Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter team up for the seductive potboiler exercise in class deconstruction with The Servant. Starring Dirk Bogarde, James Fox, and Sarah Miles, this excellent film comes to Blu-ray in the US from the Criterion Collection. While the StudioCanal UK 4K set was fantastic, this release holds its own with the same 1080p transfer, excellent audio, and a welcome host of bonus content. If you’re not game to import on 4K, this disc will serve you well. Recommended
Back in September 2021, I got to review a check disc of StudioCanal UK’s 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray release of The Servant. A pitch-perfect thriller, my thoughts about this arresting potboiler haven’t changed a lick. I really only intended to observe this disc for any visual discrepancies compared to the StudioCanal 1080p disc (there aren’t any), but I found myself sucked into the story once again watching it uninterrupted, barely blinking for nearly two hours. From Losey’s direction to Pinter’s crackling script to Slocombe’s impeccable photography, The Servant isn’t to be missed.
Here are my thoughts from my 2021 The Servant UK Import 4K UHD Blu-ray Review:
Tony (James Fox) has just gotten back to London after serving in Africa. Now on the precipice of personal and financial success, he’s bought himself a flat but finds he needs a manservant to keep up the place. The innocuous Barrett (Dirk Bogarde) is the only suitable applicant. Within moments of taking the job, Barrett is fixing up the house, decorating, cooking - everything Tony could need. But Tony’s fiance Susan (Wendy Craig) doesn’t like the man. As he brings his sister Vera (Sarah Miles) into the house to work as a maid, Barrett methodically strengthens his hold over the house - and Tony.
There’s nothing quite like a perfectly executed slow-burn potboiler. I love a film that knows how to take its time and not rush things. The Servant is paced and timed to slowly dribble out the character reveals. We’re given little tidbits early - Tony drinks too much, and Barrett is clearly lying about his work history. The rest of the pieces fall into place at their own schedule. In fact, the film is at its most deceptive when it seems like nothing is happening at all. And when something important is revealed it’s only a half-truth forcing you to question every little bit of information about any of the characters. You can’t trust any of the characters to be truly honest players.
As a thriller, this film doesn’t get the blood pumping through violence or teasing the potential for mayhem. The thrills come from human nature and watching the worst in people slowly come out. Watching people find and exploit each other's weaknesses. Set against the backdrop of social classism, the characters hold sway over one another by their positions in life. Only Tony can hire Barrett, but only Barrett can take care of Tony. Barret exploits Tony’s alcoholism, but Tony is the only way Barrett can live above his station. Susan gives Tony emotional love but withholds it sexually, but Vera gives him what he needs physically. Where Barrett exploits Vera’s need for physical affection, she longs to get the personal emotional touches from Tony. Each character may not be of the same station in life but they all have their own power pieces to play in this twisted game.
With Losey’s excellent direction and Pinter’s fantastic script, the film visually comes alive thanks to master cinematographer Douglas Slocombe. The beautiful black and white photography captures the thematic turns in each character with the ever-changing balance of bright white light, deep blacks, and the shadows in between. When the film starts, it’s almost glaringly bright, but by the time the final real kicks in, the film is almost impenetrably dark with only small glimmers of light. This approach to visual aesthetics is just as important as the direction, writing, or performances. Light and darkness are their own characters begging you to ask why any character is being lit a certain way at any given time in the film.
And speaking of performances - this film has an amazing central cast. Dirk Bogarde, James Fox, Sarah Miles, and Wendy Craig all deliver impressive turns. Each character has moments of being cruel and cold or innocent. While Tony and Susan live above the stations of Barrett and Vera, none of them is above dibbing into acts of needless cruelty. Dirk Bogarde fronts a lot of the heavy lifting of the film giving a richly nuanced performance. Like his character’s dodgy record with honesty, he delivers a range of emotions you can’t always trust.
