Posts Tagged ‘harold pinter


“No dancing or singing. They just talk.”

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.


“It’s poison. Every part of it is poison.”

The Go-Between (Joseph Losey, 1970)

In Losey’s oeuvre,  there’s a recurring and clearly discernible theme of the setup, the characters’ lives, being torn to pieces by a scheming and assertive visitor/intruder figure. As well as Bogarde’s Servant, there’s Robert Mitchum in Secret Ceremony, Helmut Berger in The Romantic Englishwoman– I could go on almost infinitely. The Go-Between rather stands out, therefore, as the visitor is an innocent abroad who gets torn to pieces by his hosts.

For those unfamiliar with L.P. Hartley’s classic novel, Leo is an old man recalling the summer of 1900 when he, a lower-middle-class widow’s son, is invited to the aristocratic estate of his classmate Marcus. He comes to idolise Marcus’ big sister Marian (Julie Christie), and when Marcus is laid up with measles he is delighted to learn that he can win Marian’s favour by taking letters to and from one of their tenant farmers, the bluff Ted Burgess (Alan Bates).  The trouble is that Marian is to be married to Viscount Trimingham (Edward Fox) and the household becomes increasingly aware that there is something going on. Things end fairly catastrophically.

Film and book capture the experience of a lazy childhood summer, where you have no real concept of time and time therefore stretches into infinity. The camera follows Leo as he dawdles around the corridors and kitchens of the huge house, the fields and woodland of the estate. It’s one of those Losey films, like Secret Ceremony, where the house is one of the stars and the camera pans through it slowly with awe and reverence. The succulent reprint now showing at the NFT renders vivid the panoramic views, the straw hats and blazers, the wasps hovering over the tea and scones. There are some striking shots of Leo running off to the farm, the camera zooming out to take in the gardens, the surrounding lakes and forests, until Leo is a tiny speck and we can see for miles. (Sitcom fans might enjoy seeing Trigger’s bit part as a dandy gent with Lennon penny glasses and a Proper moustache, and young Marcus went on to play Herr Flick in Allo Allo.)

The film also captures the experience of visting a new household as a child; the grown-ups make pleasantries, you’re instinctively drawn to wander and explore, but find that you’re constantly breaking unwritten rules and having to have things explained to you. Leo doesn’t speak the lingo and is left mystified by the customs explained to him. The dogs have names like Dry Toast and he must not fold up his clothes, but leave them “wherever they fall” for the servants to pick up. Later, he brings Edward Fox onto the subject of blame when female infidelity leads to duelling and is succinctly told that “nothing is ever a lady’s fault”.

People talk a lot about our “animal half”. I’m never convinced that we’re not entirely animal under our veneer of cutlery and fine clothes and water closets, but we expend a lot of energy convincing ourselves that this is the case. This genteel family are ideal territory for Pinter, with whom the unsaid is what matters. Trimingham would never be so crude as to discuss his finacée’s affair with her father. He merely suggests Ted Burgess as a ripe candidate for army recruitment. Even Ted finds the disclosure that Leo and Marian sometimes “sit together on a sofa” the height of sauciness.

Pinter and Losey poke fun at the omnipresent repression when the house and the villagers have their annual cricket match, Pinter’s beloved sport used as an unsubtle metaphor for sex. As the aristocrats bat, Edward Fox hits precise little strokes- the ball stays close to the ground, carefully directed into the perimeter hedges. The spectating boys praise his “culture and discipline”. When Alan Bates steps up to bat, he lunges wildly. The ball soars miles into the air, travels long distances, lands in a crowd of ladies. “Ooh, he’s terribly savage”, they remark.

When Leo runs a small errand for Trimingham -ironically- he finds himself dubbed ‘Mercury, messenger of the gods’. And indeed these people are gods to him, with their charm and their croquet and their Brideshead lifestyle. But the instant he tries to stand up to them, by trying to resign from his position of ‘postman’, Leo realises he has been in a nest of vipers the whole time. The smiling, slightly patronising Christie who buttered him up with cakes and trips to Norwich turns into a bullying harridan. Alan Bates keeps his cool but uses blackmail nonetheless; “You’ll make her cry, you know. And she won’t be the same way with you anymore”. On the other hand, when he struggles to defend their secret from Marian’s mother (an unforgettably vicious Margaret Leighton) she bullies him too. Leo is trapped and turns to rituals of his own, sneaking out in the night to cast amateur spells with the deadly nightshade in the outhouses.

