In honor of Harold Pinter’s passing, I picked up a DVD of The Servant from the library. It’s representative of Pinter’s craft, full of meaningful silences and darkly funny moments. Those silences can come across awkwardly in films, but The Servant has Dirk Bogarde on its side. In his hands, those silences are punctuated by certain physical hesitations that reveal his thoughts, and that’s a beautiful thing: when an actor can sell you on the idea that he’s not acting, but living in the mind of the character.
The premise is a simple one–the hiring of a manservant–but one slightly outmoded even in 1963 Britain. Young aristocrat, Tony, buys a townhouse and hires Barrett (Dirk Bogarde) as his butler cum valet cum cook. Tony’s fiancee, Susan, seems startled at first by the notion that Tony has hired a servant, but she quickly becomes suspicious of him. The moments when Susan and Barrett are alone in a room together are some of the most effective silences, full of uncertainty and hostility. She wants him gone and does he feel the same way about her?
What begins as the formal relationship between master and servant is overturned by the introduction of Vera, allegedly Barrett’s sister, but later revealed to be his lover (and accomplice?) There is evidently a machination at work, when Vera seduces Tony with Barrett’s approval, but it’s never clear what the intent is. Do Barrett and Vera have a specific malevolent act in mind or are they simply eking out the most comfortable living they can by manipulating Tony’s emotions?
Regardless of intent, an emotional rupture separates Barrett and Tony, and an awkward (and perhaps staged) reunion and apology bring them back together. They are less master and servant then, and more in the line of housemates. Tony still pays the bills and Barrett still cooks and cleans, but there is a steady erosion of formality, until the two are playing ball games in the foyer.
From a storytelling viewpoint, the most powerful moment in the film comes at the very end, when prematurely matronly Susan (Miss Stewart) enters the lair of the now-chummy servant and master. In the master’s bedroom, a party is going on. Familiar music plays, while booze and girls of questionable morals lie scattered about the room. Susan watches with her pinched-pained-disapproving look, while one of the party girls (Hazel Terry, more of a cougarish barfly by 1963) sprawls a drunken Tony across the bed. Susan glares disconsolately as Barrett flirts with a pair of girls. (It’s clear that Pinter and director Joseph Losey never want us to like Susan, with her vapid conversation and her middle-aged haircut. )
For a moment, Susan plunges into truth. She sees Barrett for what he is: stronger willed than his master. He is in control. He is the only one who can deliver Tony back to her. She approaches Barrett and puts her hands on the lapels of his smoking jacket. Then, in a moment that pleases and shocks, she kisses him. The would-be lady of the house abases herself to the servant, but she isn’t as strong as she is brave. When he returns the kiss forcibly, she tries to repel him. He makes several attempts, laughing as he does, before she manages to remove herself from his embrace and flee the house.
If this movie were made now, in Hollywood, that would the point of it: debauchery and betrayal and a viper in the bosom of “good people.” That’s how these stories play out in American movies, with obsessive roommates and malevolent nannies.
At the heart of The Servant, though, is an ugly truth that Hollywood isn’t ready to look at: servitude corrupts. The existence of systems of class, whereby people are divided by wealth, the wealthy will always be corrupted by their power over the poor.
By the end of the film, the servant seems like a British bourgeois Svengali, leading his plummy-mouthed master into the belly of debauchery. It’s played straight, with the servant dark and brooding, with an air of greasiness about him–not just his hair but his soul–while the master is tall, blond, and clean.
In a Disney world it’s easy to read that as the servant debauching the master, but in Harold Pinter’s world, rest assured it’s a more subtle dig than that. It’s the service that debauches Tony. The very act of being so idle and wealthy that one might want a servant to take care of the little quotidien household matters is the poison. The servant, for all his oily manipulations, is only a tool of the class system that produced him. If Barrett is the source of Tony’s moral downfall, who’s fault is that? Who brought Barrett into his home? Who made him the priest of household gods? Wealthy, spoiled, socially desirable Tony.
If you mourned Harold Pinter’s passing last week, now’s a wonderful time to look back over his more readily accessible oeuvre. There’s a nice four-volume edition of Pinter’s collected works available, each under $15. Plus, Netflix has The Servant, The Handmaid’s Tale, Sleuth, and The French Lieutenant’s Woman (screenplays all by Pinter.) Or watch him in Mansfield Park, The Tailor of Panama, or a handful of other films where he has cameos.
Happy New Year!