Likewise, James Fox delivers one of his better turns. I’ve mostly only seen him in stately aristocratic roles, so it was a pleasure to see an early performance where he’s much more of an average man. Sarah Miles and Wendy Craig needed more scenes together. They spend a lot of time blunting the emotional weight of their male counterparts, but they have their own interesting feminine dynamic almost playing their parts like exaggerated versions of Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem.
It’s been a long, long time since I last got to see The Servant. I saw this film in a Film Noir appreciation class in school sometime around 2002 or 2003. While this may not seem like a traditional Film Noir with gritty detectives and sultry damsels, it’s steeped in the visual and philosophical aesthetics of the genre and the tight character machinations of trust and betrayal make it a solid fit. A pitch-perfect thriller, the film takes its time slowly building the plot and characters toward a genuinely unsettling final act. It’s a hell of a film if you give it your full time and attention.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Criterion Collection orders up its own edition of The Servant to Blu-ray. A single-disc release, the film is pressed on a Region A BD-50 disc. Housed in Criterion’s standard clear case with spine number 1182, the set comes with a foldout booklet offering an interesting essay by Colm Toibin with restoration details. The disc loads to Criterion’s typical animated main menu structure.
Sourced from the same restoration elements as StudioCanal UK’s release, this is an exceptional 1080p picture. Now, I would have loved to see the Dolby Vision 4K transfer with both original aspect ratios included for this set, but for those who don’t need 4K or care to import this title, you can not go wrong with this 1.66:1 1080p transfer. From the first frames to the end, the details are impeccable. With the numerous close-up shots, you get to examine all of the facial features and costuming but don’t get too lost in the foreground, details in the background are just as important and telling in this film. On the humorous side you can clearly read the writing on the pub wall above the phone, right down to “Kilroy was here.” The black and white grayscale is terrific offering deep blacks, brilliant whites, and a full range of shadows in between.
Regarding the aspect ratio, the film was presented in both 1.66:1 and 1.77:1 for its theatrical run. Studiocanal offered up both options for fans in 4K and 1080p. Personally, I’m a bigger fan of the 1.66:1 that’s offered here. It’s pulled back ever so slightly compared to the 1.77:1 which felt too close and made me uneasy. As I mentioned in my 4K review is the point, but for how intense the movie can get there’s close, and then there is too close.
On the audio side, Criterion rolls with an LPCM Mono track. The StudioCanal edition offered up a DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono track and aside from channel usage, there’s not a dynamic difference. This film is focused mainly on dialog, it’s a Pinter script so it has to be. Sound effects and the sultry jazzy score are well prioritized to help set the mood and accent what’s happening on screen without interfering with what’s being said. This is another excellent audio mix for this film, free of hiss or any age-related issues.
At the time of my initial review of StudioCanal’s set, I wasn’t able to report on the bonus features, the check disc I was sent didn’t have any and it was quite a while before I was able to secure a retail copy. Suffice it to say, Criterion has assembled their own set of extras. There is some bleed between the two offering a few of the same interviews, while Criterion catered their own extras. The best of the pack is the slick The Look of Losey with critic Imogen Sara Smith looking at the director’s style throughout his career. The six-part audio interview Losey on The Servant is also well worth listening to. The archival cast interviews are also well worth checking out if you haven’t already come across them.
Regardless if its in 4K or 1080p, The Servant is an exceptional piece of work. Working through his exile in the UK and Europe after being blacklisted, Joseph Losey directed the hell out of Harold Pinter’s brilliant script. With an impeccable cast to bring these seriously messed up characters to life, it’s a genuinely exhilarating potboiler thriller that sticks with you long after the credits roll. Now on Blu-ray in the US, The Criterion Collection delivers an excellent disc. While I would strongly suggest those equipped import the 4K disc from the UK since it has both aspect ratios, slicker packaging, a great booklet and far more extra features, this Blu-ray holds its own beautifully. The image is excellent, the audio is terrific, and bonus features may not be as extensive but they’re no slouch and the Look of Losey is an excellent examination of the director’s career. Since the Criterion sale just kicked off it’s an easy one to call Recommended.