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The Birthday Party

Monday March 1, 2010 in 60s cinema | harold pinter

GOLDBERG: Your wife makes a very nice cup of tea, Mr Boles, you know that?
PETEY: Yes, she does sometimes. Sometimes she forgets.
MEG: Is he coming down?
GOLDBERG: Down? Of course he’s coming down. On a lovely sunny day like this he shouldn’t come down? He’ll be up and about in next to no time. And what a breakfast he’s going to get.

By the end of the 1960s Harold Pinter was building an impressive record of film screenplays, including his collaborations with Joseph Losey (The Servant in 1963 and Accident in 1967), the Pumpkin Eater (1964) and The Quiller Memorandum (1966). Now already ten years old, his first full length play The Birthday Party was finally made for the cinema in 1968. It starred Robert Shaw as Stanley Webber. Shaw also appeared previously in The Caretaker (1963) making him perhaps the definitive interpreter of Pinter on film.

The Birthday Party has an interesting pedigree. It is directed by William Friedkin, who was later responsible for The French Connection and The Exorcist. Both of these energetic films are a stark contrast to what is essentially a faithful record of a claustrophobic stage experience. The film’s producers Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenburg were responsible for the run of first class horror films made by Amicus films in the sixties and seventies. The roles of Friedkin, Subotsky and Rosenburg are quite fitting; The Birthday Party is essentially a horror story.

  • Dandy Nicholls in The Birthday Party
  • Dandy Nicholls and Robert Shaw in The Birthday Party
  • Patrick Magee and Sydney Tafler in The Birthday Party
  • Patrick Magee and Robert Shaw in The Birthday Party

The cast also includes Dandy Nicholls (from Till Death Us Do Part) as Meg Bowes, landlady of the sorriest of seaside boarding houses. She is superb, as are Sydney Tafler and Patrick Magee as Goldberg and McCann, the most menacing of house guests. Moultree Kelsall as Petey and Helen Fraser (Bad Girls) as Lulu complete the line up, and for anyone familiar with the play this is a very faithful version. There is a timeless quality about The Birthday Party, and whilst Friedkin’s direction (though mostly restrained) reveals some 60s indulgences (most notably in the opening sequence with the camera moving in on the wing mirror of Goldberg and McCann’s car and the backing soundtrack of ripping paper) Pinter’s dialogue does not date.

The Birthday Party offers various snapshots of haunting pasts, most disturbingly Stanley Webber and his vague portrayal of a former life. Although essentially a filmed play and little more (only Petey’s life as a deckchair attendant is seen fleetingly, chairs neatly and uniformly arranged), the performances are strong enough to hold the attention by merely suggesting what has happened in the past; here Stanley offering fragmentary snapshots culled from his mysterious history: his musical talent, its positive reception, the champagne that followed, his absent father:

STANLEY: I had a unique touch. Absolutely unique. They came up to me. They came up to me and said they were grateful. Champagne we had that night, the lot. My father nearly came down to hear me…. But I don’t think he could make it. No, I-I lost the address, that was it. Yes. Lower Edmonton.

Robert Shaw, an actor probably now best remembered for Jaws and his stint as a Bond villain, portrays this introspection perfectly.

Pinter’s themes of alienation, persecution and torture are vividly sketched out in The Birthday Party. Apart from Shaw, the other standout actor in the film is Sydney Tafler, who plays Stanley’s eventual nemesis Goldberg, a man who relishes his memories in the form of the anecdote. The refuge of the anecdote is the basis for Goldberg’s entire routine, this charming, smooth and potentially dangerous gentleman:

GOLDBERG: When I was an apprentice …my uncle Barney used to take me to the seaside, regular as clockwork. Brighton, Canvey Island, Rottingdean…we’d have a little paddle, we’d watch the tide coming in, going out, the sun coming down – golden days, believe me.

A stable past is personified by the kindly Uncle Barney, who Goldberg proceeds to describe as a well respected “impeccable dresser. One of the old school.” A pattern is very clear: the importance of place names that connect with memories, a figure from the past worthy of respect and admiration, usually the suggestion of a rose-tinted past, the faded “golden days”. If insecurity of the present needs such constant reinforcement, then the uncertain atmosphere prevalent in The Birthday Party unquestionably highlights this. Even Goldberg and McCann, Stanley’s interrogators, virtual torturers and eventual abductors, have their moments of uncertainty. Of all British cinema of the sixties, this film is the least assured of the supposedly bright decade.

Leslie Halliwell gave The Birthday Party only 1 out of a possible 4 stars and described it:

Overlong but otherwise satisfactory film record of an entertaining if infuriating play, first of the black absurdities which proliferated in the sixties to general disadvantage, presenting structure without plot and intelligence without meaning.

By 1968 Halliwell’s perceived golden age of cinema had already ended. Oddly, like the characters in The Birthday Party, he was stuck in the past.

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