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Film Review: 50 Years Later British Classic 'The Servant' Is Still Dizzying And Resonant

Dirk Bogarde and James Fox star in the British classic 'The Servant.' (Photo courtesy Rialto Pictures/StudioCanal)
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By Carman Tse

Fifty years after it was released, Joseph Losey's The Servant is back in theaters in limited release with a sparkling digital restoration by StudioCanal. The film, which is ranked #22 on the BFI Top 100 British Films, is a subtle study in British class undercurrents. It won three BAFTA awards, including one each for stars Dirk Bogarde and James Fox, and was nominated for five more.

Tony (Fox) has just bought a swanky Chelsea house and all he needs to really tie it all together is a dutiful manservant of his very own. No nouveau-riche London home would be complete without one—preferably one from a humble working-class background.

Barrett (Bogarde), the titular "gentleman's gentleman" of The Servant, is so dedicated to his craft that his persistent presence becomes a point of contention between Tony and his haughty fiancée Susan (Wendy Craig). Catalyzed one night when he walks in on their lovemaking (whether this is accidental or not is left perfectly unclear), Susan and Barrett engage in a struggle behind Tony's back over control of his life. Every mundane decision is a power play, with this struggle coming to a head over the position of a vase of flowers.

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With Barrett so occupied tending to his master, the remaining housekeeping duties are given to his sexpot "sister" Vera (Sarah Miles) who soon moves in. The defenses afforded Tony from his wealth and stature erode through the conniving ways of Barrett and seductive allure of Vera. Losing his fiancée, dignity, and sobriety, he at least has a very nice home to crawl around drunkenly in.

Losey is probably most famous in his native country for his noir remake of Fritz Lang's M, but would leave the United States for good in the early '50s because of his ties to Communism and make a name for himself in Britain. Originally released in 1963, The Servant would be his first collaboration with playwright Harold Pinter.

Class struggle is the most apparent raison d'être of the film, but The Servant is a much more layered work that dramatizes the dynamics of authority rather than being a fantasy of upending them. Sexual, societal, and structural hierarchies don't become inverted but instead are rendered meaningless and merely nominal in this dizzying and uneasy film that perhaps resonates even stronger today.

The Servant opens today at Laemmle's Royal (West L.A.) and Playhouse 7 (Pasadena).

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Carman Tse is a native of Northern California but not one of Those Guys that hates on Los Angeles (despite his affection for the Giants over the Dodgers). When he's not sharing long-winded thoughts on movies, he's probably sharing long-winded thoughts on baseball or reading about weird sea creatures.