It starts in the first person. You stop, and put the book down; and remember the last scenes, his final degradation: a human being turned into a rag doll, his spirit ripped out by the machinations of a trusted servant. To listen to his own words, to watch his decline through his own eyes, is much too much, it is all too intimate; and you wonder whether to continue. Isn’t the film enough? a classic only to be watched once.
Tony is the narrator’s friend. This is a relief! We are given a little distance; just enough to protect us from the agony to come.
The author is kind, he wants to save us from the full horror show, and so we watch events at some remove; we glimpse them over the garden fence or through the front windows. Time is the main witness to his fall, dressing him up in gaudier colours as the years pass by; we see his tastes deteriorating each time we meet him, every few months or so.
The film is tighter, and more cruel than this; at least for the viewer. There Losey and Pinter ensure Tony remains fragile and sensitive, with the class distinctions emphasized between him and his tormentor; increasing the tension, for the large contrasts ensures he falls from a far greater height at the end. It also has a wider resonance. Not just an individual is destroyed but a whole culture collapses on top of him; a tradition brought down by cunning and malice; and exposing its weak foundations.
In the novel Tony is a fairly typical, seemingly robust, young man from the middle classes; who just back from the army (it is after World War II) is looking fix himself up in civilian life, with a new place and a career – it is to be the law. He is like thousands of others, you see them everywhere, with their open complexions and easy confidence bred on too much milk and the ruling ethos of the public schools. His life is easy, always has been one assumes - although he lost his parents when he was young, which may explain what happens later -, and he will keep it that way, if he’s given a chance. He hires a servant, at his friend’s suggestion, and his life becomes easier still.
He spoke in a prissy, affected voice, and the word ‘sir’ sounded like ‘sahr.’ He walked to a corner cupboard and began to take out decanters and bottles, which he placed carefully on a green tray. I watched him while Tony told me his news. He was over six foot tall, and I was surprised a tall man could move so delicately. His shoulders were narrow, and his hands were long and bony. One expected his mouth to match his features. But in the middle of his sallow face were stuck a pair of rosebud lips, which gave him the look of a dissolute cherub. His lids were heavy and looked oily, I remember. The contrast between his head and his body was disconcerting, as if a baroque angel were stuck on a gothic spire. His age might have been anything between thirty and fifty. I thought he was repellent. But Tony was obviously delighted with him.
Hugo Barrett. The typical man of power: he charms or he nauseates. Richard Merton is lucky for he has sensed his true character; but Tony needs to be led; he is a disciple looking for his messiah. And he has found him, although there will be no promise of a future paradise; he doesn’t need one, for his servant can create it here in Chelsea. The original twelve had to leave for foreign parts to escape their families; and so feel the full force of their leader’s charisma. Barrett finds a simpler way, more suited to the times, to exercise his control. He narrows Tony’s world down to the whisky decanter and the crossword puzzles at his kitchen table. He keeps him in luxury, isolated in his home, which he decorates; and looks after carefully. He does all the household jobs, cooks excellent dinners, with food acquired on the black market; and quietly he separates Tony from all his friends.
One day he brings his “niece” to stay; for a little while. By chance, or designed accident, she sleeps with Tony, who becomes addicted to her rapacious sexuality; increased we think, by its illicitness – Barrett doesn’t know. He finds out later, another weakness he can profit by.
One day Richard finds Barrett in bed with Vera, and it looks like Tony will be saved. In this short respite we learn some history. We discover Barrett had bought her for thirty pounds from her father; though he seduced her sweetly – she likes him now, but finds him queer. He’s attracted to underage girls; and he has a knack for controlling people; he finds their particular weaknesses: for comfort, money, or sex; which he has turned into a nasty habit for his “niece”.
But she was no longer listening. A change had come over her whole being. Her face was flushed, and her eyes, which seemed to have grown larger, were staring at me. She was breathing heavily.
‘Anything I’d do. Anything for you. You’re a man, aren’t you? Don’t be afraid. Come on, Richard.’
I got up.
‘I’m afraid I must go.’
‘Not yet. Stay a little while.’ She was panting now.
‘I must go.’
‘Just a little while.’
All her body was trembling.
‘Good night, Vera.’
Stay. You must stay.’
She clutched my hand. ‘Come on. Can’t you see? Quickly. Quickly.’
I tore myself free, and opened and the door.
‘You bloody sod!’ she shrieked at the top of her voice. ‘Call yourself a man, do you? Call yourself a man?’
I could still hear her screaming as I left the house.
Too weak! and Barrett is invited back. A final climatic scene where the call of the whisky and a fresh young girl, together with his insinuating charm, are overwhelmingly powerful, and Tony returns to the poor comforts of his own private hell.
When Richard fails and leaves we feel sorry for Tony, but also repelled. The healthy young man has been turned within a few years into a fat, drunken slob, a coarse beast with ugly lusts; a pathetic, corrupted animal. As the novel progresses we see this transformation slowly grow until the final collapse; when Tony is reduced to a servant, waiting on his own desires.
No doubt this is the author’s intention: a visual metaphor for the corruptions that have bloated his character. And it works; although the film is stronger. For there we see, with a clarity that is sometimes too clear to look at, the absolute rule of one person by another. In the film Tony remains a human being, although his will is removed, and we feel sympathy for a poor victim unable resist a tyrant’s authority. We feel an immense sadness, and a fear; for our own vulnerability – what Iago is in our midst? We see Tony’s weakness, but even more, we see the power a single individual can produce; and this is the film’s strength; and which I cannot forget when read The Servant by Robert Maugham.