The Servant - Joseph Losey - James Fox - Dirk Bogarde - Tony - Hugo Barrett - stairway - shadows - ball game

The Servant
1963, directed by Joseph Losey

The opening shot of The Servant looks down the parkway on Royal Avenue in Chelsea toward the central tower of Christopher Wren’s Royal Hospital. This vista appears again at roughly 40-minute intervals, dividing the movie into thirds if you ignore an oddly placed extra shot of the hospital 52 minutes in. Each of the three evenly-spaced panoramas of the hospital marks a shift in the relationship between Tony and his manservant Hugo Barrett. In the first third Tony has the upper hand; in the middle the relationship is balanced and could go either way; and in the last third Hugo has turned the tables.

Wren’s building serves as a convenient marker, but it’s not merely a bookmark or a chapter heading. The opening scenes trace a path from the 17th century hospital to Tony’s 19th century townhouse to a distinctly 20th century nightclub right after Hugo and Tony are introduced. These locations suggest the sweep of history, cinematically spanning four centuries in a brief sequence. Later the Mounsets’ palace will represent the 18th century in two scenes filmed at Chiswick House, built in 1729.

The Servant - Joseph Losey - Royal Avenue - Chelsea - Royal Hospital - Christopher Wren

Like the architecture, the musical score also evokes the passage of history. The opening instrumentation has vague echoes of the baroque, counterpointed by the contemporary sounds of Cleo Laine’s jazzy theme song and a brief performance of “Rock Me Baby”.

The editing also suggests the movement of history, often leaping forward in time and skipping evolutionary gaps in the characters’ relationships. From one scene to the next it’s obvious that things have changed, and we are given just enough to make the arc of the story credible. The audience must always connect the dots. Because the transitions are not seamless, the movie creates a sense of time slipping by, like history in motion. In case this all seems speculative, the very last shot confirms the movie’s interest in history, coming to rest on the face of a grandfather clock.

So far, however interesting these allusions to history may be, they probably sound programmatic. The overlay of history only comes alive when we notice that Tony’s townhouse is being renovated. Like the flow of history, the old is giving way to the new, but what’s remarkable is Hugo’s active role in overseeing the workmen and consulting on the decor and furnishings. The house is being adjusted to the servant’s liking, foreshadowing the social changes that correspond to this renovation in real-world history. Hugo remains subservient to Tony at this stage, but he is beginning to reveal his own will. The servant is understandably more enthusiastic than his master in trying to push history forward.

The Servant - Joseph Losey - Dirk Bogarde - Hugo Barrett

The great historical change that all of these signs point to is the upsetting of the traditional British class system. The process spans about four centuries, from the Enlightenment to modern times, with reforms that gradually transferred powers from the monarch and the House of Lords to a democratically elected Parliament. These centuries also unleashed revolutions in social customs and shifts of power away from colonizing countries.

The title of The Servant and its setting on Royal Avenue both allude to inequalities of power. The director Joseph Losey had been blacklisted in Hollywood for his Communist sympathies, driving him to work in England, and screenwriter Harold Pinter also held leftist views. In its broadest sense the movie is about power relations in general. A master-servant relationship can only last so long. Extremes of dependency are unsustainable, and when they unravel the results are chaotic and distressing for everyone involved. Instead of a graceful transition to equality, the relationship tends to devolve into ugly competition.

The Servant - Joseph Losey - James Fox - Wendy Craig - Tony - Susan Stewart - Chiswick House - Mounset mansion

If Hugo represents the traditionally underprivileged classes, Tony would obviously stand for the old order or the dominant class. In the first scene when Hugo walks in for his 3:00 p.m. appointment, the house is dishevelled, and Tony is lying down motionless in the back room… ominous under the circumstances, especially in a movie’s opening when viewers expect the dramatic. The hint of death foreshadows both Tony’s downfall and the end of the power structure that he represents. Once the facade of his social position is stripped away, he will be exposed as a weak character, even infantile in the final scenes where he humiliates himself to his own servant, hides in the shower, crawls on the floor, and watches in a drunken stupor as Hugo kisses Susan and takes over Tony’s party.

