Well, it’s dark, for sure. A rich London playboy named Tony (James Fox) buys a posh pad with his inheritance and hires Hugo Barrett (Dirk Bogarde) as his manservant to complete the picture. At first all seems to be going well – Barrett tolerates Tony’s boozing and mess, anticipates Tony’s every need, and is quiet and efficient at his job. There’s some friction between Barrett and Tony’s fiancée Susan (Wendy Craig), exacerbated when Barrett “forgets” to knock on the parlor door and walks in on the pair making out on the couch; but both Tony and Susan speak to him separately about that, and peace seems to be restored. So much so that Barrett is able to convince Tony to hire his sister Vera (Sarah Miles) as a second servant in the house.
Only…Vera isn’t Barrett’s sister; she’s his girlfriend. And once she’s in the house, she starts flirting with Tony too….with Barrett’s blessing, because Barrett has a plan.
I think the thing that frustrated me most about this film was that I couldn’t really get a sense of the specific machinations of Barrett’s plan. Tony’s a twit, and he’s easy to manipulate….and Susan has a classist chip on her shoulder. So both are ripe for a con. But it was unclear how much of what happens was Barrett’s idea, and how much of it was him improvising and reacting to how things were falling out. The scenes towards the end – as Tony moves into a final downward spiral – also felt strangely rushed and chaotic, and introduced a faintly homoerotic vibe that ultimately didn’t go anywhere. ….At least, it didn’t go anywhere to my 21st-century eyes; audiences in 1963 might have been more inclined to read a subtext into the dialogue in these scenes that I’m not.
On the plus side, things look gorgeous. Tony’s house is a genteel townhouse, empty and painted white at the start (Tony receives Barrett for his interview while lazing on a camp chair in the living room), but Barrett oversees the decor, turning it first into a posh gentleman’s residence – but then gradually making things darker and dimmer, occasionally adding some cheap art pieces you’d find in a bordello. Susan’s parents house – an even tonier mansion outside London – is lavish, but strangely sterile, and the one scene taking place there opens with everyone in such artfully languid positions it looks like they’re posing for a group portrait.
There’s also repeated shots involving one of those convex mirrors as things get more and more fun-house surreal.
Nevertheless I found I wanted to simply understand Barrett’s long game a bit better, if for no other reason than wanting to know just how slippery a fish he was.