The Servant, set in modern England, also examines the odd relationship of a man of low station dominating his master, but after 800 years the moral tone of the conflict has deteriorated.
Directed by Joseph Losey, a British-based American with a string of doggedly minor works to his credit, the film on its most meaningful level is acid splashed into the wound of class distinction. But it is best enjoyed simply as a slick, spooky, frequently spellbinding study of corruption.
The old world sniffs at the new in a graceful London square, marred by the tidy vulgarity of a building bearing the legend: Thomas Crapper, Sanitary Engineer by Appointment to His Majesty King George V. Nearby lives a pale, spoiled young aristocrat, Tony (James Fox), who hires a "gentleman's gentleman" named Barrett. Clearly relishing the most substantial role of his career, Dirk Bogarde, perfect as Barrett, assumes a tea-party facade through which the gleam of hellfire is always dimly perceptible. He sabotages the young man's proper fiancee (Wendy Craig) with innuendo, attempting to drive her out of Tony's life. Soon his servile "Would you like a nice hot drink, sir?" moves on to the bolder "Might I introduce my sister to you?"
The "sister," soon installed on the top floor, is actually Barrett's mistress, played by Sarah Miles as a tight-skirted strumpet whose eyes answer questions before they are asked. She begins shuttling from bed to bed, and the biological equation of man and master becomes Bar rett's first victory.
Up to this point, The Servant earns A-l references. Playwright Harold Pinter, debuting as a scenarist, writes such deadly efficient dialogue that even talk about the weather sounds ominous. And Losey's camera works every angle, scooting upstairs and down, bobbing from floor to ceiling, peering over banisters. Like an evil-minded snoop, it catches all: every secret glance and unguarded gesture, every telltale truth. Only occasionally does the technique become selfconscious, with one too many shots into rain puddles or oval mirrors.
But when Tony's fiancee says tata, and Barrett asserts control of the house, the film gets into trouble. Crucial character changes begin to occur so abruptly that the audience feels cheated. The callow Tony emerges as an alcoholic, displaying a capacity for self-destruction scarcely hinted at before. And suddenly, chillingly, the two men have switched roles. "I couldn't get along without you," Tony whines. And his manservant snarls back: "Then go and get me a glass of brandydon't just stand there, go and get it!" Another offbeat episode has Tony and Barrett locked up in splendid squalor, playing hide-and-seek and squabbling like schoolgirls. After that, a final orgy seems tame, even pointless.
Even lacking total credibility, The Servant shakes the senses by wallowing in the triumph of evil over evil. But if Losey intends an all-out attack on Britain's caste system, he may have blundered into a paradox. Many a viewer will come away feeling that a world of candlelight and polished silver might be perfectly satisfactoryif only the hired help knew its place.