Two British mobsters (Patrick Magee, Sydney Tafler) drive a mob deserter (Robert Shaw) mad at a seaside resort. Cinematography by Denys Coop (John Schlesinger's A Kind of Loving, Lindsay Anderson's This Sporting Life).
You've got to appreciate a film that's brazen enough not to hand anything to the audience. Where some films like to spell everything out, lay everything bare and dumb itself down. Other films want to be dense impenetrable works and confound those norms by forcing the audience to actively participate. Such is the case with William Friedkin's adaptation of Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party starring Robert Shaw. The audience is given little to nothing to work with beyond a collection of arresting performances and sharp dialogue to suss out the mystery behind the scenario and the characters involved.
Stanley (Robert Shaw) lives a shabby existence at a boarding house in a seaside British community. He doesn't seem to work. He doesn't seem to go anywhere. His relationship to Meg (Dandy Nichols) the mistress of the boarding house is unorthodox while her husband is off to work. It's a stale routine. But things are upended when two lodgers Shamus (Patrick Magee) and Nat (Sydney Tafler) arrive to stay at the house. Apparently, they're there to throw a birthday party for someone, possibly Stanley himself - but Stanley smells a rat. As he engages in conversation with the two mystery men, tensions flare and civilities strain as everyone in the room has more than their share of secrets and sordid histories to hide.
Like any number of Pinter plays, The Birthday Party is loaded with incredibly paced and intricately layered dialogue exchanges. The plot doesn't move by action but instead by a turn of phrase. What is being said isn't necessarily as important as how that bit of dialogue is being said. So much of Pinter's work as well as this film hinge on inflection and tone - or the complete lack thereof. As The Birthday Party is effectively one big long conversation with various players coming and going, it's easy to feel like you're being spun about without any rudder to guide you through what the hell is going on. It's borderline maddening at times as you desperately try to decipher what is happening and who everyone is in relation to one another. Perhaps the best way to encapsulate the experience of watching The Birthday Party is like jumping into a movie during the middle of its second act. Everyone and their relationship to one another and their goals have already been established leaving you to figure everything out on the fly.
As William Friedkin's second feature film, it's easy to see his stylings and pacing for dialogue exchanges come to life. His love for long takes without any cutting allow for some searingly tense dialogue exchanges. He directs and films dialogue like others direct intense action sequences. There is a choreography and a pace to the characters' actions or inactions, their tone of voice, their mannerisms that feels like a pot of water about to boil in intensity. Every conversation simmers and bubbles at its own pace leaving you in a constant state of anticipation. It's a breathless experience because you're waiting for things to boil over, for things to spill out, and just when they're about to - the conversation cools and eases only to repeat the process. It's exhausting but thrilling! You never want to look away.
Similarly to the experience of watching something as gut-wrenching as Friedkin's The Boys in the Band, The Birthday Party can leave you on the edge of your seat in anticipation and tension. However, no easy release is ever given. Where something like The Boys in the Band or even later in Friedkin's career with Bug, there is a release. There is a finality. That pot of water eventually bubbles, boils, and spills over and the mess is made. For The Birthday Party, in keeping with the source material, no real release is given. You just sit there. The film's final moments don't even feel like a true ending, merely the beginning of a third act we'll never see. What happens to Stanley? Who are Nat and Shamus? We'll never know and you'll just have to accept that.
It's on that note that you're either going to love or hate The Birthday Party. I'm on the "love" side of things - but that's only because I love great dialogue exchanges. As a film experience, it's deeply unsatisfying because there is no traditional beginning or end to this story. It's just an incredibly tense and exhausting middle that doesn't give the audience any sort of resolution. That said, this is Robert Shaw in his prime. As a playwright himself, the man is in his element as the mysterious Stanley. Equally impressive is Patrick Magee and Sydney Tafler as Shamus and Nat respectively. When the three men are truly going at it, when their exchanges are at their most heated, you can almost feel Friedkin offstage just letting the camera roll - he dare not cut or interrupt because these terrific performers are doing some of the best work of their careers. The Birthday Party may not be the most accessible film ever made, but damn it all if it isn't intense and engaging. If you don't mind a notable measure of constant confusion about the story and plot, this film is a long intense conversation well worth eavesdropping.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Birthday Party arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber and their Studio Classics label. Pressed onto a Region A BD-25 disc, the disc is housed in a standard Blu-ray case and comes with a booklet containing cover artwork for other Studio Classics release. The disc loads directly to a static image main menu with traditional navigation options.
Fans of vintage William Friedkin should breathe a sigh of relief with this 1.78:1 1080p transfer. Famous for his love of unnecessary color timing changes as seen with The French Connection and The Boys in the Band, Friedkin evidently didn't get his hands on this film as there doesn't appear to be any unnecessary color shifts or contrast pushes. While far from being a totally pristine print, it does look pretty damn good. The only quibble on my list is some softness issues and a lack of depth at times. But again, for a film of this vintage, that's a pretty minor gripe. When things look great, generally in close-ups, the detail levels are spot on allowing you to see and appreciate every stitch of Stanley's shabby clothing or the beads of sweat on his forehead as the conversation gradually becomes more and more heated. Colors are a bit on the drab side without much of a primary punch - but that's largely by intent. The brief moment where Stanley goes outside and stands on the stoop is bright, colorful, and beautiful offering a stark contrast to the drab and life-sucking interior he spends most of his time in. Aside from some slight speckling there really isn't any notable print damage to report.
As great as the video presentation for The Birthday Party is, I, unfortunately, can not say the same about the audio with this English DTS-HD MA 2.0 mix. Given the swift pace of the dialogue exchanges with some thick accents, the audio can become unfortunately very muddy and difficult to hear at times without punching up the volume significantly. Age has taken its tole as its a very soft mix with a tinny flat quality to dialogue and scoring. Additionally, hiss can intrude making some of the softer dialogue exchanges all the more difficult to appreciate and only compounds when you frequently have to keep adjusting your levels. Without knowing the state of the elements, I can only guess this was the mix Kino was handed and weren't given any chance to make adjustments. It's a shame really because this is such an impressive cast that it's distracting when you can't hear what they're saying.
The bonus features package may not be very robust, but what's here is noteworthy. Any day you get to hear Friedkin talk about his films is a good day and the interview he gave for this release is a solid example and probably better than any audio commentary could provide. Also includes a bunch of trailers.
Interview With Director William Friedkin (HD 25:04) Any interview with Friedkin is a good one. The man is filled with stories and behind the scenes dramatic anecdotes. I dearly wish this interview was longer as in just 25 minutes it's packed to the gills with interesting material. Even if you're not much of a fan of the film, you should give this interview a look just the same.
How I Won The War Trailer (SD 3:13)
Butley Trailer (SD 2:57)
The Homecoming Trailer (SD 2:35)
The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three Trailer (HD 2:32)
The Man in the Glass Booth Trailer (SD 2:44)
The Birthday Party may be a bit thick for some, but for those who don't mind a healthy dose of confusion with their mysteries, this film is an engaging and riveting experience. William Friedkin gets a lot of mileage out of his cast and Robert Shaw delivers one of his best, most-unhinged performances of his career. You may not always know what the heck is going on, but the film is a worthwhile ride just the same. Kino Lorber Studio Classics brings The Birthday Party to Blu-ray with a solid video transfer, an unfortunately strained and aged audio mix, as well an intriguing interview with director William Friedkin with a collection of trailers to round out the bonus features. Fans of the film should be happy to have this one, newcomers are warned that this isn't the most accessible film ever made and should expect a level of constant confusion. Taken as a whole, The Birthday Party is worth a look on Blu-ray.