I. The Servant (1963)
Directed by Joseph Losey, The Servant is considered by some to be one of the finest British films. It tells of Tony (James Fox), a flamboyant member of the upper class, who has just moved in to his central London residence after a period spent in Africa. He immediately hires a man-servant for himself, demure, respectful and knowledgeable Hugo Barrett (Dirk Bogarde). Hugo not only knows how to cook and take care of a house, but he is also an expert interior decorator and has been a gentleman’s servant for many notable Lordships. This tale of a friction between the upstairs and the downstairs reaches the zenith of tension when Hugo introduces “his sister” (Sarah Miles) to the household and when Tony’s own fiancée (Susan Stewart) decides to make the house her own dominion. The Servant works delightfully as a satire on class differences and servitude, showing a thin line that often separates usefulness from a nuisance, and kindness from submissiveness. This tale of hidden corruption has a frightening change of dynamics.
Both actors embody their characters convincingly, and their slightly exaggerated portrayals only deepen the contrast between Hugo and Tony, as well as interest they have for one another. The camera impressively tours the house, showing each of the character’s perspective on a tense situation emerging. Shot with nuance, the film is also a stark example of the use of mirrors in film that signify both duality and secrets (see my article on the topic here). One of the main problems of the film, though, is that its climax comes too early, and half way through the film there is a feeling that there are two stories here, with the script refusing to stay with the main drama and veering off. In that vein, the film would have benefited from a smoother transition between the different ideas presented. However, despite the second half’s confusion, the film is still clever, nuanced and psychological. Its theme of roles’ reversal, intriguing character studies and subtle politics of power and control make it one of Britain’s most memorable cinematic creations. 8/10
II. A Kiss Before Dying (1956)
This is Gerd Oswald’s directional debut and the early adaptation of Ira Levin’s astonishing debut thriller – A Kiss Before Dying (later, there were also adaptations of Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives). In A Kiss Before Dying, Bud Corliss (Robert Wagner) is dating Dorothy (Joanne Woodward (Three Faces of Eve)) for her father’s fortune and finds his plans of inheriting a rich sum derailing when Dorothy tells him that she is pregnant and her father will cut her off. Corliss decides to take a very drastic step to prevent being tied to poor Dorothy for life. Meanwhile, Dorothy’s university instructor (Jeffrey Hunter (The Searchers)) and Dorothy’s own sister Ellen (Virginia Leith) start their own investigation into Corliss. This beautifully-filmed adaptation is more or less faithful to the original book and has plenty of the Patricia Highsmith vibes.
Robert Wagner is good as self-centred and over-confident young man who sets his eyes on getting rich by marrying a heiress. He is methodical and charming, but, underneath appearances, he is also a cold-blooded killer. It is probably the sheer horror of the situation that makes the film so spell-binding. It is unthinkable that around a prestigious university campus, filled with beautiful and cultured people, including kind and innocent girls, can also walk one sheer monstrosity disguised as a charming, polite and intelligent young man. The book is much more surprising, convincing and twisty because we are kept there in suspense as to the identity of the real murderer (which is difficult to do on screen) and the film plot does get rather unbelievable at times. However, this is still a decent thriller with delicious moments of suspense, which undoubtedly paved the way for other quality films to come that centre on male psychopathy. 7/10
III. Isle of the Dead (1945)
“Laws can be wrong, and laws can be cruel, and the people who live only by the law are both wrong and cruel.“
Produced by Val Lewton (The Body Snatcher/Cat People) and starring charismatic Boris Karloff in a leading role, Isle of the Dead is a film that got inspired by Arnold Bocklin’s most famous painting – Isle of the Dead. In this story, which is set during the First Balkan War of 1913, increasingly paranoid general Nikolas Pherides (Karloff) is heading for a cemetery on one mysterious Greek island to pay tribute to his dead wife. He discovers there a group of people and one of its members is a superstitious peasant woman who believes in the legend of a vorvolakas from Greek folklore. This legend tells of an undead creature capable of sucking blood from the living. Another girl in the group becomes a suspect. When a plague strikes the island, the General and all the others have to quarantine themselves and that is also when terrifying things start to happen.
In passing, the film touches upon a number of curious topics and themes, such as the dissonance between the belief and reason, between the common sense and superstition, and between religion and science/perceivable facts. At times, the Isle of the Dead tale becomes rather symbolic, standing for one’s man fight against death, himself and something far more powerful than himself. There is also a theme in the story of a friction between civilian and soldiers’ mentality. Despite the fact that the film is at times painfully slow and not everything in the picture makes sense, Karloff’s maddening turn, sporadic horror and claustrophobic atmosphere all make this film worth a watch. 6/10