”The Servant” is a movie I very much want to like, but somehow it does note quite make it.
Tony (James Fox), a somewhat foppish upper-class bachelor, has just acquired a London townhouse and hires Hugo Barrett (Dirk Bogarde) as his manservant. They seem to get along quite nicely. Barrett takes care of Tony’s every need at home and is every bit the deferential servant. Tony’s girlfriend Susan (Wendy Craig), however, takes an instant dislike to Barrett. She wants him out of the way and does not see the need for a servant to take care of everything in the house.
This seems unnecessarily cruel and while the idea of a manservant may well seem exaggerated there is no need to take it out on the poor servant. Little do we know at this time that Susan is more right than even she could guess. See, Barrett has a cunning plan to make Tony his obedient slave…
Over the next part Barrett continues to be the attentive servant, while behind the scene he is plotting the downfall of his master. He hires his sister Vera (Sarah Miles) as maid in the house. Only, Vera is apparently (perhaps) Barrett’s fiancé and an instrument in his plan. Vera’s task is to insinuate herself on Tony, which should not be too hard, Vera is very attractive. The plan succeeds, and Tony gets so infatuated with Vera that he stops paying attention to Susan.
Eventually Tony and Susan discover that Vera is in fact not Barrett’s sister and he fires the both of them. Susan sees how besotted Tony is with Vera and walks out on him an Tony is all alone. Now that Tony sorely misses Barrett he takes him back, but now Barrett is on top and Tony is a broken man.
The acting here is very interesting as is the cinematography. It is a mixture of ultra-realism and weirded out surrealism. This is in particular the case in the very intense scenes such as when Tony is captured by Vera or the wandering camera on the restaurant. The end sequence most of all has the feel of an acid trip, worthy of Trainspotting.
Yet I cannot come to terms with this movie. I do not understand the motivation of Hugo Barrett. Of course he may have a deep hatred for the upper class, but his transformation from servile waiter to manipulating mastermind seems so unmotivated. I seriously doubt that Susan’s dislike for him has anything to do with it. Secondly, what motivates Tony to sink so deep? It is true that Tony has very little content in his life. Except for some rambling about a project in the jungle we never see him do actual work. We also never see him in contact with anybody but Susan. Still he seems too willing to be manipulated and too weak to separate himself from Barrett. It is this complete lack of self-respect that I find difficult to understand.
Therefore the scheming of Barrett and the decent of Tony feel, to me, oddly contrived and unreal and that is preventing me from entirely buying into the story. I would love to get just a hint of motivation for either of them, but it is strangely absent. The closest thing is Barrett’s arrogance towards some incredibly annoying women at a phone booth and that anger was quite understandable.
Still, I did enjoy the movie even if I did not quite understand it. It does ensnare the viewer with its captivating cinematography and interesting camera angles. That I suppose is good enough.