Saturday, April 2, 2011

What Ho, Jeeves...

Film: The Servant
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

When I was an undergraduate, I majored in English literature. For those of you who didn’t major in literature, allow me to burst the bubble on a few notions. Yes, I’ve read a lot of the classics. No, I haven’t read them all. So, while I’ve read quite a lot of Shakespeare and Milton, I’ve read almost no Chaucer or Spenser. I’m good on Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad, shaky on John Donne, solid on Byron, Keats, Shelley, and Blake and woefully unable to carry on a conversation about Jane Austen or Wilkie Collins.

To the point, I’m almost completely unfamiliar with Harold Pinter, the author of The Servant, but I’ve read (mostly on my own, for enjoyment) a shit-ton of P.G. Wodehouse, particularly the Bertie Wooster and Jeeves stories. I like Bertie and Jeeves. They have an interesting relationship. For the uninitiated, I will give you the quick overview. Bertie is a relatively self-indulgent rich guy with a circle of equally layabout, wealthy friends. What sets Bertie apart is his valet, Jeeves. Jeeves is the ultimate gentleman’s gentleman—Jeeves is always right about everything. Most of the stories involve Bertie doing something of which Jeeves disapproves; often it’s something like wearing purple socks or spats resplendent in his school colors. Bertie gets into a terrible fix, usually involving someone trying to get him married. Eventually, Jeeves pulls him through and Bertie gives up the thing that annoyed Jeeves in the first place. These stories are fun and goofy, and entertaining as all hell.

Pinter’s The Servant, here starring Dirk Bogarde in the title role, is a sort of Bertie and Jeeves story as written by the Marquis de Sade or perhaps J.G. Ballard (or, evidently, Bertie and Jeeves as written by Harold Pinter). Much of the same basic premise is there, but it’s taken to some very dark and ugly places.

Tony (James Fox) is a guy a little too wealthy for his own good. His wealth gives him a comfortable upper-crust existence, which makes him a little less ambitious than he should be. He’s just hired a large, empty house and requires a manservant to look after him while he works on his current project: planning the creation of a trio of cities in the Brazilian rainforest. He employs Barrett (Bogarde) to look after his day-to-day affairs, cook, dress him, and decorate the house.

Once hired, Barrett begins to insinuate himself into every aspect of Tony’s life. This starts slowly, with paint colors in the hallway and simple decorating advice. Whether because of this or simply because she finds him somehow despicable, Tony’s fiancĂ©e Susan (Wendy Craig) takes an immediate dislike to Barrett, a dislike that is evidently mutual. Regardless of this dislike, the romance between these two young, wealthy people continues apace, as does Tony’s career.

Things change when Barrett suggests that Tony hire a maid, and he has the perfect maid for him. This is Vera (Sarah Miles), who is introduced as Barrett’s sister, although it soon becomes evident that if she really is his sister, their relationship is a very disturbing one. Vera is a hard character to nail down. She presents herself as shy, almost painfully so when it comes to Tony, but she is actually a steaming cauldron of hormones who manages to seduce Tony while making it appear that he has seduced her. Except that Vera is actually Barrett’s love interest as well, and it’s evident that she has been encouraged to be more forward with Tony by Barrett himself. All of this comes to a head when Tony finds his servants together in his own bed, and his own infidelity with Vera is revealed to Susan.

From this point forward, Tony slowly spirals into depression and dissolution. Barrett reveals that Vera has played him false as well and convinces Tony to rehire him. However, Tony’s job appears to have faded away as well as his will to do anything but feel sorry for himself, and the roles of master and servant begin to flip, with Barrett beginning to order Tony around the house.

From what I’ve heard, having this as my introduction to Pinter works in my favor—it’s one of his better and most widely read and performed plays. It’s dark and severe and filled with the kind of existential anguish that marks a lot of works of its era. There’s a decadence here that is, honestly, sort of like watching trashy reality television. It’s ugly and painful and often disgusting, but it’s also completely compelling because it is so trashy. There is, for lack of a better word, a desire to see how close to bottoming out these two characters will get before the end of the film.

