‘The Servant’ is queer subversion

Rialto Pictures/Courtesy

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“The Servant” premiered in 1963 as the first of three collaborations between screenwriter Harold Pinter and director Joseph Losey. 

The film, based on a 1948 novella by Robin Maugham called “The Servant,” was nominated for several British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards upon its release. “The Servant” follows Barrett (Dirk Bogarde) as the “manservant” to the wealthy, childish bachelor Tony (James Fox) in a film that delves deep into class, servitude and sex. The plot is thickened when Vera (Sarah Miles) and Susan (Wendy Craig) arrive on the scene. 

Waiters and service people drift in and out of an opening dance sequence with Tony and Susan, depicted as little more than background ornaments. The beginning of the movie places Tony at the center, with service people drifting around him. As the film continues, however, it becomes clear just how much of Tony’s world is constructed by those outside service people. The warped perspective of shots from the polished dining plate, including the image used in the poster for the film, gives the characters a feeling of living in a fishbowl.

One of the primary takeaways of the film is its deeply entrenched queer coding. There is obvious, inherent queerness in one single young man working as a servant, shown in his desire for another young single man. This queerness is expressed most acutely in Susan’s jealous and antagonistic relationship with Barrett, ultimately fighting over Tony’s affections.  

The song “All Gone” sung by Cleo Laine is used at several points throughout the film, morphing from a cozy, sweet love song to something far more terrifying.

When Barrett tells Tony his mother is dying, and he must go home for a night, Tony exclaims that it is “bloody inconvenient.” While it is clear that Barrett is the one who is manipulative with a devilish side, the sympathy still lies with him, as Tony’s affectedness is shown over and over again.  

Throughout the film, no interactions seem entirely sincere between those of the aristocratic class. Endlessly strained and tense, as if all the upper-class characters are walking on eggshells. This is the world that Tony comes from, both Vera and Barrett, as his service people, are the only intrusion of the lower class into this world.

When Vera shows up, she symbolizes the exact opposite. Her hair is worn down around her shoulders, with thick cat eye makeup. The eventual draw of the low-call maid over aristocratic Tony is almost inevitable. While Tony may think, at times, he is succeeding in sneaking Vera around the house, in reality, Barrett is never not in control in this psychological mind game that Tony never even really knows he is playing.

Contact Kate Tinney at [email protected]. Tweet her at @katetinney.