Though justifiably hailed as a classic of the LGBT film canon (including, most recently, by this very site), The Servant doesn’t exactly present a GLAAD Media Award-ready vision of queerness. Joseph Losey’s hothouse of free-floating perversity situates the specter of gayness as but one head on a hydra-like invader bent on demolishing the pillars of the genteel British elite. As embodied with unforgettable arched-eyebrow insinuation by Dirk Bogarde, titular manservant Barrett enters the new home of feckless golden boy Tony (James Fox) with seeming subservience, whipping Tony’s ramshackle man cave into shape with a clipped efficiency that nevertheless emits what Susan Sontag famously described as “homosexual aestheticism.” What begins as proto-Queer Eye interior-décor renovation, however, soon reveals itself as the gateway to a far darker swirl of seduction, manipulation, and polysexual chaos. That neither Barrett nor Tony are ever “revealed” as queer heightens the shadowy power that homosexuality comes to possess within The Servant—a structuring absence whose winking lack of confirmation only ensures its ability to wreak havoc.
Barrett’s flair for home management proves particularly unsettling to Tony’s chic fiancée, Susan (Wendy Craig). Her and Barrett’s early-film clashes over the placement of a vase of flowers and the absence of a “proper” spice rack speak as much to Susan’s suspicions of the working-class Barrett’s knowledge of such fineries as it does to her fears of being usurped as Tony’s domesticating angel. This intertwining of economic and gendered anxieties comes sharply into focus with the arrival of Barrett’s sister, Vera (Sarah Miles), a sloe-eyed temptress who beds Tony with Barrett’s insidious support. With her come-hither looks and fashionably short skirts (she insists that’s how “all the girls” are wearing them nowadays), Vera embodies the casual carnality of emerging youth culture that makes up the final plank of her and Barrett’s symbolic assault on cultivated British mores. However, Losey and screenwriter Harold Pinter (adapting a 1948 novel by Robin Maugham) subtly suggest that such apprehensions over the invasion of lower-class sexual licentiousness aren’t so much smuggled in by the would-be pair of servants as preexisting their arrival, if exacerbated by their presence. In a particularly striking sequence, Tony and Susan dine in a fancy urban restaurant, debating what to do with Barrett. The camera cuts away from them now and again, though, to focus on both an older and younger female pairing (bickering over what a third, unseen woman whispered in the younger woman’s ear) and a similarly age-divergent priest and bishop, gossiping over the debauchery that occurred at the last church convocation. These sidelong narrative glances suggest a privileged world brimming with innuendo-laden excess and barely concealed sexual jealousies.
It’s Tony’s mansion, however, that proves the primary site of social and personal corruption—a veritable haunted house of intimidation and psychological gamesmanship. The great cinematographer Douglas Slocombe captures the domestic space as a chiaroscuro chessboard of dominance and submission, choreographing characters in deep space as they maneuver about one another in their attempts for power and control. Doorways, staircase banisters, a convex mirror that warps whomever steps before it—the interior landscape of the home becomes an increasingly ominous series of constricting spaces and imposing shadows. Slocombe and Losey move the camera throughout these bodies and objects with sinuous ease, ranging from slight reframing that elegantly reconfigure the power dynamics between two people to baroque track-ins that ensnare a given character in a moment of unease or suspicion. (To borrow a title from another Losey film, it’s a prowler.)
The Servant’s narrative eventually catches up to Losey’s stylized formal palette. With both the women in their lives gone from the home, Tony and Barrett embark on a late-film swan dive into no-exit surrealism. Formalities drop and social roles dissipate as the two bicker over the state of the house’s cleanliness, launch balls up and down the staircase at one another, and, in a moment of rare tenderness, acknowledge the charged feelings of “friendship” that pass between them. Their cleaning squabbles and candlelit dinners give Barrett and Tony’s relationship the parodic air of domestic life. The film luxuriates in the connotative play of their queer-ish cohabitation rituals, but ultimately views them as yet another ambiguous power move on behalf of Barrett, who uses their newfound emotional intimacy to displace Tony as head of the household. This usurpation comes to full, toxic bloom in a debauched party sequence, where Barrett plays MC and Tony staggers about in a dissipated half-daze. In a final insult to injury, the love song that Tony plays for Susan throughout the film—“All Gone” by Cleo Laine, wife to the film’s composer, John Dankworth—wafts through the fête, its once sensuous rhythms echoing hollowly through the house.
While the film’s less-than-flattering portrayal of the British upper crust certainly doesn’t leave us mourning the destruction of Tony’s world of ensconced privilege, The Servant also doesn’t figure Barrett as some proto-queer cultural warrior, smashing old social and sexual taboos. He remains an opaque and slippery figure, and the anarchy he unleashes within Tony’s universe feels as sinister as Tony and Susan’s casual wealthy comes off as stuffy and suspect. Indeed, one could argue that Barrett is little more than a particularly extravagant example of the “queer villain” that popped up with increasing frequency throughout the 1950s and 1960s, as social taboos and industrial strictures allowed gays to be seen on screen, but often in unflattering and moralistic lights. Yet, if gayness remains figured as a malignant force in The Servant (a half-acknowledged deviance here mobilized in the pursuit of manipulation and personal gain), there’s also something undeniably thrilling about watching it wind its destructive path, vivified by Losey’s taut pacing, stylish formal play, and distressing-as-ever atmospherics. A film such as this probably couldn’t be made now without cries of protest over its representational politics, which is probably a good thing. That doesn’t mean that viewers can’t look upon Losey’s masterwork and get a little charge at seeing what a dark and powerful force queerness could be on screen at a certain moment in history—a servant to many masters who was always watching through the crack in the closet door, ready to strike at a moment’s notice.