Harold Pinter/William Friedkin: The Birthday Party (1957/1968)
Synopsis: Two men arrive out of nowhere to a rundown terraced house in Worthing, near Brighton, seeking retribution. They’ve probably got their facts wrong, and are likely picking on the wrong man, but in the world in which they move, there’s no one to care, and no one to put things right. The landlady thinks it’s Stanley’s birthday, but she’s got that wrong too, so his birthday party, with its whisky-fuelled menace and ensuing violence, is horribly misjudged. Stanley’s torment causes him to lose his mind and descend into a catatonic madness. The next day the two men take Stanley away, probably to murder him, as he’s no longer of much good to anyone.
This is about the 1968 film by William Friedkin of the play written by Harold Pinter in 1957. I’ve seen many stagings and filmings of this play, but none comes anywhere near Friedkin’s. I would go so far as to say his version is definitive, and unimprovable. And it’s also fantastically compelling to watch.
It looks at first glance to be a version of ‘Kafka meets the mafia’ — absurdist violence — but what affords the action its mysterious and unsettling dynamic is the fact that while the whole thing looks bizarrely unlikely, at the same time it also feels believably realistic, which leaves us, as the audience, pleasantly bewildered.
What’s it about? Stanley, a man in his late thirties, is living in a boarding house in an English seaside town. He is the only lodger. He is a mess, physically and psychologically. The house is run by Meg, a woman in her sixties, who lives with her husband Petey, a deckchair attendant. They live lives of everyday triviality and nothingness. But one day two men arrive to torment Stanley and ultimately to take him away. So we go from lukewarm breakfast tea and damp cornflakes to a kind of setpiece nightmare.
The men (Goldberg and McCann) are gangsters of a sort, and they’ve come to extract retribution. They’ve chosen Stanley, but they may well have the wrong man. But once you’ve been fingered — by someone, for whatever reason — there’s really no way out. Explanations are useless, and only…