The Master Waits while the Servant Baits: The Servant (1963)

Posted by Charles Reece, March 29, 2009 10:04am | Post a Comment

I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.
-- W. H. Auden, "September 1, 1939"

It was Harold Pinter weekend at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, so I had a chance to see one of the best Joseph Losey films, The Servant, on the big screen. Pinter contributed the screenplay, based on the novel by Robin Maugham. (Because I loathe writing plot summaries, here's one.) The presentation was co-sponsored by Outfest for good reason -- it's a classic of queer cinema. Not counting the fairly recent 300, the 60s produced my favorite gay films, The Victim and The Killing of Sister George, along with Losey's. The three form a trilogy to my mind: all are British; both The Victim and The Servant feature Dirk Bogarde, the finest of cerebral actors, making you feel every thought his characters have; Losey trained  and will always be closely aligned with Robert Aldrich, the director of Sister George. Although Aldrich was more of a bare-knuckles kind of director, his film shares with the more intellectual Losey's an approach to sexual identity and politics that I prefer: as a given, full of suggestion and with a good deal of nuance.

My good pal and fellow blogger, Job, said my preference was due to a film like Sister George not being really gay. That's sort of right. But, on the other hand, I find old Hollywood films to be a lot more sexually interesting due to their working under the Hays Code than the majority of the explicitly sexual variety we have today. Sex had to be coded, in other words, to get around the Code. A six-shooter was never just a six-shooter back then. Conversely, sexuality was never just sexuality, but indicative of whatever struggles were being depicted. That is, by embuing so much with libidinal allusion, sexuality became more matter-of-factly, another interpretive grid through which culture can be read. Sex is pretty well limited to its simulated practice in Last Tango in Paris or Midnight Cowboy, but it's everywhere in Sam Fuller's Forty Guns, while being nowhere explicit.

I think a parallel can be drawn to the matter-of-fact lesbianism in Sister George, where the indiginities heaped upon its protagonist, June 'George' Buckridge, are more common -- more universal -- than the more literal minded identity politics of, say, Philadelphia. In the latter case, oppression becomes a matter of sexual identity, whereas in the former, sexual identity is just another method those in power might use as a means for subjugation. Not that there's anything wrong with the more particularized morality of Philadelphia in principle (The Victim is doubtlessly a much better earlier version), but unless one already identifies with its gay protragonist, the story remains one about the Other. Sister George requires no such identification, but is instead a reflection of power itself, irrespective of sexual orientation or gender.

Likewise, the sexual desideratum in The Servant isn't as important as the way desire itself is used for control. The film overlays Hegel's master-slave dialectic onto the sexual dynamics of Gilda. Whereas Charles Vidor's film had Rita Hayworth coming between two men in love, making it impossible (along with the Code, of course) for them to ever conjugate their feelings in a more literal manner, The Servant features the corrosive effects a servant, Hugo (Bogarde), has on the relationship between an aristocrat, Tony, and his girlfriend, Susan. Befitting their class status, Tony and Susan have all the style privilege can buy without any personal involvement, or real taste. They are what they are because it's de rigueur for them to be so. Hugo, however, has had to hone his taste in order to survive. Tony doesn't have to think about aesthetics or much of anything, really, because he can just pay people like Hugo to do it for him. It's this lack of self-consciousness that Hugo uses to gain domination over Tony. This struggle is realized in Losey's triarchic mise en scène where Hugo goes from being a physical mediating presence between Tony and Susan to a psychological one, casting a shadow over every aspect of their relationship.

"Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!"

The master-servant domination in social hierarchy won't work if the upper class becomes fully conscious of the lower class as an equally present, fully conscious agent. Morally equivalent agents require a parity of treatment, the same respect one would give to another of one's own class. Thus, as Susan becomes aware of the structuring influence Hugo is having on Tony, she resists by reasserting her dominant position over the former through a variety of petty means. She rearranges Hugo's placement of flowers and demands that he drop what he's doing in order to walk across the room to light her cigarette.

The pettiness of cultural management.

Now, a lesser story would've set up Hugo as an anarchic outsider hero, demolishing cultural insitutions and declaring his independence. Certainly, Tony and Susan are real unlikable snots, but The Servant sets  up Hugo as just as dependent on social roles as the master class. When he can assert the power that comes from his position as an upper crust servant, he becomes just as petty as Susan. Rather than identifying with the carpenters working on Tony's home, Hugo micro-manages them, telling them to do things they already know to do.

Some are more equal than others.

Without a whit of self-reflection, Hugo becomes offended in the next scene when Tony orders him to bring the brandy while he's already in the process of doing so.

I was just doing that, sir.

