It had been so long since I had last seen Joseph Losey (director) and Harold Pinter’s (screenwriter) ‘The Servant’ (1963) that all I could recollect about the film was an overwhelming sense of oppression, uncomfortable relationship dynamics and black and white cinematography that provoked the feel of a nightmare. As the years went by and my memories of it faded so it seemed that the reputation of the movie only increased so I was curious to revisit what is now regarded as one of the finest British films ever made.
And that reputation is thoroughly deserved with ‘The Servant’ being piece of filmmaking so tightly crafted it’s totally captivating, visually hypnotic and psychologically suffocating. The deep and dense black and white images are filled with reflective surfaces, captured spaces and layered planes which practically suck you into this world, yet if we get fully sucked in then is there a chance we won’t be able to escape? I think this accounts for my revulsion, which seemed to flit from my gullet to my cerebral cortex and back at a high frequency, I felt watching the film.
And there’s a lot to feel revolted by whether it’s the claustrophobia, the possible incest, the cruelty, the bullying, the exploitation or the nihilism. I love it when a movie grips me but ‘The Servant’ grasp was so tight it was nauseating. Take the sex scene — it’s spectacularly shot and intensely erotic but it’s only at its climax we realise we’ve just witnessed something extremely worrying. It’s a remarkable scene in a remarkable film.
Yet what does it all mean? What is this all for? After all, it’s not a fair fight in the slightest because James Fox’s upper class Tony as no weapons of his own with which to retaliate; it’s Bogarde’s Barrett that has the entire arsenal along with, more importantly, the will to use it. So is ‘The Servant’ simply an exercise in cruelty and sadism or is there something more being said here? Well, I have one interpretation, which could be wildly inaccurate, but it goes something like this, so brace yourself for some rampant speculation -
British businesses in the 1950’s tended to be controlled by Captains of Industry, wealthy elites for whom these companies has been passed down through their families for generations with an assumed inevitability. They were the toffs and snobs, something they took for granted, but this elitism left them highly vulnerable because it was so assumed. Hence their companies were wide open for takeovers as they possessed no actual power over their businesses (like Tony they were defenseless). It was a naive, paternalist world ripe to be broken up by the right (i.e. — unscrupulous) men.
One of these men determined to break-up, and seize control of, this out of date, fossilised world was Jim Slater, an investor and accountant, who realised that for all their supposed breeding, class and status that these elites didn’t have any real power or control. Seeing these vulnerable toffs blithely living in the past Slater simply bought them out, stripped out everything he could from their companies, sold them off, moved on and repeated the whole process all over again. It was called ‘hostile takeover’ and ‘asset stripping’ and nothing would be left after this process.
This infuriated the British establishment because hostile takeovers were seen as the ultimate betrayal to the nation — they were ungentlemanly and, hence, un-British. It was profit from destruction and now the middle classes had realised they had a certain devious power over those above them and whom they obviously resented. The upper class’s crime wasn’t greed; it was complacency.
Anyway, this is the parallel I saw in ‘The Servant’ and just as Jim Slater used game theory to gut British industry so it’s a similar game that’s being played between Tony and Barrett, and it’s a game of exploitation and total annihilation.
So, that’s my take on it ‘The Servant’ and it’s more than likely only because I re-watched Adam Curtis’ excellent ‘The Mayfair Set’ (1999) the week before which deals with all the above. I mean, I don’t actually know the first thing about British industrial takeovers from the 1950’s in the slightest, I simply watched a TV show… yet I still have the hunch that’s one of the things going on here.
At least, I hope so. Otherwise maybe it was just an exercise in Pinteresque sadism?