The Brave Decadence of Dirk Bogarde

Usually I write on subjects about which I know a fair amount, but today I’m taking a look at the bold, boundary-pushing film work of actor Dirk Bogarde (1921-1999) from the 1960s and 70s, most of which I have not yet seen. Bogarde chose roles that other performers shied away from, unveiling elements of humanity, society and sexual practice that are frequently less than flattering. My interest was prompted by my viewing of the Joseph Losey-directed drama The Servant (1963) yesterday afternoon at the Film Forum. Bogarde’s character, Barrett (pictured left), is the newly appointed butler of a young aristocrat, Tony (James Fox).

Barrett proceeds to completely upend Tony’s life, personally, professionally and economically. Though mind games and physical means – including a vicarious seduction via Sarah Miles’ wanton character, Vera – Barrett’s manipulations reveal him to be a sadistic man, perhaps even a psychopath, looking with superior disdain on the upper-class and, in his perception, their complete lack of substance whilst simultaneously dragging Tony down to his decadent level.

Tony’s own masochistic streak feeds these manifestations of destruction. The job he once had, the fiancée whose love he possessed and the elite nature of his privileged place in society all go down the drain when the roles of master and servant are reversed.

Other roles Bogarde played in that same decade are all the more remarkable because in the late 1940s and throughout the 50s, Bogarde was never really taken seriously in his métier. He was the romantic leading man, to be sure, owing to his good looks and expressive eyes. Many of his films in that era did not call for subtlety, like the popular “Doctor” series of comedies (1954-1963), which only required Bogarde to look cute as a medical practitioner and to woo lovely ladies like Brigitte Bardot (as seen above in 1955’s Doctor at Sea), Shirley Eaton and Samantha Eggar.

Even after the success of his leading role in A Tale of Two Cities (1958), Bogarde’s craft didn’t begin to take its unique shape until he made the groundbreaking thriller Victim (1961, pictured above). Playing a gay barrister in a still-repressed England (homosexuality was against the law there until 1967), Bogarde was willing to play a role which most of his contemporaries probably would have considered career suicide. This choice of character correlated with Bogarde’s own homosexuality, though he never discussed that aspect of his life publicly, not even in the seven memoirs he published between 1977 and 1995.

As the 1960s continued and changed into the 1970s, Bogarde moved more and more towards art cinema. Surveying his filmography, you see a variety of entertaining and oftentimes daring titles made by bold directors: The Mind Benders (1963, pictured first) by Basil Dearden (who had worked with Bogarde earlier in Victim) (also: The Mind Benders has the encouraging tagline “PERVERTED… SOULESS! [sic] The Most Dangerous and Different Motion Picture Ever Brought to the Screen!”); King & Country (1964), Modesty Blaise (1966) and Accident (1967) by Joseph Losey (again); Darling (1965) by John Schlesinger; The Fixer (1968) by John Frankenheimer; Justine (1969) by George Cukor; The Damned (1969) and Death in Venice (1971, pictured second) by Luchino Visconti; The Night Porter (1974, pictured third) by Liliana Cavani; Providence (1977) by Alain Resnais; Despair (1978) by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Dirk Bogarde concluded his career with the Bertrand Tavernier-helmed drama Daddy Nostalgia (1990).

As I wrote at the top of the post, I’ve seen few of Dirk Bogarde’s noteworthy films. I hope to remedy that now that I have experienced (if not necessarily “enjoyed”) The Servant.

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