1963’s The Servant Exemplifies a Key Break in Cinematic Storytelling


Exemplifying a key break in cinematic storytelling, Joseph Losey’s The Servant, from 1963, marks the moment where the direct “cinema of quality” was passed over in favor of a cinema concerned with the unacknowledged desires that lurk under the veneer of everyday life. Those desires color the increasingly contentious relationship between London aristocrat Tony (James Fox) and his new butler, Barrett (Dirk Bogarde). The relationship begins to transform when Barrett’s beautiful “sister” (Sarah Miles) moves in, exposing the myriad ways in which desire extends itself beyond class boundaries in British society. Appearing initially as an upstairs-downstairs drama like The Rules of the Game, The Servant quickly confounds expectations via Losey’s incorporation of jarring handheld camerawork and glimpses of Barrett’s festering resentments. Losey’s ingredients are one part aristocratic film, one part angry-young-man movie—jus as the former was shoving out the latter in 1960s England. Yet rather than a mere historical benchmark indicating a cultural shift, The Servant adds up to more than the sum of its parts. Mixing techniques as surely as it mixes class (graceful dolly shots are placed side by side with the handheld photography), the picture’s clever formalist juxtapositions evoke the hysterical confusion of a culture in upheaval. The viewer is left with not only a portrait of the haves and the have-nots, but a glimpse of what such social stratification provokes—an all-consuming madness as powerful as it is hidden.