THE MOVIES

The Servant: pretty boy Bogarde blossoms as an evil genius

Wendy Michener June 6 1964

THE MOVIES

The Servant: pretty boy Bogarde blossoms as an evil genius

Wendy Michener June 6 1964

THE MOVIES

The Servant: pretty boy Bogarde blossoms as an evil genius

Wendy Michener

"IN THIS BUSINESS,” Dirk Bogarde said ten years ago, "there’s always somebody younger crowding you.” Bogarde’s charm had just turned to money as Simon Sparrow in Doctor in the House, the first of a smash series. His bright eyes and suggestive half-smile sustained his popularity through fifteen years of unmemorable pictures on a Rank contract which ended in 1962. Emerging as a free-lance star, Bogarde found himself royally crowded by a bounty of mutinous younger actors. There were Albert Finney (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning), Tom Courtenay (The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner), Terence Stamp (Billy Budd), Richard Harris (This Sporting Life), and Peter O’Toole (Lawrence ( Arabia), to mention only the most prominent.

But middle age, the movie star’s bogy, has been kind to Bogarde. It has released him from the tyranny of being a glamour puss. Now forty-four, he has a look of what one British critic called “noble neuroticism.” His romantic good looks are still there, but they’re made more expressive by those signs of true character: bags, sags, lumps, and crannies. Bogarde’s face now is that of a Dorian Gray halfway to corruption and he uses it to give the performance of his career as Barrett, the gentleman’s gentleman in The Servant.

The Servant, a British film made by the American expatriate director Joseph Losey, is one of those pictures that thrives, like Last Year at Marienbad, because people just have to talk about it. The basic story is clear enough. Tony, a wealthy young Englishman (James Fox, another new young talent) with a house in Chelsea, hires a manservant, Barrett, and the servant gradually takes over both house and owner. But what really happens? And what does it all mean?

Marienbad was open to many interpretations because it told you so little. But The Servant is puzzling because it suggests so much. It can be taken as a Gothic horror story, with Barrett as a kind of vampire who feeds on his master and leads him to his ruin. The Servant summons up all one’s irrational fears and its baroquely sinister atmosphere invests the most ordinary event with middle-of-the-night creepiness. But from another point of view The Servant is very much a class struggle with the

house as battleground. The screenplay is by Harold Pinter after Robin Maugham’s novel and Pinter, one of the best of Britain’s contemporary playwrights, has a magical ear for class expressions. His glancing dialogue crisply defines each character’s social position. Tony is the kind of privileged young man whose only accomplishments are “good taste” and issuing orders (“I’m just back from Africa,” he says to Barrett, “I’m quite liking it”). Barrett is the very model of an omnitalented servant.

servant.

Barrett, however, is also part of an opportunistic society — a society where the American notion of the self-made man challenges the British tradition of good breeding. Having established a sexual equality by bringing his own mistress (Sarah Miles) to do for the master, Barrett goes on to assert his workingman’s superiority. “I’m no bloody servant,” he says. “I run the whole bloody place and what do 1 get out of it? Nothing.” Those are revolutionary words. Many a character in Bertolt Brecht says almost the same thing. But Pinter and Losey draw a different lesson from their class struggle. For them, servility corrupts both master and servant. Barrett becomes, not a free man or a political agitator, but the master of the house and, like Tony before him, a self-indulgent parasite.

On yet another level The Servant has been interpreted as the story of a homosexual relationship, with Barrett first wooing his master through his personal services, then alienating his upper-class fiancee (Wendy Craig), and finally dominating him completely. Maybe so, maybe not. Losey leaves it up to you. Certainly Barrett uses sex to get control of his master and the pair of them come to nag and bicker like old marrieds. After the really spellbinding sense of evil established through all this, the all-too-familiar closing orgy (why must so many movies end with an orgy?) comes as a terrible letdown, but The Servant is still good enough to give both Losey and Bogarde a new lease of career.