The Birthday Party

Studio: Kino Lorber Studio Classics

Sep 11, 2017 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


William Friedkin’s adaptation of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party is a weird film. It’s a film that’s almost impossible to make sense of the first time you watch it, and subsequent viewings don’t offer any answers or solutions. Normally, such admissions would and rightly should cast doubts on said reviewer’s ability to appreciate such an abstract film, but Friedkin himself says that it’s a weird, nonsensical movie on this new reissue of the 1968 film.

The film tells the tale of a boarding house on a British seashore, one inhabited by a middle-aged couple and a lone boarder, Stanley (Robert Shaw), a troubled man who seems to be a burned-out night club pianist. A pair of mysterious gentlemen, Goldberg (Sydney Tafler) and McCann (Patrick Magee) asks to be boarded, and Stanley is deeply, deeply troubled by their arrival and their presence. The landlady Meg (Dandy Nichols) insists that it is Stanley’s birthday, and that the men should join them in having a party for him. That night, at the party, the two men begin to interrogate Stanley, their menace growing ever stronger, while the mystery remains unanswered: who are these men? What is Stanley’s story? What did he do and what is he running from?  The film ends the next morning when they take Stanley away, and Meg’s husband Petey (Moultrie Kelsall) yells out, “Don’t let them tell you what to do!”

If that ending seems confusing, it’s meant to be. One is never exactly sure of what is real and what isn’t; for instance, Stanley’s pianist background is dubious; at first, he says his career led him to play big halls throughout the European mainland, which he then follows by saying he played in a nightclub in England, to saying he once played a recital to a handful of people. The admission is disorienting, as it instantly betrays the viewer’s trust in the film’s protagonist. But it doesn’t stop there; nearly every scene in The Birthday Party does this sort of trick, and when the film ends, one has no clue as to what they’ve just watched, as the story itself is so convoluted and confusing, with no clear narrative. Further viewings reveal nothing; if anything, they only make the story even more puzzling.

In the interview included on this release, Friedkin—who would soon have worldwide success with films both psychologically haunting (The Exorcist) and straightforward (The French Connection)—says that this production was a pet project, and he feels a special connection to The Birthday Party and its weirdness. His advice is one should wade into the film and treat it as water, allowing it to envelop you, even as he admits that the film is nonsensical and absurdist.  What does it all mean, then? This reviewer has no clue; perhaps, though, that is exactly the point.

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