In The Servant, the power struggle between the classes plays out through the microcosm of a posh London townhouse even if, as writer Tom Sutpen noted, the film is ultimately more about power than the specifics of class. Not to be reduced to any kind of social allegory, Joseph Losey’s 1963 classic, screening as part of MOMA’s The Sixties: Yanks in Britain series, follows the shifting dynamics between master — James Fox’s Tony — and man — Dirk Bogarde’s Barrett — as they unfold in the hothouse environment of the former’s newly renovated home. Beginning as a pitch-perfect study of British decorum with Barrett’s icily correct manner marking him out as a Platonic ideal of servitude, the film gradually flips the balance as the silently plotting underling brings in a woman to seduce Tony away from his fiancée, ensures his master’s utter dependence on his services and generally dictates the terms of the man’s idle and increasingly dissolute lifestyle.
The first of three collaborations between those two very different modernists, Losey and screenwriter Harold Pinter, the film’s mix of the latter’s clipped, suggestive dialogue and the former’s baroque visuals proves an odd, though clearly successful, coupling. And while the director’s trademark aesthetic — elaborate tracking shots, a penchant for shooting in mirrors — can come off as a bit modish, it not only helps Losey to counter the inherent staginess of the material, but allows him to work toward the film’s vaguely surreal final act, building on Pinter’s words to provide fit visual expression for Tony’s ultimate dissipation. By then, increasingly divorced from any recognizable reality, the film’s milieu dissolves into a final bout of debauched revelry, giving the lie to any notion of civilized propriety even if, in the end, the outward appearance of the picture’s central relationship continues as before.