“The Birthday Party” is William Friedkin’s screen adaptation of Harold Pinter’s 1958 play, a claustrophobic, frenzied tale of a surly British boarding house lodger terrorized by two interrogators from something called “The Organization.” It was one of my favorite plays in college, and the only Pinter film adaptation I could not find on Netflix, so I was excited to find it at Video Room. (I have yet to watch the later film adaptations of Pinter’s “The Homecoming” and “Betrayal,” as well as “The Servant,” “Accident” and “The Pumpkin Eater,” which he wrote the screenplays for).
There isn’t much of a “plot” to “The Birthday Party,” just an overhanging theme of dread and malice disrupting the lives of rather dull, placid people. The film opens with Meg (Dandy Nichols), the somewhat dotty, portly matron of the boarding house, chirping away in her kitchen at her bored, barely present husband, Pete (Moultrie Kelsall). She dotingly calls him “Petey” and the teapot “potty,” and says obvious and/or pea-brained things, such as “Corn Flakes are refreshing–the box says so!” The house’s sole lodger, Stanley, is played by fierce, watery blue-eyed Robert Shaw, later known for his coldly vicious turn as the villain in “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” and as the eccentric shark hunter in “Jaws.”
At first, it seems as if Stanley will be the “villain” of “The Birthday Party.” He’s a pretty grim fellow, hardly caring to socialize with the talkative Meg; in fact, he’s rather taunting, calling her “succulent” and capriciously yelling at her about the state of the house. But when she informs him that two new lodgers are set to arrive that day, his foul temper turns to panic, and he goes into hiding. The two men in question turn out to be McCann (Patrick Magee) and Goldberg (Sydney Tafler), and immediately upon entering the boarding house, they are awfully inquisitive about Stanley. They tell Meg that they intend to throw him a birthday party, though throughout the rest of the film, Stanley insists that it isn’t his birthday.
Pinter is not one to tie up his self-imposed mysteries neatly. He keeps the true identity of his characters ambiguous. Are McCann and Goldberg, who keep threatening to take Stanley to someone named “Monty,” authority figures or goons? Did Stanley do something wrong or are they after the wrong guy? This confusion hardly matters; the delight of the play and the movie comes from the absurdity of the menace on display. McCann and Goldberg harass Stanley with a barrage of random questions, ranging from “Why did you kill your wife?” to “Which came first: the chicken or the egg?” Goldberg–the Jewish one, no doubt–refers at one point to “gefilte fish.” At the birthday party, they suggest a game of “Blind Man’s Bluff,” a sort-of blindfolded freeze-tag. Meg’s gift to the befuddled Stanley is a toy drum, which represents a sort of death rattle, or at least a signal that something ominous is afoot: at the end of Act I, Stanley beats it with grim determination; later, Meg beats it with the same humorless expression, and then the drum gets stepped on and ripped apart. All of this is as bleakly funny as it is unsettling.
At times, “The Birthday Party” comes off like a filmed play, and badly filmed at that; the actors step off frame, and the camera sluggishly follows them. But generally, Friedkin has done an outstanding job opening up the play, and some of his tricks serve to heighten the tension in ways that a theatrical production cannot. For instance, there is the sound of ripping paper over the opening credits, a harsh, off-putting sound to be sure, that immediately puts the viewer on edge; that very paper-ripping turns out to be McCann’s favorite hobby. The quick-cut close-ups of McCann and Goldberg’s smooth, calculating faces, contrasted with Stanley’s sweaty, frantic, unkempt face, as they interrogate him, underscores the scary hilarity of the situation. During the blindfold game, Shaw is spun around before he is blindfolded, and the camera follows his dizzy, stumbling point of view; later, the screen goes black, mirroring his blind terror. And most effective of all, Friedkin shoots an entire sequence of Shaw bleating in horror, with the only lighting provided by blue flashlights.
In his December 10, 1968 review of “The Birthday Party,” the New York Times’ Vincent Canby criticized the movie for being at once too “literal” and stagy in its adaptation (“It’s a movie that doesn’t really have a life of its own”) and yet too over-reliant on cinematic trickery (“There are some self-conscious lapses—scenes shot as if seen by one’s foot and an irritating view of the party as apparently seen by a fly on the ceiling.”) This is perhaps unfair, as without those “lapses” the film would indeed lack a “life of its own.” Though Friedkin was criticized for celebrating flash over substance in later projects like “The French Connection” and “To Live and Die in L.A.,” here he approaches the dark, ambiguous material with subtle relish, embellishing the most absurd parts of the play with just enough restraint so as to not turn the material into farce.
The film, while far from perfect, is certainly worth saving from obscurity, as it is one of the earliest Pinter adaptations, and one that had a wide-reaching influence on aspiring artists. And not just playwrights: it is widely believed that the excellent, terrifying Australian noise rock group The Birthday Party, led by the still-prominent Nick Cave and a crucial part of the No Wave movement, got its name and quite possibly its sonic mood from the Pinter play. As far as I know, it is not available on DVD, though the entire film can be viewed in sections on YouTube.
Pinter died in 2008, at age 78, from liver cancer. I would love to know what he thought of the film adaptation. As for Friedkin, he doesn’t regard “The Birthday Party” that highly. In his words, from a 1997 Venice Magazine interview with Alex Simon (reprinted recently on The Hollywood Interview blog):
“By the time I did The Birthday Party, I had a couple films under my belt. I was very self-critical about them and now I was working with a tremendous piece of material that was not necessarily cinematic, but very stage-worthy. But that was a great experience. Pinter was on the set all the time. Very supportive. I had a great cast: Robert Shaw, Patrick Magee, Dandy Nichols. I’m reticent to talk about them because they’re such early efforts and have very little value, those first three films. I think the kindest word you could use in describing them is ‘crude.'”