The Servant (Joseph Losey / United Kingdom, 1963):

With Britain's noblesse oblige caught between frigid temperatures and torrid scandals, Joseph Losey cleans house. A London manor isn’t complete without a manservant, the dim aristocrat (James Fox) finds one in the immaculate proletarian raven (Dirk Bogarde), "a very good driller." Behind the valet’s obsequious professionalism is a snorting smirk, chipping at the master’s affairs with passive-aggressive slyness; his rival is Fox’s suspicious fiancée (Wendy Craig), his weapon is the mini-skirted kitty posing as his sister (Sarah Miles, quite the lewdling). Familiarity segues into abasement segues into chaos. "Well, that’s bloody inconvenient, isn’t it?" A smooth, gliding surface eroded by a new tremor with each passing moment, where every interaction is a power struggle: the placement of a vase of flowers, a midnight seduction under a kitchen lamp, curlicues of Harold Pinter’s virtuosic venom overheard as Losey’s eye hops from table to table at a restaurant. In a recurring maneuver, the camera tilts up from a street puddle and arches over barren trees; the upper-crust couple returns home from dinner to find the bedroom raucously occupied, Bogarte’s cigarette-dangling shadow looms at the top of the stairs as Fox sinks to the bottom of the banister, one unbroken take. The house ("just a wall here and there, sir") is a dungeon in the making, a maze of cabinets grown cavernous and litterstrewn, its gloating orb a convex mirror on the living room wall. Bataille’s servitude of the sovereign, The Fallen Idol’s game of hide-and-seek (servant skulking with gusto, master trembling behind shower curtains), dripping faucets and dormant clocks. A society erected on rituals of dominance and suppressed anxiety can only malignantly perpetuate itself, from the Blimpish tableau of Old Order complacency to the dead-eyed New Wave bacchanalia is less a matter of corrosion than one of mutation. Losey’s ripping comedy of breakdown, a master class in ominous mise-en-scène richly absorbed by Polanski and Roeg. Bogarde and Fox carry it with them into Death in Venice and Performance, respectively. Cinematography by Douglas Slocombe. With Catherine Lacey, Richard Vernon, Patrick Magee, Ann Firbank, and Alun Owen. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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