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The Birthday Party

****
1968

‘…faithful to the letter of play, dragging things out for a painful but rewarding two hours plus…’

Harold Pinter’s plays are ideally suited to the intensity of live theatre; William Friedkin’s 1968 adaptation of Pinter’s boarding house domination-fest is one of the best examples of the good cinematic transfer. Described as a Comedy of Menace, The Birthday Party is not recommended if you’re looking for ideas about hosting a celebratory bash; it’s dour, sinister and uncomfortable to watch, much as the maker intended.

Friedkin was heading for the A-list of directors, with The Boys in The Band and The French Connection on their way in the next few years. He got an ideal cast; Robert Shaw is one of the great screen performers, and works wonders as Stanley, an introverted man who is hiding out in a dingy seaside bed and breakfast that rarely has visitors. Until two men, Goldberg and McCann arrive, played by Sydney Tafler and Patrick Magee. What’s going on? Is Stanley a terrorist, or a criminal, or an innocent man being terrorised by two hoods? Pinter plays his cards close to his chest; even the landlady (Dandy Nichols) and her husband can’t quite get a handle on things. But Stanley’s birthday party is a working definition of an ordeal, with asides and jibes eventually crystallising into violence during a party game, and a bitter coda demonstrating the emotional cost of the evening.

Pinter extrapolated The Birthday Party from a conversation he’d had; Stanley’s description of his career as a concert pianist is lifted from real life, although in both the play and the film, it’s almost certainly a lie. No-one is telling the truth here, and that’s part of the issue; Pinter pre-dates the Fake News era by giving the characters and the audience little to hang on to. Ambiguity runs rife; the claustrophobic setting is oppressive, and Friedkin is faithful to the letter of play, dragging things out for a painful but rewarding two hours plus.

For a director best known for his blockbusters, Friedkin knew how to film a play; fans of his later Killer Joe will find the same nailed-down quality here. Although the Blind’s Man Bluff sequence goes over the score with chroma-key that’s very 1968, this is a strong record of some blazing acting, with Shaw, Nichols and Macgee all on top form. It may not be a lot of laughs, but it’s a key play in 20th century theatre, and The Birthday Party is well worth returning to in 2020.

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  1. Well, have to say being a fan of Shaw, and having read the premise in your post as well as your review, I’m sold😊 Like yesterday though this will probably be a hard one to find for me 😊

    • Yup, it’s not easy to find, and that link is for DVD rather than streaming; I’d watch Shaw in anything, but this is a good play to boot…

  2. One of the greatest plays of all time suitably adapted to the movies. You can’t quite capture a theatrical atmosphere that was pure sinister but this is a mighty good attempt. Shaw always at his best when baleful.

    • Baleful! That’s the bon mot here. I feel Shaw has a ‘how the mighty have fallen’ feel here, we have to believe he was a big enough shot to merit this kind of attention…

              • Chainmail chafes my delicate skin. A good armani 3 piece suit made from the skin of my enemies usually works well for me. That way, after I’m done drinking their blood, I don’t let the rest of them go to waste.
                Waste not, want not, that’s my motto.

                  • I’m a big believer in recycling 😀

                    Now, are YOU a recycler? I haven’t seen a lot of recycled reviews on this site and I’m beginning to wonder if you’re going to use up all the “original” in the whole universe?

                    • Well, don’t come crying to me when all the “original” gets used up and there’s none left. You’ll have no one but yourself to blame…

                    • That seems more like a threat than a promise to me. Besides, without my eyeballs, how’s my brain going to watch anything?

                      Ha, maybe if my brain is eternal then I can turn into some sort of mind leach and live vicariously through my victims. I can see possibilities. I have to ask, are you willing to take responsibility though when I get it wrong the first few times and leave a trail of thrashing victims in my wake?

                    • I guess you can’t make an omelette without leaving a few thrashing victims in your wake. I’ll attack an old webcam to your brain so that you don’t miss a thing. Not a threat, a promise!

  3. I agree that the part where the lights go out doesn’t work today. It was the one really jarring part. And as big a fan as I am of Robert Shaw, I can’t help feeling he’s miscast here as Stanley. Shaw just doesn’t project a lot of vulnerability.

    • I can see the issue with Shaw, but don’t feel Stanley has to be weak. Just a man in hiding. Shaw is such an unconventional presence, it works for me that it’s hard to work out what kind of person he is. But that chromakey…

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