Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Joseph Losey | The Servant

the haunted house
by Douglas Messerli
Harold Pinter (screenplay), Joseph Losey (director) The Servant / 1963

For several months now, I have waited for Netflix to add Joseph Losey’s 1963 film, The Servant, to their library. As sometimes happens in a city so devoted to filmmaking, fortunately, one of Los Angeles’ major independent theaters, Laemmle’s Royal, coincidentally announced a showing of a restored 50th anniversary version of the film, which Howard and I attended this Labor Day weekend.

A few days ago, Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan wrote an appreciative review of what he described as Losey’s “icy” masterpiece. Yet looking back on some of earlier reviews, it appears that most critics originally dismissed the film as inconsistent and, more importantly, unbelievable. As Tony Rayns wrote in the Time Out Film Guide: “Neither [Harold] Pinter’s pregnant dialogue nor the generally svelte performances can disguise the fact that there’s less here that meets the eye and ear.”

     Certainly, few viewers might describe this film—which begins in quiet realism, with a slightly dim-witted young man hiring a manservant in order to help him with a new house he has just purchased—as being, by its decadently, almost hysterical ending, anything that anyone might actually believe to have occurred, even in the period of free-wheeling sexuality of 1960s London. But then, who might describe any of Losey’s sexual fables as even attempting to represent realism? One might even argue that throughout his career the American-born Losey has shared more with Ken Russell than anyone else in British cinema—but fortunately without Russell’s extravagance and kitsch. While there is a kind of “iciness” to Losey’s rich black and whites, there is also a great deal of “white heat” radiating from the slow-boiling emotional dependencies of its central characters, particularly between the needy and indolent Tony (James Fox), who imagines himself traveling to Brazil to create three new cities for “the natives,” and the dangerously deferential Barrett (Dirk Bogarde), who portrays the servant of the film’s title. Although both have, we discover, fiancées, women in this somewhat misogynistic work, are basically playthings. What really matters is the intense relationship between man and manservant, which both, revealing that their social status is only an accident of birth, play out in a series of alcoholic and sadomasochist interactions, as the child-man Tony humiliatingly romps in games of hit-ball and hide-and-seek with—as Pinter  puts it— his “old pal,” each of them admitting he has also had such a relationship earlier in the army. If outwardly there is nothing truly sexual about their relationship (gay sexuality, one must remember, was not easily portrayed on film in 1963) it is certainly apparent that there is a powerful pyscho-sexual need between them. Their desire for women is simply a “release.”


Indeed, one of the most absurd scenes of this film is Losey’s Fellini-like representation of their heterosexual orgy, which occurs, evidently, with the participants fully dressed, curling up, in turn, round one another like cold puppies. Only Tony’s former fiancée, Susan, showing up to the house unexpectedly, seems to have any sexual intentions, as she represents her shock at seeing her now fully degraded  former lover, by briefly embracing and kissing the servant whom she has previously abused. In that last grab for power, she also recognizes that she has lost everything that the house once represented: love, pleasure, security, and wealth. And Barrett’s slam of the front door as she exits, soon after, makes it apparent that it is he who is now in charge.

Earlier in the film, Susan has asked Barrett “What do you want from this house?” sensing that, like her, it is not the house’s owner he is truly after, but the house itself, and what comes with it. Of course, in order to control the house, he must first control Tony, and it is that manipulation upon which Pinter’s and Losey’s work pretends to focus.

      I would argue, however, that, instead of trying to comprehend this film as a study of psychological revelations—although, of course, all of Pinter’s works are filled with just that—that one might perceive The Servant as a strange kind of horror film, a version of the haunted house tale where things are never quite what they seem to be.

Throughout his work, Losey spends a great deal of his film footage facing into mirrors, peeping around corners while its characters shift rooms, appearing and disappearing through doorways which, at first, may seem to be a row of bookshelves, etc. But unlike a work like, say, Cocteau’s Orphée—where the mirrors reveal a narcissistic self—or in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom—where mirrors and windows betray the evil intentions and acts of the film’s central figure—in Losey’s work the mirrors generally reveal little of the humans’ existence, only occasionally showing the film’s characters, as one might expect, in reverse, which, of course, is what occurs in their lives. The mirrors are not used as referents of the humans in the house as much as they are of the house itself, its curved staircase, its shining objects to which Losey’s camera almost makes love. In short, while the characters may inhabit the house, the house—so thoughtfully decorated by Barrett in the first place—seemingly controls their behaviors, at one point even drawing Tony and Susan back to London from a wealthy country estate, so that they might have sex—where Tony discovers Barrett’s betrayal, temporarily firing him and the servant’s pretend sister, lover Vera (Sylvia Miles).

     Much of the movie, indeed, is centered on the house’s upkeep, kept brilliantly gleaming by Barrett in the first half of the film, and left to filth and decay in the second half. If nothing else, the house more fully reveals the characters’ conditions than do their own words and actions. And at film’s end the house, more than the psychological games of its servant, has seemingly declared for all the time the proper social position of its occupants, as the former gentleman, Tony, lays sprawled drunkenly across its floor—fallen and near-dead—and Barrett sneaks into Vera’s bedroom for a night of sex.

     I doubt that Losey actually thought of his film as fitting into the horror genre, but to my way of thinking it helps us more fully to accept the melodramatic, almost campy ending, and to recognize in whole The Servant as a great work of art, a fable that, in fact, has a great deal to say about colonization and class, and a society that is more dependent upon the symbols of “living conditions” than on the condition of the living.

Los Angeles, Labor Day, 2013

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