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  Birthday Party, The Many Unhappy Returns
Year: 1968
Director: William Friedkin
Stars: Robert Shaw, Patrick Magee, Sydney Tafler, Dandy Nichols, Moultrie Kelsall, Helen Fraser
Genre: DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Pete Bowles (Moultrie Kelsall) has a job at the seafront hiring out the deckchairs, and lives a quiet life with his wife Meg (Dandy Nichols) in their boarding house, where they have but one tenant, the unemployed musician Stanley Webber (Robert Shaw). He is still in bed when Pete gets back for his breakfast of cornflakes, fried bread and a cup of tea, preferring to bury his nose in the newspaper than make much conversation, which leads Meg to resort to waking Stanley by rushing up the stairs, bursting into his room and jumping on the end of the bed. He's not exactly delighted with this rude awakening, but it is just something he must put up with if he considers staying here a comfortable idea - but someone is on their way to shake him up.

You couldn't call Harold Pinter's play The Birthday Party his first hit since famously when it was first performed around ten years before this film adaptation, which he also scripted, it was slated by the critics and left audiences baffled, but he was evidently on to something. When it was revived, it began to draw more favourable attention as part of the Theatre of the Absurd, a movement more interested in presenting human interaction as either sinister or impossible to fathom when events around them were to all intents and purposes illogical. There were few more menacing that Pinter, who penned such works as The Caretaker and The Homecoming that soon saw him the toast of the stage establishment while resulting in audiences walking out of theatres going "huh?"

But in a good way, since there was a definite texture and quality to Pinter's writings that had you thinking you may not be one hundred per cent clear about what you had just watched, but you could not say it was flimsy or inconsequential as the talent was evident, and should you catch a performance with a cast who really understood what was expected of them, as American director William Friedkin did here, the effect was striking. The actors in this case were plainly relishing the opportunity to get their teeth into what was at the time a modern literary classic, with Shaw especially enjoying his gamut of emotions to prove he could really handle this thespian business and hold his own against a heavyweight like Pinter. Friedkin notably refused to open it out, keeping this suffocating and claustrophobic.

It would presumably have that effect in a decent staging, therefore it was that experience of uneasy intimacy with people you would rather not be so close to - you can almost smell their breath - that was concocted; little wonder that so many found it a turn off, often accused to being a fair at best recreation of what was more accomplished in a live venue. There was certainly truth in that as the film did wear you down with its perhaps too-vivid atmosphere of a seedy boarding house where any joy has been replaced completely by desperation. Yet there was something peculiarly British about that, the sense of not just relationships between individuals but between the whole society having gotten thoroughly sick of one another and resorting to either teasing to get a reaction or outright intimidation and even violence.

As if those opening scenes were not awkward enough to sit through, when the two men arrive to see Stanley a new threatening timbre enters the encounters. They seem jovial enough, Nat Goldberg (Sydney Tafler) the avuncular Jew and Shamus McCann (Patrick Magee) the nervy Irishman, edging towards the stereotypes British playwrights had lazily fallen back on for ages, but there's a twist as if Pinter was allowing them to get their own back on the characters who were normally their unspoken betters. When they hear it is Stanley's birthday today (which it may or may not be) they demand he has a party that evening, and it is in that lengthy sequence that Friedkin's approaching skill with fright scenes on display in The Exorcist comes into its own, deliberately disorientating and taking the dread of socialising at a celebration to bizarre and grotesque extremes. Everything after that rumbled inexorably to Stanley's doom, demonstrating the sheer hell of getting along with others when they choose to dominate the situation in ways you cannot control. No fun, but you may discern a keen disquiet.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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William Friedkin  (1935 - )

American writer/director who has struggled throughout his career to escape the legacy of two of his earliest films. Debuted in 1967 with the Sonny & Cher flick Good Times, but it was the gripping French Connection (1971) and phenomenonally popular The Exorcist (1973) that made Friedkin's name and influenced a whole decade of police and horror films. Since then, some of Friedkin's films have been pretty good (Sorcerer, the controversial Cruising, To Live and Die in L.A., Blue Chips, Bug, Killer Joe), but many more (The Guardian, Jade, Rules of Engagement) have shown little of the director's undoubtable talent.

 
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