“I am a gentleman’s gentleman,” sneers Barrett (Dirk Bogarde), the dark-haired devil who, once upon a time, wandered into the Chelsea home of a listless aristocrat named Tony (James Fox). The picture of upper-crust Brit entitlement, Tony is in need of a manservant; Barrett offers one-stop-shopping care, from butlering to fetching brown all from the pub. He's prissy and fastidious at first, the hired help is. But are those hints of passive-aggressiveness we see in the household’s new decor, the interruptions of Tony’s intimate moments with his posh girlfriend (Wendy Craig), the installment of a tarty working-class maid (Sarah Miles) who’s Barrett’s “sister”? By the time that aforementioned quote gets hissed, the duo has become something closer to a bickering married couple. Both of them are long past being gentlemen.
A perfect storm of perversity, pre-Persona identity transference, prole pole-positioning and mutually assured psychological destruction, Joseph Losey’s masterpiece immediately transformed the director from has-been Hollywood exile to European auteur. Everything hits just the right note of louche Britannia, from Losey and cinematographer Douglas Slocombe’s visual expressionism (warped reflections abound; stairwell shadows look like prison bars) to screenwriter Harold Pinter’s pause-as-power-play dialogue to the actors’ character assassinations on class assumptions. This is where Bogarde would stake his claim in the matinee-idol degeneracy hall of fame, while Fox, still years away from joining Mick Jagger in the acid-freakout fun house known as Performance (1970), demonstrates that upper lips can’t stay stiff when everything falls apart. Did we mention that the film also features the most gothic orgy in the history of cinema? No need to thank us. We’re at your service.
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