The aristocrat is the servant of his passions; the servant is the master of his master. A reversal of roles is certainly central to Harold Pinter's screenplay in The Servant. But Pinter and director Joseph Losey hint at much more--and hint is about all they do--for while milord falls from high estate, diabolical manservant wages war with snooty girlfriend, and the gentleman is more the pawn than the prize. The meaning of the conflict? Well--it's hard to say.
Tony, played beautifully by James Fox (and beautiful is the right word for both Fox and the performance), is the degenerate endpoint of a noble line. His clothes are from Saville Row, his scotch Chivas Regal, his monogram everpresent. But the manorial estate has given way to a small, though stylish, townhouse in Chelsea; imperial conquests in India to idleness and empty dreams of developments in Brazil; and martial valor to frustrating skirmishes of lust. On every wall hang pictures of distinguished forebears; father against the Germans, grandfather in the Great War, great to the nth degree grandfather at Waterloo. Whereas his ancestors went to heaven fighting for England's glory, Tony heads for hell carrying his cannon in his silk drawers.
His Mephistopheles is Barrett, the manservant (Dick Bogarde). Barrett comes with the townhouse, helps furnish it, and regulates its life. He knows about decorating, about souffles, about art, about Tony. A fawning gentleman's gentleman, Bogarde's Barrett always has a mysterious half-smile; he is just a bit too eager. To Tony, Barrett's punctiliousness gives order to his days of boredom. To Barrett, Tony is a person to be manipulated, yet manipulated for what?
Barrett's growing ascendence is always challenged by Susan, Tony's fiance (Wendy Craig). At first Tony to her is pretty much of a bore, although good family, good match, and all. She controls him, even calls him a fool. But Barrett upsets her mastery, undermines her confidence; he irritates because he knows more about wines and paintings, he interrupts a tete a tete, mains a jambes in Tony's study, and his seductive offers of stability and the seductress whom he offers woo Tony away from her. Tony is unimportant, but her pride is up; she must defeat Barrett by getting him back.
In the movie's climatic scene, Susan seems to have won; she has convinced Tony to take her home a little friendly bundling. But master's bed is filled; Barrett is wenching after hours. Flabbergasted and befuddled, Tony cannot bring himself to fire the man who props up his lie until Susan humiliates him. Even then Barrett has the final word as he reveals Tony's affair with the very girl who shares the servant's--er, master's bed. Susan having won has lost; Tony's weakness is so appalling she leaves him to disintegrate.
Losey should have stopped here. Although it would have been a limited statement--the downfall of a weak man--it would have been unified and taut. But in the final thirty minutes he drags Tony down into hell and drags the film down with him. Barrett is taken back by Tony who desperately needs him. The reversal is made explicit; Tony waits on him, cringes from him, plays childish games with him. But Tony's demise is no longer very interesting, and so we question Barrett's motives. Questioning, however, is fruitless. Is Barrett a homosexual? Does he want Tony's money? Why does he find pleasure in Tony's destruction? There are no answers in the film's detail.
In a final contorted scene, Susan inexplicably returns to the townhouse to find Tony in nighttown, grovelling drunkenly on his knees, surrounded by whores. She and Barrett have a final confrontation; she gives into him, tries to kiss him, because like Tony she is a servant of desire and has been without love too long. But she is repelled, slaps him, and rushes away. Neither one has conquered; but whether this means that the aristocracy and lower classes will never mix or that class will always tell or that deep down Susan is frigid is ony another frustrating imponderable. All that is left is what we already knew: Tony sagging in a stupor, his face framed in the bars of a bannister.
The Servant is a magnificent set piece. Brandy glasses, silk scarves, statuary, flowers, and portraits are lovingly and delicately photographed. But Losey's control does not extend to the whole film. Ironically, he and Pinter are not the masters of their material.