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The Birthday Party
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The Birthday Party was originally presented on stage in London in 1958 Legendary playwright Harold Pinter (The Homecoming) became an overnight sensation and is now recognized as one of the greatest talents in contemporary English literature. The Birthday Party has been described as a comedy of menace... a dramatic exposé of contemporary man s inability to cope with his fears and guilt. The story centers around a shabby seaside boarding house in England where a seemingly inane and trivial conversation suddenly transforms from humorous to terrifying. The second feature film directed by the great William Friedkin (The Exorcist, The French Connection) stars Robert Shaw (Figures in a Landscape, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three) and Patrick Magee (A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon).
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And a horror film this is, really. Pinter himself wrote the screenplay; it's a faithful adaptation of his stage play, and does not need to be "opened up" for a cinematic treatment. The reason for this is its intensely claustrophobic story, a character study with the focus on dread and disintegration.
Shaw, who begins as a sloppy, angry, down-on-his-luck drifter in an unnamed British seaside resort, undergoes a startling transformation in the course of the work, thanks to the ministrations of Magee and another character of insidious intent played by the well-known British stage actor Sydney Tafler.
The action is confined to the interior of the resort, run by a middle-aged woman--another excellent stage actress, Dandy Nichols, does a great turn in this role. It's Pinter's "weasel under the cocktail cabinet" psychology operating at full blast that gives this work its tremendous power. The fast, dark and frequently blackly funny verbal exchanges provide a momentum that does not flag, straight to the end.
A powerful film indeed.
Robert Shaw portrays Stanley as a hideous wreck of a man who is gradually transformed into something credible. Throughout he is bitter, defensive, and contrary to everything in the world he has adopted as his own. There is nothing he likes, nothing he takes pleasure in. He's just a nasty sort of person who seems destined to do something ill-conceived to get his head caned in. Then two men, McCann and Goldberg, appear and take a room for a couple of nights. They clearly know Stanley and proceed to rough him up a bit when they get him alone. Stanley acts as if he has been expecting these two for quite some time. His resignation to maltreatment at their hands is quite disturbing, but not entirely unsurprising.
Patrick Magee, who played the Marquis de Sade in the film adaptation of "Marat Sade" is truly threatening as McCann. His sheer presence on screen is demonic. His eyes steel into you and you feel fixed in your place by his animal stare. There aren't many actors who do this bit as well as he. As Goldberg, Sydney Tafler is actually far more dangerous than McCann. His diabolism is shrouded in a hyper-friendly, articulate, obsessively well groomed mensch. He insists that Stanley celebrate his birthday with all his friends. The arrival of the dippy, highly impressionable Lulu (Helen Fraser) does nothing at first to calm Stanley's nerves. Eventually, however, she wakes him up into his Self, after a fashion. It is quite a shock seeing Lulu all tarted up amidst the sexless crowd at the party. More than anything else, she is the one who terrifies Stanley the most. Her lack of self-consciousness about her body further puts the spike in his neck.
This is simply a great film for observing how daily routines can come to get at some people. Also, how being removed from your safety zone can sometimes shock you into behaving like an entirely different person provided the elements are all in place. It really is a horror film of the highest order. It demonstrates the sinister aspects of the every day quite wonderfully.
A brilliant film. 5/5.