The Birthday Party (William Friedkin, 1968)
From the Losey trilogy onwards Harold Pinter’s custom-made screenplays are, of course, cornerstones of cinema. But there are also the film adaptations of his theatrical works, which are by necessity geared more towards the specialist. Losey’s biographer suggested that JL never took on a Pinter play because it would have been an “away fixture”, and certainly the plays, magnificent though they are, are also hampered by what they are.
They’re written for the stage, action almost entirely constrained to one room, with opportunities to “open out” the play severely limited; unless you want to rewrite the play, which would rather defeat the original point. There’s this one, the second feature from the man who shortly afterwards directed The Exorcist and The French Connection; there’s the equally low-budget versions of The Caretaker and The Homecoming by Clive Donner and Peter Hall; there’s a rarer-still film of Betrayal with Jeremy Irons (I think).
The Birthday Party is very early Pinter. These days his mid-to-late period, from Old Times onwards, strikes me as more sophisticated but the early “comedies of menace” were the ones that blasted a hole in the ceiling of theatre. This play is rich, mysterious, affecting and infused with a language that dazzles.
If you can get past the idea that it’s Filmed Theatre rather than full cinema, this version is actually rather stylised and quite cinematic. The opening titles are shown to the driver’s view of a Rolls Royce gliding silently through the ghost town that is Worthing on a 60s Sunday morning, scenes are broken up with panoramic views of the pier and pathos-addled shots of Petey tending to his deckchairs. Once the action’s taking place in Pinter’s Room, composition, lighting and camera angles are set out in a fairly interesting way too.
Our set up is that the stoic Petey and the warm-hearted but simple Meg are ostensibly running a shabby boarding house. Stanley (Robert Shaw) appears to have been hiding out with them for some months and a girl called Lulu (rent-a-dollybird Helen Fraser from Billy Liar and Repulsion) sometimes pops round, though most of her scenes have been cut. A suave London Jew and an Irishman, Goldberg and McCann, come to the house. They interrogate Stanley, provoking a nervous breakdown, then take him away.
After the titles, we find ourselves in Meg’s filthy kitchen. As she hums to herself, the cornflake box is aimed at the bowl and most of them go over the table; an early indicator that she’s not all there. Petey comes home and for the first few lines of trite dialogue the faces are off camera, emphasising that their conversation is not a form of communication but a barrier to it. When we first see Meg’s face, the camera is in the living room and peering through the serving hatch. People are boxed in, confined.
Petey reads his paper, they chit-chat, the camera steers around the fried bread as if it’s likely to bite. When Meg ventures upstairs to see Stanley, the camera zooms out from a detail of the wallpaper. We rejoin Petey as clatter and laughters drifts down from upstairs. Robert Shaw gives Stanley his trademark rasp and air of dormant aggression. His clothes are filthy and he looks a little like Céline.
As Stanley eats his breakfast, he teases Meg and there seems to be a sexual undertone to all their interactions- she tickles him whilst trying to get a cigarette. He steps outside to smoke, but a plane overheard drives him back inside. It’s clear that the boarding house is a hideout for him when news of two newcomers makes him so agitated (“They won’t come, it’s a false alarm”). The big monologue about his past as a concert pianist is played without tricks; just a slow, gradual zoom into Shaw’s face as it leans on his hand.
The worldly Lulu and her Sandie Shaw bob make a brief appearance from the outside world, opening the window and curtains before declaring Stanley a “washout”. He flees through the back door at the arrival of Goldberg (Sydney Tafler) and McCann (Pinter/Losey favourite Patrick Magee).
McCann is sombre and pessimistic, always peering fearfully at the backyard and disgusting kitchen, whilst Goldberg has an air of relaxed authority in his grey tailored suit. He’s got the gift of the gab and his voice has a musical, yiddish twang (“Whadda lahvly flighta stairs”). Meg is enchanted. When the pair have popped out she gives Stanley his toy drum, and as his tension boils over the first act ends with his primal-scream banging.
Cut to McCann in the front room, tearing his newspaper into strips. It’s done with enervating slowness and the noise is heavily amplified. Stanley comes downstairs and tries to impose himself. McCann does not react until he declares his intention to leave, which causes a bit of brinkmaship. Why don’t you stay in? We’re having a party in your honour. Stanley now tries to establish his credentials as a harmless, obedient recluse, before pleading and making desperate attempts to ingratiate himself (“I know Ireland. The people have a wonderful sense of humour”). McCann’s poker face doesn’t flinch. Petey tells them he’ll miss the party as he has a chess match- more of a life of the mind than his wife.
Enter Goldberg. As he sits and delivers a monologue, the camera slowly circles him to reinforce that air of authority. He speaks with eloquence but there’s something not quite right about it; as he tells us about a bygone romance with a Sunday school teacher, we hear that “walking home, I’d tip my hat to the toddlers, give a hand to a couple of stray dogs”. Stanley tries the aggression with Goldberg too, refusing to shake his hand and posing as defender of Petey and Meg (“They’ve lost their sense of smell. I haven’t”).