Like the poor Mid-Westener voting for corporate interests on the always undelivered promise of future wealth ("everyone could be rich someday," cry dittoheads), there's no moral purpose to Hugo's machinations, only a desire to usurp or feed off Tony's privileged existence.

Burning desire.

Hugo is an exemplary protagonist for Auden's little poem with which I began. It's often quoted in reference to Israel and the Palestinians. In fact, I got it from Benny Morris' Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001. As the question goes: how could a historically oppressed people turn around and support an apartheid system? Without diving into that mudpie, The Servant demonstrates how the powerless need to serve the dictates of the empowered, taking the practice of the dominant as its own, in order to achieve power. When Hugo says that he really loves his work, I believe him. He isn't a butler just to pay the bills, but has constructed himself to be the perfect servant as a means to access a lifestyle that would've otherwise been denied him by birth. He lives for those moments when Tony is away, so that he can sleep in his master's bedroom and bathe in his master's bathroom. For these brief pleasures, Hugo spends his days warming the much less refined Tony's feet in a foot tub, decorating his house, and supplying him with a bottomless glass.
I want to drink you up.

Tony's increasing addiction to alcohol is symbolic of how reliant he becomes on Hugo. When the repressive Susan demands that Hugo be fired for interfering with their relationship, Tony asks how could he ever find another like him. By this point, Hugo has won the battle against Susan, having become for Tony what semiotician C. S. Peirce called an interpretant. As the subject, Tony relates to all the objects in his life -- including Susan -- through the refractive lens of Hugo. Losey uses the distortion of a convex mirror as an objective correlative for Tony's emotional disintegration. By the end, he's reduced to a cultural place holder for Hugo's own desires.

"Don't you fucking look at me!"

The coup de grâce is in getting his fiance, Vera, hired on as the maid. Tony is led to believe that she's Hugo's sister. Having no firmer grasp on morality than the two men, the déclassé succubus tempts Tony (at the butler's devising) into giving up his last breath of potential resistance (he's too comfortable to ever offer any actual resistance).

When the cord gets pulled, and Tony discovers the truth about his servants, his cultural position no longer provides a place to hide. As an extension of Hugo, the sexual gratification offered by Vera proves to little more than Tony's sublimated dirty desire for his man-servant, homoeroticism by proxy. When he's depicted crying on Vera's bed, the posters above him say it all:

Although no sexual contact is ever made between Hugo and Tony, the latter now needs the former for  satisfying even that most basic human desire. After Hugo wiles his way back into Tony's home, the old master-servant arrangement is nothing but a game they play if it appears at all. No more buttoned up suits and slicked back hair. The house is in shambles just like Tony's mental state. The only things Hugo now supplies are women, food and booze. Otherwise, he openly mocks his erstwhile master. They waste their days throwing balls at each, bickering, and playing hide and seek.The irony here is that after realizing his desire, Hugo's life is emptier than his days as a butler. Not that he's complaining. He began as a specular entity, reflecting the desire of the wealthy and ends up pretty much the same. Any power that he's achieved is as its doorman. Only now he doesn't have to clean so much or keep his mouth shut. And his master no longer ignores him.

The odd couple.

If you compare the repression in Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven or Kimberly Peirce's Boys Don't Cry, what you get is a problem with a fairly easy solution written into it, namely an enlightened liberal attitude. isn't it awful how gays used to have to hide their sexual identity in the 50s, or how transvestites are treated in some podunk Nebraskan town? Well, yes. That's going to be glaringly apparent to anyone willing to see such movies. You come out with what you brought in. That's because these movies stop at presenting identity, without really critiquing what structures it. Their problematic is localized to a time and/or place. "Such repression isn't really like me," the target audience can safely say. The Servant doesn't provide its audience with that escape hatch. The homosexuality might be latent, but it's pervasive -- no sign in the film can be read without it. It's not borne out of the positive or romantic love seen in Peirce's film, but is a function of power, a hamster-in-a-plastic-ball struggle between the dominant and the submissive. So, in that sense, it's not really a gay film. But the depravity of the heterosexual relations is rendered even less ambiguously. The traumatic theme of The Servant is that subjugation of the will doesn't always occur from the outside (the rednecks, the past, the upper class), but it's consitutive of modern society, regardless of particular identifications. Idenitity politics couldn't exist without it. As the saying goes, "shit rolls down hills."

Relevant Tags

Harold Pinter (1), Desire (2), Queer Cinema (1), Joseph Losey (1), The Killing Of Sister George (3), The Victim (1), The Servant (1), Identity Politics (2), Subjugation (1), Power (3), Dvd Criticism (26)