The emotional climax of the film comes as all this repression can no longer be contained. Leo’s birthday is greeted with thunderstorms. The household sits around, cutting the cake, waiting for Marian. A carriage is sent and comes back- Marian was not where she said she was going. They know very well where she is, but they sit and wait and listen to the thunder, a forlorn sight with their party hats and crackers. When it all gets too much, Margaret Leighton loses her marbles and drags poor Leo through the torrential rain, telling him “You will show me where she is” until they reach their destination of the outhouses. This is the moment Michel Legrand’s ominous score warned us about as we grazed on cucumber sandwiches. The beast is out of the cage and it’s genuinely frightening.

What they find is a fully clothed Alan Bates fucking Julie Christie atop a bale of hay. Leo finally finds out what “spooning” is. In the context of this buttoned-up world, admittedly, her bare leg and thigh are more of a jolt than her numerous nude scenes in a flippant pop film like Darling, but it all feels a bit banal. If the society is setting up this most basic bodily function as the greatest imaginable horror, it is surely setting itself up for a spectacular fall.

Good as it is, The Go-Between is the least heralded component of the great Losey/Pinter trilogy. I can think of a couple of reasons for this. One is the casting of the lead parts. The Servant and Accident benefit from Dirk Bogarde, most gifted actor of his generation. Alan Bates and Julie Christie are fine Premier Division actors, but in this film they play tempestuous star-crossed lovers without moving you very much or eliciting much feeling. Julie Christie is a unique one- she’s got the jawline of a rugby player but her radiant self-confidence, and the rather belittling way in which she flirts, render her attractive. It’s just that there’s something a little workmanlike about their performances here.

Also, the other two films were based on little-known novels. I haven’t read Mosley’s Accident but The Servant ain’t up to much, and Pinter was able to gut it altogether and construct something of his own. He originally told Losey he could not deliver a script for The Go-Between as the novel was “too perfect”, and there’s a feeling that they’re handling the contents with care. There’s a good gag about horses kissing but for the most part Period Pinter finds his voice diluted. He never really bares his teeth.

How to show the story as an old man’s flashback? There’s a bit of Marienbad-ish experimentation going on. With increasing frequency, scenes of this hot summer will be interrupted by brief shots of a man in a bowler hat and grey mac, under grey skies- getting a taxi at Norwich station, getting out of the taxi to visit a graveyard, being shown into a cottage by a maid. Older Leo’s most famous one-liners are delivered by Michael Redgrave (for Older Leo is he) off-camera as Young Leo rides through Norfolk in a horse and cart. The ambition is sophisticated, but whether it works is debatable. With no exposition, the flash-foward is simply confusing until late in the film when we’ve become accustomed to it.

The final, devastating scenes are in the present day- in the intervening 70 years, oddly, the boy of 12 has become Michael Redgrave and Julie Christie has become Julie Christie in such heavy make-up that she has the wrinkles of a 90-year-old. Redgrave has little to do, but he is very moving. His face simply says it all- what kind of a life he’s had, how being back in Norfolk is torture. He is frozen. As we’re discreetly shown how it ended -Alan Bates sitting with a shotgun, blood dripping from his head- and taking in Old Leo’s pain, Julie Christie natters on about how lucky Leo was to witness their special love affair and how privileged he should feel to have helped a wonderful, beautiful thing blossom and her deluded untruths amplify the sick-to-your-stomach horror of it all thousandfold. Leo leaves her, and his taxi passes the stately home where it all happened. You think of all the places from your past that you hope never to see again, and you remember wide-eyed, trusting and vivacious Leo, and see how he turned out, and unless you have a heart of stone you weep. The taxi does not stop.

Most Losey characters find they cannot bear a dessicated life of isolation, so hand themselves over to another person and are inevitably sliced up like sushi. Michael Redgrave’s face suggests that the alternative is no better.

July 2018
« Nov