The Birthday Party (1968)

*. You can come at Pinter from different directions. After some establishing shots of the beach here we go inside to have our noses rubbed in a filthy kitchen sink. As in kitchen sink realism. Even though Stanley refers to the place as a sty in the play, I never thought of the Boles’ boarding-house as looking quite this down-at-the-heels. But the play debuted in 1958 and England then was pretty down-at-the-heels.
*. I won’t argue the realism, but just note the approach. That kitchen sink is meant to set a tone. When we immediately get Meg talking about how “nice” everything is (or should be) the disjunction is striking. Decorum seems out of place in such a blasted environment. We suspect Meg to be only keeping up appearances.
*. A couple of names stand out. In the first place there’s William Friedkin directing. This was a few years before The French Connection and The Exorcist, so well before he was a name, and it was undertaken as a labour of love. As such, it sticks pretty close to the play (the biggest change is dropping Lulu from the third act) and lets the actors do their thing. Note the distance he keeps from Stanley when Meg tells him that two men are coming to visit. There’s only a very subtle cue there that this is not welcome news. Or note the way he keeps his distance from Meg when she channels Mary Tyrone and dreamily remembers being the belle of the ball, before drifting back to the kitchen. Those are both important moments, but Friedkin underplays them for effect.
*. Of course it’s a single-set play, and hard to film as being anything else, but Friedkin only rarely takes us outside the box and instead livens things up with high and low angles, some nice camera movement (turning about in the enclosed space), and slightly jumpy editing. The sound of McCann tearing the newspaper is amplified so that it seems, as it should, like fingernails going down a chalkboard.
*. The only misstep I registered was what Friedkin tries to do when the lights go out. I’m not sure what he was going for but the results just don’t fit with the otherwise drab realism of the presentation. It’s like we’re slipping into the Twilight Zone, and the language already does enough of that.
*. The other name that stands out is Robert Shaw. I’m a big fan of Shaw, but I have to wonder if he was the right choice here. Let’s face it, if you heard Shaw was going to be in one of Pinter’s comedies of menace you’d immediately peg him as one of the menacers. He’s a scary guy. And indeed he had played that role a few years earlier, appearing as Aston in The Caretaker. But as Stanley?
*. Well, it’s an interesting choice. He’s definitely cast against type. But . . . I just can’t buy him as the haunted and hunted Stanley. Especially with Patrick Magee as McCann, an actor who projects more frailty than threat. Even without his glasses it looks as though this Stanley could toss both Goldberg and McCann out the window.
*. My own personal favourite in the cast is Dandy Nichols as Meg. She really does nail the part, at least as I imagine it. She’s someone very aware that life has passed her by, but this hasn’t made her bitter and she’s not above making a bit of a fool of herself to grab some scraps of happiness. She’s a maternal figure in a world that appeals to notions of family but which has no functioning family structure. Instead there are only family parodies, like the boarding-house or the Organization.
*. Goldberg and McCann call to mind Vince and Jules in Pulp Fiction, though I doubt Tarantino, who was admittedly influenced by everything, was drawing on Pinter. The engimatic and menacingly absurd heavies go back at least as far as Max and Al in Siodmak’s The Killers, though I don’t know what their original might have been.
*. My own feelings toward Pinter have gone through stages. I guess I was a bit of a fan when I was a student, but then I got to thinking that there was actually less going on than I had thought. Watching him now I find myself coming around again. The weird or absurd elements have taken on a kind of life of their own, and Stanley’s predicament seems more archetypal and enduring. After some strategic delay Stanley is revealed as a lobotomized zombie not unlike what McMurphy is turned into at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Some of the questions in Goldberg’s badgering and obscure inquisition might prefigure Gene Hackman’s patter about picking one’s feet in Poughkeepsie in The French Connection. I even hear echoes of Goldberg and McCann’s stychomythia patter about how Stanley is going to be improved in the robotic lyrics to Radiohead’s “Fitter Happier.”
*. The final message is timeless too, though less for what it says than for its context. “Stan, don’t let them tell you what to do!” Great advice, but coming too late and from a compromised source. Not only has Petey backed down already (Goldberg has told him what to do), but in an added bit of stage business we’ve seen him pocketing Goldberg’s twenty pieces of silver (something not mentioned in the play).
*. So, yes, Pinter is still our contemporary. More than ever? We may be getting there.

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