A month ago, Parasite won the Oscar for Best Picture, with its subversive narrative about class tensions between an obliviously wealthy family and their scheming hired help making it one of the best-reviewed and most crowd-pleasing movies of 2019. It's hard to watch Joseph Losey's darkly comic 1963 drama The Servant without wondering if Parasite director Bong Joon-ho was a fan of, if not partially inspired by, its tense and amusing look at a similar type of relationship between the upper class and their paid companions.
In The Servant, James Fox stars as Tony, a young layabout who, following the death of his aristocratic father, hires a manservant, Hugo (Dirk Bogarde), to help him renovate and manage a new bachelor's flat. Their relationship, with its immediate rapport snaking in and around its implicit power and social imbalances, makes unexpected turns that foreshadow Parasite while very specifically needling a particularly British manner of class envy and self-loathing.
Sharply adapted from aristocrat Robin Maugham's novella by playwright Harold Pinter, The Servant wallows in that fun sort of uneasiness that was all the rage in the edgy theatrical dramas of the 1960s, which often focused on an instigator inserting themselves into a seemingly placid milieu and pushing it to the point of self-implosion. I can sometimes find this era-specific narrative trope tiresome, but with Pinter at his most Pinteresque here, and Losey skillfully mixing melodrama and art-house chilliness, and both Fox and Bogarde reveling in the uneasy chemistry that resides underneath the overlap in a Venn diagram of "homoerotic" and "British," The Servant is this type of material at its skeevy coolest.
Losey, who is a director that I've been circling in on for a few years now since first hearing about him, is kind of like a bridge between the rich Douglas Sirk dramas of the 1950s and the jazzy black-and-white Roman Polanski thrillers of the 1960s, like Cul-de-Sac. His style is both invitingly lush and tensely brittle; he pulls out great little moments of quiet interplay, especially in the performances of the two love interests played by Wendy Craig and Sarah Miles; and he might rival Tarantino for feet footage.
With no shortage of pleasing style, The Servant is less accessible when it comes to figuring out what exactly it's after. There's a perplexing restaurant scene in the middle which is deceptively uneventful and introduces new characters which never figure again, if they figure at all; and The Servant seems like far too hip a production overall to really be lamenting, as it seems to, the cultural breakdown between gentleman and servant. Based as it is on a novella by the son of a viscount, I suppose that it is possibly a mordantly self-reflective eulogy for the loss of upper-class distinction, while also both jealous and derisive of lower-class indulgences. It's a very Pinterly trick to pull, actually, eliciting opposing sympathies while simultaneously stabbing each in the kneecaps.
Shot by the great Douglas Slocombe (who would work with Polanski later that decade), and with a nifty saxophone score by John Dankworth.