in October 1963.
The worm turns in “The Servant” when Barrett imports his lover Vera (Sarah Miles), the Manchester trollop who masquerades as his sister. At the end of another 1963 film, John Schlesinger’s “Billy Liar,” Julie Christie’s proto-dolly bird Liz boards a train in a northern station that will take her to the Smoke (Tom Courtenay’s Billy being too cowardly too join her.) It’s as if Liz’s departure – which literally announced the Swinging Sixties – segues into Vera’s arrival and her excited car ride with Barrett to Tony’s Chelsea’s townhouse: Go South, Young Woman! – in the full knowledge that the Beatles are coming, too, in Richard Lester’s “A Hard Day’s Night” (also 1963). The revolution had started.
In 1962, Losey’s camera had worshiped Jeanne Moreau as a prostitute who humiliates a Welsh writer in Venice in “Eve.” He similarly worships Miles. Once ensconced chez Tony, Vera arranges her legs on the kitchen table and, patting her stomach as she complains about the heat, seduces him. Barrett’s not in the room but he’s there as a de facto puppetmaster. (Miles talks candidly about the scene and making the movie in The Guardian, as does Wendy Craig who, as Tony’s upper-class girlfriend, is drawn into the dance by Barrett so that he can alienate her.) The ease with which Tony is sucked into the honeypot bespeaks the stupidity of the ruling class faced with working-class animalism in the season of Profumo and Keeler. If it was an allegory, it was all a bit nasty – scarcely in keeping with the sympathetic northern social realism of the British New Wave.
A Private Eye cartoon of the time showed MacMillan walking away from graffiti that said, “We’ve never had it so often.” This lampooned his most famous comment, “Most of our people have never had it so good,” with which he congratulated his government on supposed British prosperity in the late 1950s.
Philip Larkin would retrospectively chime in with his poem “Annus Mirabilis”: “Sexual intercourse began/ In nineteen sixty-three / (Which was rather late for me)/ Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban/ And the Beatles’ first LP.” In recalling the “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” obscenity trial of Penguin Books in 1960, Larkin re-invoked the sexist, class-bound faux pas of the chief prosecutor, Mervyn Griffith-Jones, who had asked the jurors if D.H. Lawrence’s novel: “Is it a book that you would have lying around in your own house? Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?”
One can imagine Barrett reading that in the Daily Mirror and hatching his plot to infiltrate the pad of a posh twit like Tony in order to destroy him.
In 1963, Griffith-Jones prosecuted Keeler’s society pimp Stephen Ward, who took a fatal overdose. In 1964, Harold Wilson’s Labour Party won the General Election, ending 13 years of Conservative government, and Losey directed “King & Country.” Here, in the midst of the Flanders trenches, Bogarde played a haughty upper-class British officer whose defense of a naïve working-class private (Courtenay) on a charge of desertion fails to prevent the latter’s execution. The film wore its heart on its sleeve, whereas “The Servant” made the same points about the class war through insinuation and veiled menace.