Joseph Losey (1909–1984) was the most interesting director to come out of the American left, except possibly for Constantinople-born Elia Kazan. Like Orson Welles and Nicholas Ray, Losey was a product of that then-hotbed of progressivism, Wisconsin. Neither of the other two incorporated a strong political bent in their work (although Welles flirted with running for Senate as a New Dealer), and neither paid the price Losey did in the repressive 1950s. After a successful career in Hollywood (The Boy with Green Hair, The Lawless, The Prowler, the remake of M, The Big Night), he was blacklisted and forced to go abroad for work. He had made 10 films in Europe before The Servant, the film that marked his return to international prominence.It has become conventional wisdom that the film Losey and Harold Pinter fashioned from Robin Maugham’s novella is intended primarily as a Brechtian commentary on the decay and decline of Britain. (Losey had previously directed Charles Laughton in a well-received Hollywood stage production of Galileo, which he would later bring to film.) I tend rather to agree with David Denby, in The New Yorker, that this is too broad a reading. As reviewers of the novella have pointed out, it seems to share traits with Poe’s 19th-century portraits of evil and Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Maugham never makes any socially explicit point, and his work is narrated by a friend of the protagonist who shares the same comfortable class values, and who simply laments Tony’s Faustian weaknesses. Of course, 16 years separated the book and the film, and English values were very much in flux by the time of Losey’s film.
Overtly political or not, there is a kinship between The Servant and the Peter Brook film of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, made the same year. England was about to burst forth with The Beatles and A Hard Day’s Night (made by another expatriate American, Richard Lester), but the early 1960s were a period for questioning where all the greatness had gone, and what happens when the barriers of class and manners are broken. (Even Losey would shortly get caught up in this burgeoning trend with the strangely comic-book-ish Modesty Blaise.) But before that he was to make one of his darkest and best films, King and Country (which will be a highlight of MoMA’s commemoration of the centennial of The Great War this summer). Losey was also reunited with Pinter for the complexly rewarding Accident in 1967.
In all these works, Losey cast the ambiguously brilliant Dirk Bogarde, the perfect embodiment of contemporary uncertainty. The actor, who won the British Academy Award for The Servant, had been in films since 1947, and Losey had used him once before. Losey and Bogarde had been jointly trying to raise money for The Servant for a decade. The actor went on to become one of the key onscreen figures of the 1960s and 1970s. (We will be showing another of Bogarde’s performances, in Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice, in June). Bogarde’s ability to convey ambiguity extended to the realm of sexuality, and this raises all kinds of unanswered and probably unanswerable questions about Losey’s film. There is nothing in either the novella or the film that is overtly, physically homosexual. Yet, because of Bogarde’s performance, one finds this not entirely satisfying. Although Robin Maugham was self-styled as “defiantly homosexual,” Bogarde was gay, and Losey was apparently bisexual, the book portrays Barrett (the butler played by Bogarde) simply as loathsome (“His long thin body was green and horrible in the moonlight.”) Maugham had earlier described Tony (James Fox) in the bath in rather glowing detail. Yet, on the printed page and on celluloid, there exists a clear rivalry between Barrett and Susan for Tony. Perhaps David Denby has the answer: “Only the British could make sex seem so dirty.”