It is a story of Tony (James Fox), a wealthy aristocrat who hires a lowlife servant named Hugo Barrett (Dirk Bogarde, who won a BAFTA for his performance). Initially, Barrett does well at his job, but the relationship shifts as Barrett manipulates and corrupts Tony and dominates the household. Tony attempts a rebellion but in the end, he loses and remains subdued to his manservant for good.
One of the film's main fortes is its gorgeous black-and-white cinematography by Douglas Slocombe. It also touches on the topics of social position versus psychological strength.
- The Alcoholic: In the film's first scene, Tony is sleeping off "too many beers at lunch", thereby presenting Barrett with one of his avenues of attack for the final act of the film when he makes Tony completely dependent on him by getting him stinking drunk on a daily basis.
- Ambiguously Bi: Both Hugo and Tony, necessitated by the time period. They have relationships with the same woman (Vera), but Tony is almost immediately dependent on Hugo and doesn't take kindly to Susan insulting him. His clear dependency on (and attraction to) Barrett becomes clearer after Susan leaves him.
- Antagonist Title: Hugo Barrett is a definite villain here.
- Creator Cameo: Writer Harold Pinter appears as one of the restaurant patrons in the middle of the movie.
- Descent into Addiction: While Tony seems to have a predisposition towards drinking too much (he's passed out drunk in the first scene), Hugo gets him drunk on a daily basis until he's clearly an unraveling alcoholic.
- Film of the Book: Based on the novella by Robin Maugham.
- Foil: Hugo Barrett and Tony. One is a somewhat blank aristocrat, the other a charismatic manservant.
- Generic Guy: Tony lacks distinctive character features.
- Grim Up North: Vera and Barrett are both scheming employees from the north of the UK, with distinctive northern accents. Tony lives in London and speaks in perfect R.P.
- Haughty Help: Barrett is a subdued example, but he is extremely passive-aggressive, dislikes Susan (the only member of the household to challenge him), and destroys Tony's sanity.
- Hitler Cam: Used on Barrett in the very first scene to show how the balance of power will play out for the rest of the film; Tony lies snoozing in a chair while Barrett towers over him, shot from near floor level.
- Home-Early Surprise: Tony and Susan catch Vera and Barrett having sex in his bed. Barrett is manipulating the situation so that he and Vera, on the brink of being fired, will confess that Vera and Tony were having an affair, and break up Tony's relationship with Susan.
- Homoerotic Subtext: A lot between Barrett and Tony.
- Honey Trap: Part of Barrett's scheming involves having his girlfriend Vera seduce Tony (who believes Vera is Barrett's sister). When Susan finally persuades Tony to fire Barrett after catching him in bed with Vera, Barrett snarks that sleeping with Vera is something he and Tony have in common, causing Susan to break off their engagement. Once Barrett is re-hired, he has Vera pretend she is still in love with Tony, who eventually capitulates and re-hires her as well.
- Hidden Disdain Reveal: It gets revealed in parts to Tony that this is how Barrett feels about him, such as when they hear Vera and Barrett mocking him, and then more so at the end.
- Job Title
- Manipulative Bastard: Hugo Barrett, as played by the suave and sinister Dirk Bogarde. Tony's relationship with Susan is at something of a crossroads, so Barrett destroys it by having Tony hire his "sister" (actually his girlfriend) Vera as a maid, then having Vera seduce him. When Tony fires Barrett after finding him and Vera in bed together, Barrett retaliates by revealing Tony's indiscretion with Vera in front of Susan, who breaks up with him. Knowing that Tony can't manage on his own for long, Barrett gets himself re-hired by pretending that Vera double-crossed him as well, whereupon his manipulations through drink and psychological abuse accelerate until he has Tony completely at his mercy while he and Vera (whom Tony has also re-hired) live off his money.
- Men Can't Keep House: When Barrett and Tony live together without a woman, the house descends almost immediately into squalor, and Barrett makes it clear that he thinks of cleaning as "beneath" him. It's likely, however, that this is only a manipulation tactic from Barrett to get Tony to rehire Vera as the maid.
- No Hero to His Valet: It is clear Barrett has no respect for Tony, even before his true nature becomes obvious.
- Only One Name: Not by chance Tony's surname is not mentioned. While the antagonist is Hugo Barrett.
- Precision F-Strike: When Barrett phones Vera with the news that he has persuaded Tony to take her on as a maid, a group of young girls hammer on the sides of the phone box with growing impatience. When Barrett exits the phone booth, he shouts "Get out of my way, you fucking bitch!" to one of the girls (this being 1963, the offending words are partially drowned out by a vehicle, but what he says is still clear).
- Relatively Flimsy Excuse: Barrett introduces his girlfriend Vera into the household by pretending she is his sister.
- Rule of Symbolism: When they play games, the servant Barrett has to play "uphill" while Tony gets the apparently superior position.
- Servile Snarker: Barrett has a few moments when his manipulative nature starts to come through.
- Wounded Gazelle Gambit: In a crossover with Playing the Victim Card, Barrett pretends to have been deceived by Vera, who has apparently stolen his money, to manipulate his way back into Tony's life and house.