United Kingdom, 1963
Directed by Joseph Losey
With Dirk Bogarde (Barrett), James Fox (Tony), Sarah Miles (Vera), Wendy Craig (Sarah)
This movie shot by American exiled director Joseph Losey, with a screenplay by British playwright Harold Pinter, is a striking visual exploration of a society which is famously defined by hierarchical, vertical, distant relationships which have been viewed as impossible to challenge, and indeed, it would have been unthinkable not to observe them but which prove actually to be subtly undermined by historical and psychological changes – and assaulted by a devious and cunning individual.
The plot is rather simple. Tony is a young aristocrat looking for a butler as he moves into a new house in London. His choice, Barrett, fully satisfies him, as the servant efficiently takes care of every aspect of Tony’s life. Despite his sterling qualities and unfailing skills, or perhaps because of them, Barrett would rather fuel the suspicion, the distrust, of Tony’s fiancée, Sarah, but her criticism is dismissed by Tony who sees no reason to change things. Barrett manages to get a maid hired; and Vera quickly seduces Tony. It then turns out that he is framed, for Vera is not the sister but the girlfriend of the servant, and the couple they make up increasingly disregards the duties of their jobs, feeling safe in their position and viewing their master as an idiot.
In a dramatic confrontation, however, Barrett and Vera get the sack. But Tony becomes despondent and negligent. Barrett convinces his former employer to take him back, and Tony sheepishly assents. Trouble is, the relation between master and servant starts to alter. Barrett rudely forces Tony to treat him more and more as an equal and he eventually directs Tony’s personal life, driving the aristocrat to depravity.
Constant change in visual perspective illustrates the evolution of the human relations. Either shot from a low angle or from a high angle, frames with two personages – generally the aristocrat and his servant – show both the unavoidable link between them and the growing confrontation between them. Nothing is as obvious as it appears from the start. When the servant meets for the first time his future employer, the latter is placed on the foreground as the other stands far in the background, straight in his black overcoat, as could be expected. But the servant is the one who is awake and aware of the incongruity of a master who is taking a nap in the middle of a house under renovation.
Regular occurrence of these carefully composed frames, with subtle changes in the place of the characters, gives the movie dynamism and stylistic coherence as it records the subversion carried out by Barrett. Mirrors offer another precious visual effect, putting within the same frame, and stoking tension, characters brooding over their ideas or plots and the distorted images of other characters as they come in the room, intruding as it were, with their own worries, or plots, in mind. It is an endless, clever, observation of the distance and the opposition between the characters as their relations get fraught and then toxic.
The indoors of the London house are wonderfully explored by the camera. Moving up and down or sliding from one room to the other, it turns the place that was supposed to be home into a tricky labyrinth and a treacherous playground where Tony is doomed to get trapped.
The central sequence in a posh restaurant gives his fall its meaning. The argument between Tony and his fiancée underlines a problem that was already hinted at. Tony is a weak person but strongly aware, and proud, of his social position. He stubbornly stands by his choice of Barrett for he cannot accept that what he does is questioned. In part a childish reaction, his statement is a rejection of both Sarah’s common sense and her need to be treated as an equal partner. As they talk, others characters come and go around and reveal a society that is far from quiet and decent. A couple trades gossips, two women clash over another one, suggesting they have an affair, a bishop makes unflattering comments on his companion, sitting next to him, and his colleagues. The social order is only a façade as human passions burst into the open. Change is coming.
It has already come in fashion. The length of Vera’s skirt is a symbol of mores getting freer. Of course the worry of Barrett about the shortness of the cloth is sheer hypocrisy. It is a tool to seduce Tony. Yet Vera’s remark is fair, and relevant: after all, that’s the way things are in the streets.
Old people cannot really opposed this – in fact, they are a doddering and idiotic sort. Brilliantly directed, the visit to Tony’s uncle mansion is a scathing caricature showing an old aristocracy cut off from reality, including things they were supposed to know. Mark that Sarah, from the same social class than them it seems, talks with irony and is amused by the situation. She stands a world away from Vera. But they have more or less the same age and they live under the same social and cultural context, carried along by the same wind of change.
At the end of the movie, a grandfather’s clock stands still. The mechanism has stopped as the orgy organized by Barrett ends. Time is up for Tony; dazed and stoned, intoxicated and promiscuous, to depravity, the master cannot but let the servant rule the house. The art of Losey was to gradually lead the audience from a predictable and comfortable situation to a world turned upside down and turned hopelessly vicious. His visual ideas and his work with convincing actors make this disturbing journey a fascinating cinematographic experience. However, he leaves a question unanswered, which could even be for some an irritant. Gorgeously opaque, Barrett’s character is not easy to define and his true motivation seems hard to grasp. Is he just a maniac, or is he a sarcastic and pervert agent of change?