Goldberg and McCann spring into action, coercing Stanley to sit down. The interrogation is shot with quirky angles, the two men standing either side of Stanley. From a top corner of the room, the camera will swoop down and around the armchair before zooming back out. There are rapid cuts between the three men. Once Goldberg and McCann manage to build up a rhythm, their speech flows like music. When they take Stanley’s glasses we see his POV, fumbling through a blurred field of vision until he falls. The interrogation seems largely concerned with sex, religion and guilt, culminating in a refrain of “Why did the chicken cross the road?” (sounds daft, but as a whole the piece is very poetic with plenty of word association and its own internal logic).
Stanley reaches his breaking point just about now. He screams and we see the interrogators’ faces before the camera, looking like the reflection in a spoon. There are jump cuts and weird angles aplenty as the three fight, brandishing chairs. It’s interrupted by Meg arriving in a red party frock, which has Goldberg gurgling with laughter. Meg is asked to deliver a toast, and McCann to shine a torch on birthday boy Stanley. Photography turns an oddly psychedelic sepia as the lights go out. Told to “say what you feel”, Meg ends up crying and not noticing that Stanley is still reeling.
Lulu arrives at the party. Goldberg does some more oratory and she clearly fancies him (“You’re empty, let me fill you up”). We zoom back from those two to see McCann vigilantly topping up Stanley’s whisky. Everyone focuses on getting drunk, there are lots of intrusive close-ups on perspiring faces, snatches of multiple conversations and it’s all mildly hallucinogenic. Lulu and Goldberg start snogging on an armchair whilst Meg and McCann talk at cross purposes.
“Have you ever been to Carrickmacross?”
“I’ve been to King’s Cross.”
Now in high spirits, the ladies decide that they would like to play a parlour game and someone suggests Blind Man’s Buff- perfect for the purposes of Goldberg and McCann. Meg is first to wear the blind- a soundtrack of heavy breathing and she caresses McCann before the blind is lifted “Oh, it’s you”. McCann’s POV next as he takes the blind and trashes the room. His hands grope, his arms flail, the camera jerks all over the place. The breathing is quite canine until he finally catches Stanley.
When Stanley becomes “it” we see a bird’s eye view of the room, Goldberg orchestrating the others’ movements, then the camera is level with the floor as Stanley is tripped up by the drum. McCann breaks his glasses. There’s a sudden blackout, gasps and a scream in the dark. More groovy sepia negatives when McCann finds the torch. It turns on Stanley, his hands around Meg’s throat. He whimpers and moans.
Cut to golden lamps on the pier and that almost still-life shot of deckchairs. Petey has finished his early morning shift and is heading home. The third act is very morning-after, giving the film a symmetrical feel (before/during/after). Meg has a headache and frets over the broken drum. Goldberg gives Petey a diagnosis of Stanley’s breakdown and dissuades him from calling a doctor. McCann comes down from the patient’s room, his sleeves rolled up, muttering that “I’m not going up there again”. He sits to polish his shoes as Goldberg ushers Petey back out to work.
For once it’s Goldberg who is tensed up. When McCann speaks out of turn he lunges at his friend with venom and throttles him. He tries to cheer himself up with more speeches and rhetoric, but it’s as if he’s realising their hollowness for the first time. Try as he might he cannot complete his sentence, “Because I believe that the world…”. It’s Pinter giving the boot, however unsubtly, to any ideologues in this world, anyone pretending that they know the solutions (an attitude we need to hold onto now the PM-in-waiting is telling us that removal of ‘big government’ will make everything perfect).
Goldberg falls back on tradition (“Who came before your father? His father!”) before going weird again and asking McCann to blow into his mouth. When Stanley reappears he is a zombie in a smart suit. This time the pair give him a “nice”, motivational version of the interrogation which appears to be all about religion. This time Stanley is dumb, obedient, and Petey’s climactic call of “Don’t let them tell you what to do!” falls on deaf ears as he is led into the car. The car speeds off into town and the camera swings back to Petey twitching his net curtain; a nice note of ambivalence from the director.
I first read The Birthday Party at the age of 16, loved it and went on to devour all Pinter’s plays- they had a profound influence on me. When I watched this film, I was no longer so sure about his stance. Is living in a starving artist’s shabby pit really so superior to wearing a suit and conforming to tradition? I suppose that the young wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they didn’t scrutinise and challenge everything that was handed down to them.
Anyway this version of The Birthday Party has the limitations of being designed for another medium, but it’s been assembled by Friedkin with not a little skill and in a way that only augments the sense of dread. There are some genial performances (particularly those of Goldberg and McCann) and it’s still far more of a film than something like In the Loop. It deserves to be better known.