I am not a theatre-goer, so my familiarity with actual live performances is quite limited. Harold Pinter [1930-2008] was for half a century Britain's preeminent playwright, eventually winning the Nobel Prize in 2005. A further admission would be that I have never read the novella, by Robin Maugham, upon which Pinter's screenplay is based. I don't believe that either qualification is an issue in voicing my appreciation for this movie, however.
The Servant came out when I was only 16. I believe I saw it first in the late 1960's, in a showing at an art film revival theatre in Berkeley. The Servant was, even then, regarded as an "auteur" classic, a clear example of a certain kind of gritty, hard-edged British New Wave cinema, associated in my mind with Darling , The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner , Room at the Top , and so on. It was the first dramatic piece I associate with Pinter, who had already, by this date, written eleven major plays, though his screenwriting activity had barely begun when he did The Servant. What an auspicious quasi-debut!
Ostensibly, The Servant is a "vicious" attack upon the British class system, though this initial framework becomes, in Pinter's hands, merely a pretext for a deeper exploration of the nature of the sexual bargain, of the sly, subtle adjustments of interpersonal tension, a theme that is far more universal in its implications than mere social criticism.
A full analysis of the film easily would take 30 pages of dense ratiocination; all I can reasonably expect to do is point out a few thematic elements which I find intriguing.
This is, in my mind, one of Dirk Bogarde's three great screen performances, the other two being Darling, and Damn the Defiant  (a little known historical potboiler about a mutiny aboard a British ship of the line during the Napoleonic Wars). Bogarde had begun as a Sunday "matinee idol"--his delicious, boyish good-looks and slick charm conquered the popular movie-going audiences of the 1950's. As his career progressed, he got better roles, and by the end of his life, was regarded as one of the major actors of his era. Physically unimposing, he tended to pout and sulk in his roles, plotting and devising against against power and circumstances to attain his ends. These modes of performance are nowhere more evident than in The Servant, in which he plays a manservant hired by a stuffy, presumptuous, adolescent young architect taking up lodgings in London after a period abroad.
At its essence, the plot is the story of the seduction, and eventual domination of the young British upper-classman (brilliantly played by James Fox) by his servant Barrett (Bogarde). By "seduction" we must be careful not to place too great a generalization upon the "sexual" implication, since in Pinter's universe, sex is not the end of the bargain--it's just one of the playing fields. There is a highly suggestive dialectic between Fox's relationship to his girlfriend (played by Wendy Craig), and the relationship between Barrett and his girl Vera (Sarah Miles). Pinter seems to be telling us that at its basis, all sexual and/or "contractual" bargains which people make--whether temporary or not--are selfish, provisional, extemporaneous. The difference is in how we pretend: Fox and his girlfriend are no less ruthless and smarmy about what they expect of each other, and how they view their presumed "inferiors"--than are Barrett and Vera; it's just that the "servant" class takes for granted the pragmatic nature of human relationships, which are, as often as not, built upon money and class and "tradition"--and not love and cooperation.
The movie is in some respects quite theatrical in its technique. I'm thinking of one scene in particular, in which Tony (Fox) and Susan (Craig) go to visit with Susan's parents. The camera view into a "conservatory" or living-room sets the four figures "posed" like marionettes, stilted and formal. The conversation is like a drawing-room comedy, with arch condescensions mounted like stuffed busts in every phrase. It's like suspended animation--these people are ghosts acting out a dead tradition, their belief-systems hollow and echoing.
As the steady deterioration of Tony progresses, their pre-set roles and etiquette are increasingly simplified, until, in the end, the two are like schoolboys, playing ball and hide-and-seek. Barrett hooks Tony on drugs, gets him screwing his girlfriend (prostitution), and eventually totally compromises him. Tony reasserts his class superiority temporarily, but then reneges and re-hires him. Barrett's victory is pyrrhic, of course, since his "control" of the household is limited--it's all ghastly fun and games. The message seems to be that all social relations are a kind of gaming, it's just that the rules for different games are different, though the ultimate outcomes may to some extent be pre-determined. Barrett is ruthless, and appears stronger, more practical--but socially he's still impotent. Every victory is met with capricious resistance from Tony--ultimately it's teasing and coyness that dictate their games.
Pinter is incredibly pessimistic about human relations. People are selfish, and will use anything to advance their interests. Self-pity and disingenuousness and posturing and bullying are the currency of exchange. We barter and sign up for personal gain, but we always are testing and re-testing the limits of our tolerance. Cruelty and vicarious curiosity dictate much of our intercourse.
How odd that a writer with such a compromised view of the human capacity for evil and mischief should have become such a strident critic of the fake sanctioned American interventions abroad. Did he really believe people are capable of better works?