Dirk Bogarde was never a big name in Hollywood and did most of his acting in British films. Early on, he evidently did a lot of light comedy, which got him compared to Rock Hudson (his later-revealed homosexuality brings another point of comparison between the two. In truth, one of the reasons he flopped in Hollywood was his rejection of a sham marriage to keep him appearing straight). The Servant marked a turn in his career to more serious and dramatic roles. While I’m curious to see what those early comedies might have been like, a part of me thinks that Bogarde should have moved to serious drama earlier, because he’s devastating in this film. Everything turns on what he does, and he is magnetic on the screen. There is a sense of malice around him that is difficult to describe but unmistakable when seen. Everything he does is tinged with both contempt and smugness. The same is true of Sarah Miles, who is wide-eyed and dim when around Tony, but sly and wicked around Barrett.

There is a sense of fascination in watching someone else go to smash, and it is in full evidence here. A large part of that is the physical, emotional, and spiritual transformation of Tony through the course of the film. Most of it, though, is the fact that it is one of the most solidly acted films I have seen in a long time.

Why to watch The Servant: British drawing room drama as good as it gets.
Why not to watch: The painful descent into alcoholism and physical dissolution.


  1. A twisted flick with some tremendous camera angels. How about the strategically placed sounds of the clock throughout the movie? James Fox also plays the lead alongside Mick Jagger in Performance. Performance is one of about a dozen flicks from the list that I have seen so far that I am eagerly anticipating reading your review!

  2. This is a wicked little story, isn't it? Very stylish and very, very British. As it turns out, there's a discussion over at The Dark of the Matinee on nationalism (specifically American nationalism) in film. The initial post is extremely interesting, but the comments following are a worthy read. Check it out:

    A tangent, but related in the sense that The Servant could really only be a British movie. This wouldn't play from any other country, so it's a great example of a film that, while ultimately downbeat, is of a specific place.

    I've been thinking that when I do watch Performance, I'd like to watch it at the same time as Gimme Shelter.

  3. Thanks for the blog post on nationalism in films. My latest project will be to focus on films included in the BFI top 100 films list from the 20th Century that are also in the 1001 movies list (the majority of which are).

    A great movie that explores the relations during WW2 between the American and British forces is A Matter of Life or Death. It also touches on the feelings of the British towards the Americans that I (as well as most others) tend to be naive in regards to.

  4. An interesting idea. I'm going to co-opt it for myself when I get through the 1001 films.

  5. In the comments it was said that this could only be a British film. While I was watching it, I thought to myself, "this is a British horror movie - a servant insinuating himself into the life of his employer."

    I found it interesting you mentioned Bogarde's real-life homosexuality, but didn't mention the undertones in the film (which were practically overtones). The latter scenes with them as a bickering couple were especially blatant.

    I actually felt that the reason the fiancee hated the servant and vice versa was because they were fighting over control of the same man. As his fiancee it's her job to tell him how to decorate and live his life, but this servant is stepping in and usurping her place. By the end, that is exactly what has happened in all except marriage.

  6. Fair points, actually. This is one of a number of films I feel like I should revisit--as if where I was when I watched it wasn't quite where I should be as a critic to really do the film justice. The homosexual undertones are definitely here, and are undoubtedly intentional. Or rather, there is a sense of the hedonistic and decadent, where any type of sexuality can (and does) come to the fore. This is as good a reason as any for the antipathy between servant and fiancee.

  7. Your review and the comments are helping me a bit towards understanding the movie. Maybe this is a homesexual scambling for control over Tony. Maybe it is too British to really be understood by anybody else. How a servant who applies to become a servant and has good recommendations turn into a scheming usurper I have been having a hard time to understand. I cannot help thinking that if Barrett hapes his role as servant this much he cold just quit and find another job. Well...

    1. Here's the thing, though--people who are experts at manipulation are frequently able to keep convincing people of their usefulness. In the US, televangelists steal money from the poor, who continue to line up to give them their Social Security checks.

  8. Whatever Happened to Baby Jeeves?