London, the cusp of what was to be the bitterly cold winter of 1962 to 1963, and Hugo Barrett arrives at the Knightsbridge address of his potential employer, a wealthy, aristocratic playboy with a fondness for alcohol and a disinclination to the running of his household; Barrett, with thirteen years in service, most recently to the late Viscount Barr, a friend of Tony’s own father, is immediately appointed to take charge of “general looking after and cooking.”
Tony’s girlfriend Susan at first incredulous that he has a live-in servant, she swiftly becomes resentful of the reliance he places in the omnipresent Barrett who has the disconcerting habit of anticipating his masters needs, going so far as to suggest his own sister Vera as housemaid; travelling down from Bolton to join them, where Barrett is discrete, unobtrusive, Vera is a girl who likes to be noticed.
Adapted from Robin Maugham’s 1948 novella of the same name by playwright Harold Pinter, director Joseph Losey had suggested The Servant as a possible project to Dirk Bogarde in the mid-fifties only to be rejected for very good reasons; eventually shot the following decade and released in November 1963 it was to a markedly different world, Losey remarking in a contemporary interview on “the maturation of audiences, critics and filmmakers” in the interim.
That interview included on StudioCanal’s new 4K restoration released as part of their Vintage Classics range, the package also includes new interviews with James Fox (Tony), Wendy Craig (Susan), Sarah Miles (Vera), John Coldstream (Bogarde’s biographer), further archive material with Pinter and Losey and a newly filmed feature visiting the principal filming locations, many of them largely unchanged and immediately recognisable.
The right film at the right time, The Servant arrived as British attitudes were changing in response to growing social mobility and the erasure of class structures, the initial hierarchical relationship of Tony and Barrett metamorphosing as the seasons change, thrown first into disarray by the arrival of Vera – in fact Barrett’s fiancé, not his sister – then, left to their own devices, their own twisted co-dependence, the film becoming more sinister as they become more childish in their actions.
Shot in crisp monochrome, Barrett becomes a figure interposed between Tony and Susan, in person, in reflection, indiscreetly in shadow backlit from within the master bedroom as they return early from a weekend trip, outrage and betrayal colouring the master’s reaction to the liberty the servant has taken, the mirrors reflecting that which the characters refuse to see, though perhaps no scene sums the film up so much as Vera laying back on the kitchen counter, hiking up her skirt as she puffs seductively on her cigarette, while Barrett responds by pouring a cup of tea.
The Servant will be available on Blu-ray from StudioCanal from Monday 20th September