Servant, The (1963)

Servant, The (1963)

“What do you want from this house?”

When a manservant (Dirk Bogarde) arrives to help care for an alcoholic young investor named Tony (James Fox), Tony’s entire life — including his relationship with his fiancee Susan (Wendy Craig) — is soon turned upside down, with events taking an even darker turn when Barrett (Bogarde) brings his sister Vera (Sarah Miles) into the house to work as a maid.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Class Relations
  • Dirk Bogarde Films
  • James Fox Films
  • Joseph Losey Films
  • Living Nightmare
  • Servants, Maids, and Housekeepers

Joseph Losey directed and Harold Pinter scripted this highly unique psychological drama about class relations and power dynamics in mid-20th-century England; as DVD Savant writes, this “impeccable, incisive, observant and richly appointed” film “is a fascinating and rather creepy little gem.” After his breakthrough “arthouse” role in Victim (1961), Bogarde gives yet another layered performance as the title character — a calculating and unflappable servant-for-hire who knows exactly the right moves to make at each moment as he pursues his self-serving, often inscrutable goals.

Equally compelling is Craig in a role which could easily be tossed off as peripheral or shrewish, but instead posits her as an uneasy bridge between Fox’s two worlds.

Fox, meanwhile, brings just the right blend of arrogance and insecurity required by his role, wherein we easily vaccilate between generalized contempt and authentic pity for his situation.

Viewers should be prepared for an unlikely turn of events midway through, and then another — until one finally realizes this film has become a dark and surreal nightmare. Douglas Slocombe’s shadowy cinematography heightens this sensation:

… and Losey’s direction emphasizes power relations and domination at every turn:

While some have complained that the very odd ending — specifically the unexpected behavior of a particular character — throws one off, I would argue that it’s all of a piece with the film’s vision of Tony’s existence (and by extension, all of upper-class Britain) having become topsy-turvy and unnerved.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Dirk Bogarde as Hugo Barrett
  • James Fox as Tony
  • Wendy Craig as Susan
  • Sarah Miles as Vera
  • Douglas Slocombe’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a unique psychological thriller. Listed as a film with Historical Importance, a Cult Movie, and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.


  • Good Show

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)


One thought on “Servant, The (1963)

  1. (Rewatch: 9/19/21)

    Not must-see.

    Apparently critics and audiences were blown away by this movie when it was released because (acc. to Wikipedia), it was “a savage indictment of the waning English class system, a theme which had been rarely addressed in British cinema.” So maybe timing had something to do with its impact.

    Nevertheless, it’s a bad film. I think I’ve now seen it three times and I’m pretty sure I’m done with it. Whatever else this pretentious thing may be, it’s a pointless exercise in cruelty, filled with people it’s impossible to give a flying fuck about. The characters that are front-and-center here aren’t even illuminated in any way in order to make them more understandable (or bearable). These are characters manipulated by a script focused on shock value.

    If you’re going to present a situation largely filled with awful people, at least give the audience some depth to grab onto – or at least some interesting verbal flair. Otherwise, you’re swimming in surface slime.

    Early on, through his facial expressions, Bogarde (who is so much better in ‘Victim’) telegraphs his intent to bring down Fox; so there goes the element of surprise for the rest of the film. It’s a wonder that Fox can even act his part at all; his character is so ill-conceived that he seems to have no definition. If Fox’s acting isn’t impressive (and it isn’t), he can hardly be blamed.

    Craig is nothing more than an entitled, tiresome bitch – and ultimately a hypocrite (in her final action towards Bogarde). Miles is an airhead.

    What *almost* makes the film compelling (but not quite) is the flawless work by DP Douglas Slocombe. But the film itself – though widely admired – is an overrated and colossal bore. Not surprisingly, it has a conclusion that is simply a mess.

Leave a Reply