A wealthy young British aristocrat, Tony (James Fox) hires Hugo Barrett (Dirk Bogarde, fabulous as always) as his live-in servant, to cook and offer general help around his large house. Hugo is mostly a very diligent and efficient worker and especially particular about the decoration and neatness around the house.
A usually lazy and habitually spoiled Tony is quite pleased with Hugo's work and both appear to be quite happy with the established arrangement. Tony's fiancée Susan (Wendy Craig) disapproves, however, and is quite uncomfortable with his presence and a resulting invasion of privacy. She also seems to be quite distrustful of him and his motives.
The status quo begins to shift, when Hugo brings home Vera (Sarah Miles), who he introduces as his sister, to help around the house as a maid. Her presence creates ripples in the existing scheme of things, as certain social barriers are transgressed. A devious machination of Tony's psychological manipulation begins to become apparent, with Tony's existence getting increasingly dependent on Hugo, giving way to a shift of power as the master and the servant gradually appear to switch roles!
Joseph Losey's "The Servant" boasts of Harold Pinter's complex script with an intriguing premise, that makes it a powerful psychological drama addressing a multitude of issues such as power play, social class conflict, an existential ennui associated with the decadent wealthy, and an employee's desire to realize the unrealistic ambition of stepping into the employer's shoes.
But the thematic concerns don't end there. As veiled as it may seem, Pinter makes a cryptic but very tangible exploration of repressed homosexuality, a sexual preference that was a criminal offence at the time, and its depiction in film, generally forbidden.
The stage is set for an unnerving sense of tension and unease, the moment Hugo enters Tony's plush abode. The house is in a sorry, messy shape with its owner slumped on an easy chair, asleep because of too many beers at lunch! Of course, it is learnt that he just returned from Africa, which explains the state of the house. Hugo's interview with Tony begins and ends well, but the interaction itself seems somewhat awkward.
Perhaps Hugo senses some trait of Tony which seems unpleasant or unusual to him. It's a cleverly executed sequence in which the duel has already begun between the two classes. Although it is Hugo who is being interviewed, he is in turn gauging his would-be employer, and studying his body language, and perhaps at that very moment has sensed something queer about him. Noteworthy is the somewhat oblique verbal exchange here, when Hugo raises an eyebrow as Tony takes a moment's pause whilst outlining what he expects of him.
Tony's fiancée Susan belongs to the class conscious breed of the rich and is more concerned about the encroachment and invasion of privacy. She looks down upon Barrett from the beginning, and her loathing for him is cemented early on when he deliberately barges in on the couple, without knocking, in the middle of their canoodling. Most of the film's heightened dramatic tension comes from the exchange between Susan and Hugo, who realizes Susan's contempt for his kind, and Bogarde's very expressive face, conveys this most accurately.
Vera is the mysterious fourth side of this quadrangle. She is the perfect epitome of lascivious desire with her strange mix of childlike yet carnal aura. Vera's arrival makes things a bit more ambiguous, but it is not a stretch to assume that she is brought in disturb Tony's relationship with Susan, knowing that theirs wasn't a strong bond to begin with. Another motive could also be to make Tony more dependent on Hugo. An assumption based on the homosexual subtext here is, that Tony isn't straight and hence he is probably feigning his normal relationship.
The intentionally nebulous dialog is a highlight of the film, and may leave a viewer scratching his/her head at times. For instance, one wonders why Susan once in a lovingly mocking way calls Tony a "bachelor"! Then there is that brief scene in which Tony tells Hugo that sometimes he gets the feeling that they are old friends, a feeling that he last experienced only in the army. Hugo reciprocates and says he identifies with such a feeling; very off-kilter musings but they certainly hint at a confession of a past homosexual experience.
The seemingly unconnected scene in a restaurant and the sudden random focus on characters completely unrelated to the story (the great Patrick Magee included!) may seem befuddling but one must carefully observe these characters and pay attention to their conversations. There is enough to suggest the presence of homoerotic undercurrents in the unpleasant exchanges of these characters. One of these characters also mentions about some artist or comedian being in prison; perhaps arrested on charges of homosexuality or even referring to it?
Losey abundantly employs the visual device of mirror reflections and distortions to emphasize the film's themes. Characters' crooked images are often shown in the convex mirror in the main room, symbolizing that they are deviant individuals, and they are all twisted in some way! Mirror images that swap positions of the two characters in various scenes symbolize the switch or a role reversal that has irreversibly been set in motion.
The visual gimmickry doesn't end with the mirrors. The third act takes a rather sudden and bizarre turn when we see the personalities of Hugo and Tony gradually changing, as the reversal begins to occur. In that one segment, Hugo and Tony almost seem to cohabit as a gay couple, bickering as partners, over sharing responsibilities! Hugo seems more temperamental and dominating, while Tony begins to get more submissive, gradually dissipating and presumably losing his sanity under the influence of drinks and other intoxicants.
To accentuate this surreal change in the scheme of things and to heighten the impact of Tony's steady decline, Losey employs an often creepy background score and a frighteningly effective use of lights and shadows to create a maddening, hallucinatory atmosphere of doom and hopelessness.
The ideas conveyed in the film wouldn't be as effective if not for the superlative performances. James Fox is a revelation, and Dirk Bogarde shines as is expected of the fine actor. His transformation from the controlled to the controller is beyond extraordinary. Joseph Losey's "The Servant" (1963) is a forgotten masterpiece that promises a more rewarding and enriching film experience with each viewing.