The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.
“All the good movies have been made.”
While Criterion always manages to release titles that are vast and eclectic, two of their recent selections have proven to be perfect companions, despite being of two entirely different pedigrees. 1963’s The Servant and 1968’s Targets are a British drama and an L.A.-set thriller, respectively, that on the surface have little in common. Yet both showcase the unease and unrest of the decade in their respective countries through the violence (emotional in one, physical in the other) that permeated through each one’s society.
Set in Los Angeles, Targets follows two vastly different characters, an aging movie star named Byron Orlok (Boris Karloff) and a young man named Bobby (Tim O’Kelly) with homicidal tendencies, both of whose fates are soon to collide. Meanwhile, in The Servant the upper-class Tony (James Fox) hires Barrett (Dirk Bogarde) to run his new household, unaware of the mind games that will result.
Every fan of the great director Peter Bogdanovich knows how his first film came about. After working under legendary filmmaker Roger Corman for years, he was finally given the chance to write and direct his own feature, provided he cast the legendary Karloff, who owed Corman two days’ work. The result is a harrowing look at 1968 America with a Charles Whitman-inspired terror flowing throughout the film. Targets acts as both a document and a foreshadowing of an America steeped in an unease that comes through in every scene. Seeing how easily Bobby, with his good guy, all-American persona, collects one firearm after another before joining his loving family for dinner is just as chilling as seeing him pack his guns for an upcoming shooting spree along with a soda and sandwich. While the Byron side of the film highlights this more subtly, Targets shows the changing of an era and a loss of innocence (perceived or otherwise) perhaps more than any other film of the decade.
Even though Bogdanovich never made another film anywhere close to the neighborhood of Targets, his debut feature revealed a filmmaker who knew how to execute the kind of thriller that’s almost impossible to craft. The terror always feels imminent throughout the film, no matter what is happening on the screen, much in the way the late 60s themselves were filled with constant uncertainty. Targets has plenty of scenes of normalcy and tranquility, which Bogdanovich makes all the more eerie because of the ticking time bomb hiding inside the main character. This is maybe Target’s greatest strength as a cinematic experience, offering up good old-fashioned suspense and a telling look at how much is lurking beneath the surface of the people we encounter every day.
Directed by Joseph Losey and filmed during the infamous great freeze of the early 60s, The Servant starts out as a standard (yet intriguing) British drama that offers an insight into the class-conscious way of life of a pre-mod London. The Servant is the second of five Bogarde/Losey collaborations and the shorthand between actor and director is greatly finessed here. Much of the joy of the film is seeing how Barrett handles his station in life, being as dutiful as he can while darker intentions lay under the surface. There’s an undeniably perverse joy at seeing Barrett play cat-and-mouse with Tony with the latter eventually becoming totally dependent on the former. The film’s not-so-subtle homosexual sub-text adds another fascinating layer, especially given Bogarde’s real-life sexuality, which he kept hidden. I’ve always found it interesting that despite Bogarde’s secrecy, the actor had an irrefutable penchant for taking on roles in films that never shied away from the subject of homosexuality, including Victim, Death in Venice, and especially, The Servant.
England has always been a country that’s functioned and even thrived due to its class system, which, like most everything else, has been justified as tradition. The Servant starkly throws away any respect for any social customs and mores by exposing the silent brutality of that world. The haves and the have-nots, those who make it, those who don’t have to worry, and those who have no choice but to worry; each of them exist within Barrett and Tony. When one reveals his hold on the other under the guise of a co-dependent relationship, the end result is a chilling one as The Servant evolves (or devolves, rather) into an exercise of savagery and barbarism with both characters eventually unleashing their true primal natures. There are surely those who might call The Servant an exercise in depravity, but for others, it remains a landmark piece of British cinema and a revolt against a system that had defined that society for so long
If Targets and The Servant seemed worlds apart, their makers succeeded in not only making a pair of disturbing and compelling films, but they also managed to predict the future, while commenting on their present day. The legacies they’ve left remain somewhat complicated. On the one hand, both movies are stunning pieces of filmmaking that are skillfully and artfully done. From start to finish, each one is the kind of film experience that was made for the pure cinephile. On the other, both show two separate societies and the problems within them that they were faced with solving if they were to survive. Most important of all, perhaps, both Targets and The Servant show what each country would become if they were unable to.
Targets and The Servant are now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.