At the beginning Tony has just returned to London from Africa, and he asks whether Hugo can cook Indian dishes, claiming some expertise in them himself. These two details make Tony more than just a symbol of the upper class – he also represents Britain’s colonial power. The Servant was made during a global wave of decolonization. India had won its independence less than 16 years earlier, and the British Empire’s holdings in Africa were in the process of asserting their freedom. Tony is presently involved in a business venture, trying to build three new cities in the Brazilian wilderness with plans to populate them with peasants from Turkey. The whole affair seems nebulous and fanciful; on an allegorical level it corresponds with the new direction of Western imperialism, in which corporations and business enterprises take over the role of governments.

The Servant - Joseph Losey - Wendy Craig - James Fox - Dirk Bogarde - Susan Stewart - Tony - Hugo Barrett -

Even the settings and photography contribute to the commentary on power relationships. When Tony and Hugo play a form of dodgeball on the staircase, Hugo complains that Tony is using the advantage of a higher position to score points more easily. The staircase is also the site of the decisive turning point, when Tony and Susan come home early to find Hugo consorting with Vera upstairs in Tony’s room. Reversing the earlier scene where Hugo was humbled for catching Tony and Susan on the parlor floor at the moment of Tony’s marriage proposal, this time the master finds himself hiding breathlessly in his own house while Hugo stands atop the stairs guarding against intruders. While the master cowers at the base of the stairway, the servant appears in fearful silhouette, voice booming and smoke billowing from his mouth. Hugo has taken total command of the scene.

Just as the staircase provides a metaphor for inequalities of power, the door separating the parlor (the master’s domain) from the hallway (the servant’s domain) hints at what separates the powerful from the powerless in real life. Instead of a normal door, the opening is a hinged section in the middle of a wall-sized bookcase, a kind of secret doorway. It suggests that language and culture have been perverted from their rightful purpose and conscripted into the maintenance of power relations. Words are normally supposed to bridge people in communication, but here their purpose is to separate.

The Servant - Joseph Losey - Wendy Craig - James Fox - Susan Stewart - Tony - round mirror

Like the staircase and bookshelf, the mirrors in Tony’s house also describe power relationships. There are two round mirrors high on the living room wall that frame characters at key moments, distorting the perspective, arrangement, and relative sizes of the persons reflected in them. A mirror is a symbol of reversal, and the fish-eye effect of the round mirrors symbolically destabilizes the order between characters. The dramatic shots in the round mirrors also foreshadow a moment at the final party where Tony looks through a glass globe and sees his whole world flipped upside-down.

Tony might view the reversal as total, but when everything is considered it’s not as neat as that. Tony still has enough authority to disband the party, and Susan slaps Hugo in the face on her way out, even if it fails to ease her devastation. The movie does not subscribe to a simplistic Marxist forecast that the proletariat will overthrow the bourgeoisie and take their just desserts. Systematic imbalances of power lead more believably to incivility and chaos. The restaurant scene is a fascinating diversion from the main plot, cutting from one table to another to show fragments of conversations, each defining a different form of nastiness. There is no neat solution or resolution in The Servant; instead it ends by acknowledging the unfortunate messiness of human relations.


Rebecca – Analysis of the British class system

Ladies in Retirement – Story of house servants upsetting the prescribed order of power

Shadow of a Doubt – Staircase separating two domains, public vs. private or high vs. low

Day of Wrath – Perversion of language’s intended purpose

The Music Room – Lower class competing with and upstaging the upper class

The Cook the Thief His Wife and Her Lover – Stages of past history persisting as layers in the present

In the City of Sylvia – Long span of history collapsed metaphorically into a short period of time

Parasite – Story of house servants upsetting the prescribed order of power