BFI Classics: The Servant

Author: Amy Sargeant

In the prologue to the book, the BFI Film Classics series is introduced as books which ‘interprets and celebrates landmarks of world cinema’.

The Servant deals with the relationship between Tony, a member of the aristocracy and Barrett, hired as his man-servant. What starts as a cordial relationship descends into one of dominance of Tony by Barrett, and Barrett’s determination to see to Tony’s absolute ruin.  Barrett’s continual encroachment on the house, leads to a series of confrontations with Tonys fiancée, Susan. In their interactions, Susan initially appears to be winning, asserting herself over Barett. But Barratt has always had extraordinary plans for Tony, which Susan cannot compete with. Barrett instigates the first in a number of well-executed moves, with starts with the introduction of Vera and her seduction of Tony and culminates with Tony’s fiancée leaving after witnessing his descent into immorality and abject helplessness.

The book is split into three main chapters dealing with the professional relationship Losey and Pinter, the House and Post Production. The Introduction lists a number of comparable plays, books and films. It confirms that the film looks into dominance and servitude and twists them into something beyond the usual jealousies of those living below stairs and the arrogance of those living above it. The last paragraph provides a succinct insight into Barrett’s, Tony and Susan’s motivations and why they are all a threat to one another.

Losey and Pinter is an all to brief look at the origins of the text and the relationship between them. Later in the book, we belatedly delve into the Profumo affair, which could have been introduced here as an initial draw for  the writers to the text. The book could have delved more into the moral health of the country at the time of the film and what other comparable films dealt with a similar topic.

The House, goes through all of the scenes set in the various parts of the house and external sets. There is a wealth of information here, especially in the scene  at Au Jardin des Gourmets, where the supporting couples are dissected, their own hierarchies examined.

The final chapter deals with the films release and subsequent reception from critics around the world. This interesting chapter could have included more information about other British films that did well that year, which are simply mentioned. Was it a year for films examining society? Why did it do se well abroad, were these issues relevant elsewhere? Or did it provide an insight into an England that was not well known in Europe and America.

The most interesting chapter is the conclusion at the end, which is all too brief. Sergeant accurately dispels the notion that The Servant accurately depicts the social and political context of 1960’s England between the two classes. In an earlier chapter, she talks about it being about this particular relationship. I would go further and say that perhaps the point of the film is that there is no place for Tony in the new modern world. Sergeant asks ‘what is there to recommend Barretts seizure of the house, other that that he has taken it from Tony?’ A man without work, or an objective, is ripe for manipulation.  

The book is a brief look into the film and the world surrounding the film. It is an excellent bitesize look into the subject manner and fans of the film will be able to consume it easily. References to things like the use of mirrors, use of that chair and soundtrack may seem obvious and confirm what most viewers felt about the film when they saw it. However, this is down to how good the film is and isn’t a reflection on the book.

I certainly benefitted from having seen the film almost simultaneously to reading the book and was not unduly affected by it’s tendency to jump around the plot. It isn’t a chronological examination of the film and looks into a variety of related subjects at the same time. I would certainly recommend the book as a starting point in looking at other social commentaries, as Sergeant has directed the reader to other related material. As befits is size, it’s a brief examination of a variety of interesting ideas, rather than being a comprehensive analysis on the period. However, in that lies its success; as a study which prompts further study.

Maliha Basak

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