23 December 2008

THE SERVANT (Dir. Joseph Losey, 1963, UK) - 'The Pinteresque Class Struggle'

The McCarthy inspired communist witch hunts that took place in the 1950s and the subsequent blacklist have become a shameful record and moment in the history of American politics, serving to undermine a brand of emotional liberalism Hollywood felt it had articulated vigorously in many of its films. However, it would take many decades of soul searching and eventual forgiveness for the Hollywood liberals to come to terms with the humiliation of the McCarthy era. Joseph Losey was one of the film makers who found himself being persecuted by the ideological propaganda of McCarthyism, forcing him into exile after his exposure as a communist sympathiser. Yet exile for many of those who choose to settle in either England or France (Jules Dassin) led to an artistic renaissance, and this was no better illustrated in the immense critical success Losey enjoyed in England. Arriving just in time for the explosion of new British film talent and the emergence of swinging London, Losey was lucky enough to collaborate with Harold Pinter, one of Britain's finest playwrights, on three films which provided some of the sharpest and most insightful criticisms of the British class system, proving how even in the liberated era of the 60s, class still maintained a grip on the mindset of mainstream British society.

Released in 1963, 'The Servant' was the first Pinter/Losey collaboration, focusing on the distinct class separations that exist between the tenuous 'master and servant'. Tony (James Fox), the aristocratic master and representation of the British ruling class hires a man servant, Hugo Barrett (Dirk Bogarde) to tend to the everyday workings of a posh new house he has bought in an upmarket area of London. However, Barrett becomes than more just a servant as Tony grants him a freedom in the house that leads to an unexpected reversal of roles. Pinter shapes the thematic idea of the class struggle between Tony and Barrett through a repeated emphasis on the claustrophobic and repressively ordered nature of the house, which eventually disintegrates into an image of buffoonery and anarchy as initiated by the ambiguous, contemptible Barrett.

Some of the most acute and frightening dissections of British society have tend to come from film makers outside of the UK who like Losey were able to use their marginalised position to present the stark complexities of the class system in a way that transcended the work of most indigenous UK film makers. This continues to be the case even today when you consider how a film like 'Children of Men', which was directed by a Mexican film maker; Alfonso Cuaron, is perhaps one of the few recent films to comment on the state of British society in a technically audacious and ideologically stimulating way. As the 60s signalled a new era, Losey and Pinter illustrate how underneath the surface of this bright new world of hedonistic pleasures and sexual liberalism concealed a stifling vein of conservatism that continued aggressively to perpetuate class as an ideological certainty.

At the time of the film's release, Dirk Bogarde was one of Britain's most recognisable film stars whose image had been constructed around the series of 'Doctor in Trouble' films that had commercially successful on an international scale. It is well known now that Bogarde was a homosexual and it seems ironic today how his fan base was largely drawn from a chorus of middle class conservative housewives. Yet unlike other stars who repressed their sexuality for a long time from the glare of the media, Bogarde openly took on roles that were controversial, difficult, contradictory to his star image and most significantly, toyed with the most sacred of British taboos - sexuality. Warmly received by the critics, Bogarde's jittery performance as the manipulative Barrett who aims to question the class attitudes of those around him is also represented as somewhat of a victim of personal anxieties. Though the class struggle is depicted as an ideological battleground with Barrett and Tony uncomfortably switching roles towards the end of the film, it is clear that Barrett's existence in such a sterile society depends to a large extend upon the snobbery of men like Tony.

Many of the British films produced in the 60s which exploited the swinging London scene have lost their impact today and look respectively dated when compared to the savagery of a film like 'The Servant', a film that succeeded in borrowing the radicalism of the British new wave to criticise aspects of a society that continue to preoccupy some of the best British film makers working today; Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Shane Meadows. Class seems to to the one unifying and common principle upon which the voice of British cinema has been constructed and even though we refer to it as 'social realism', it is probably much more suggestive when you consider how all forms of realism including neo realism are fundamentally concerned with the problem of class struggle.


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