The Servant

Format: DVD

Release date: 20 October 2008

Distributor: Optimum Home Entertainment

Director: Joseph Losey

Titles: The Go-Between, The Servant, Accident, The Criminal, Eva, Mr Klein, Sleeping Tiger, The Big Night


‘Trouble with Women’ might be a good title for this somewhat random collection of Joseph Losey’s films, featuring seven of the 26 he made between 1952 and 1976. In every film except the last, the focal point is a troubled male lead whose life is complicated by a foolish or wicked woman. Birds – more trouble than they’re worth, eh? In spite of this simplistic view though, once Losey got his shit together in the 1960s he gave us several unique and memorable films.

The first film in the collection, The Big Night, is noir to a fault. None of the male characters are sympathetic and the female characters are only there to react to the men. There is plenty of grim nocturnal city atmosphere to pass the time. But the dark thrills, such as they are, are undermined by the rather clumsy and prurient interest in ‘social problems’ that Losey tends to show in the early films.

Sleeping Tiger is funnier than anyone except maybe its star Dirk Bogarde intended. Dirk is the attitudinous juvie d. stirring things up behind his shrink’s privet hedge in Walton-on-Thames. As always with mid-century nutjobs, it turns out to have been his mum and dad wot fucked him up. I refer the reader to David Cairns’s blog Shadowplay for the last word on this period piece.

The music is great from here on, with Malcolm Arnold the first of three notable composers to do the business in this collection. We also start to see Losey’s inspired way with interior shots, often framed by mirrors, doorways, windows in a disorienting or distancing way.

The Criminal is something of a mess. I felt a lack of clear purpose or point to this pioneering exercise in Brit crime. How much you enjoy it will probably depend on your reaction to the somewhat brutish appeal of Losey regular Stanley Baker as leading man. For me, he is a charmless version of Sean Connery in this role. Played by a different kind of actor, the troubled criminal trying to hang on to his big-shot status in changing times could have been an intriguing study of a man adrift. Jean-Paul Belmondo, say, might have made the character less dull without losing the tough guy act. But there are pleasures to be found here, particularly Jill Bennett and Murray Melvin in small roles. Composer Johnny Dankworth is now on the team: his distinctively British version of cool school jazz makes everything seem more stylish. And from time to time we can enjoy Losey’s cinematic imagination in the framing of a shot. The pathos of the closing scene in a desolate snowy field is endowed with a Fellini-like monochrome beauty. Otherwise not much here for the arty viewer.

Things start looking up with Eva: Losey goes Gallic, with a star turn by Jeanne Moreau and a score by Michel Legrand. It stretches credibility and is a bit unpleasant but pretty compelling. By the 1950s, it was quite usual for the themes of sexual domination and cruelty so beloved of filmmakers to be given a specious veneer of psychological sophistication. Not cruelty but sadism – oh, that’s OK then. Losey had demonstrated a fondness for pop psych in Sleeping Tiger, where Dirk’s insouciant amoralist rather unconvincingly breaks down when pressed to reflect on his unhappy childhood. In Eva, by contrast, Losey and cast really pull out the psycho-stops, and we sit back to enjoy the carnage. The subject matter is reminiscent of La Dolce Vita, though perhaps the influence went both ways, for Eva‘s cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo went on to work with Fellini on 8킽.

We then have three highly original and perfectly realised films. The reason why these films are so much better than what came before is quite simple: Losey’s screenwriter was one of the great dramatists of the century, Harold Pinter. The Servant and The Go-Between seem to me beyond praise or criticism (In the former, we get the great bonus of Pinter’s own cameo appearance – if he hadn’t had other priorities he could have had a great acting career).

More controversial is Accident, in which the tendrils of desire draw together jeunesse dorée and married dons and wreck everyone’s lives. Another classic Dirk performance at the centre, and at last Stanley Baker comes into his own. Great score by Johnny Dankworth, and the accident scene is all the more jarring in contrast to the composed Oxford setting of the film.

Completely different from any of the other films in the collection is the French-language Monsieur Klein. Losey handles a sinuously odd storyline about the fate of Jews in Vichy France with considerable subtlety: the calm with which he depicts the net closing around Monsieur Klein makes this all the more effective as a story of scarcely credible events invading the normal lives of ordinary people. Even a third of a century after the fact, it must have touched a few nerves in French cinemas.

Losey’s quality control was too unreliable for the mantle of great filmmaker to fit comfortably, but he did make several inspired and brilliantly realised films, each of which is in its own way quite unique. A more satisfactory collection would concentrate on the British films Losey made from 1962 to 1967: The Criminal, Eva, The Damned (not the Visconti film), The Servant, King and Country, and Accident would fit together wonderfully, and I guess you could throw in Modesty Blaise for a bit of light relief.

Peter Momtchiloff