Sleek, spooky, and spellbinding!
The Servant was one of the first of three collaborations between heralded playwright Harold Pinter and director Joseph Losey. Pinter's steely view of humanity seeps through every scene, and Losey's creepy direction accentuated such. The combo was so good, in fact, that The Servant won three British Academy Awards.
Facts of the Case
Experienced manservant Barrett (Best Actor winner Dirk Bogarde) starts working for handsome London playboy Tony (James Fox). Dour, quiet, and juuuust a little creepy, Barrett overdoes his attention to Tony, ruffling girlfriend Susan's (Wendy Craig) feathers. Once the servant's sister—the suspiciously sexy Vera (Sarah Miles)—arrives, things really start getting weird. Class struggles and twisted love affairs paint a grotesque picture of human nature in The Servant
When The Servant starts working for Tony, he immediately takes control. Exhibiting a stiffly devotional work ethic, he tends to suffocate the playboy and draws ire from Susan. Barrett has tricks up his sleeve, however. He invites his sister Vera for a trial stay at the townhouse, under the guise of hoping to get her hired on too. Ah, but she's not his sister—she's Barrett's lover. And together, they conspire to seduce the playboy, which she does handily. Susan is now a faded memory. The inevitable happens and the pair are discovered, but that's just when the dark side of human nature starts to be revealed. Delicious "Odd Couple" banter, droll black wit, and a chilling party scene wrap up The Servant in a spooky, faded bow.
The Servant looks harshly upon men and women and the things they do in their own interest. You don't much care for Tony, yet you do not side with the servant and his conniving lover. It's the sort of movie that makes the audience split hairs—trying to decide who they side with—until the viewer realizes that sometimes there are no good guys. There is no doubt that this is a well-crafted movie. Great camerawork featuring unsettling handheld and creepy mirror shots capture the creepiest of human behavior. Pinter's pointed dialogue and focus on conversations supposedly outside the world of the main characters add further to the distance that we feel from the characters.
However, the problem was that this movie is just plain boring. Pinter's great, direction's great, acting's great. But it's boring. The servant-master reunion is just loaded down with dialogue, too much that accomplishes too little. We "get" the class struggle of the film's theme quite well without it dragged out incessantly. We "get" the ambivalence of it all quite early on, too. It takes 30 minutes for the first major plot point to happen. I like slow, unraveling films—believe it or not, I didn't glance at my watch during Eyes Wide Shut. However, this one really pushed my patience.
The DVD transfer by Anchor Bay is really only adequate. The contrast of black and white as well as the general black levels seemed fuzzy, and there was a bit of edge enhancement though the 1:66:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Sadly, there are just too many flaws to be seen in this picture.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono sound mix was not well done, either. Dialogue was desperately low and then I had to scramble to turn down the speakers when background music was played. Needless to say, after lots of remote control tango, I got a little tired and just submitted to the will of the movie. Difficulties with sound clarity no doubt added to my tedium.
Extras? A trailer and…that's about it. Not too much to behold on The Servant.
The Servant has all the hallmarks of good British case studies of "normal" life and the abnormal things we do in it. An excellent performance by Bogarde, fantastic camera work, and Pinter's edgy wit and snide observations make this a classic—a classic that suffers from tedium. A bad transfer, however, makes this one disposable for collectors.
A good, if slow, example of British film but a mediocre transfer. Guess it'll have to "serve" some time. Ha ha!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Theatrical Trailer
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