The Birthday Party
Disheveled, unemployed Stanley resides in a dingy boarding house in an English seaside town. The house’s owners view him as something of an adopted son, though he proves prone to mood swings and ramblings and seethes with angst. One day, two men named Goldberg and McCann arrive. They claim to want to board, but Stanley suspects something more sinister. Spoilers follow.
Indeed, their motives are sinister, though unclear. They plan to throw Stanley a birthday party, though Stanley insists it’s not his birthday. Prior to the festivities, they interrogate Stanley to the brink of madness. By party’s end, they break him.
The next morning, a clean-shaven, well-dressed Stanley emerges from his room with Goldberg and McCann. Unable to form words, Stanley alternates between pained squeaks and mute silence. He leaves with Goldberg and McCann.
Director William Friedkin’s third production afforded him a crash-course in dramatic filmmaking thanks to a taunt script, stacked cast, and competent crew.
Adapting Harold Pinter’s play, Friedkin leverages innovative camera-work to liven the single-room setting, including POV shots, a bird’s-eye view, and shifting to black-and-white photography whenever the lights go out.
But Friedkin isn’t afraid to let his cast carry a scene. Robert Shaw convinces as tortured Stanley, while Patrick Magee menaces as ape-like heavy McCann, and Sydney Tafler flips between congenial charm and sinister menace with unsettling ease as Goldberg.
But it’s Dandy Nichols who disappears into her role as the lonely middle-aged boarding house owner that grounds the film. A fearless performance given her character’s unflattering lighting and grating dialog. It’s the contrast between her verisimilitude and McCann and Goldberg’s absurdity that heightens the film’s sense of dread.
Indeed, Friedkin and Pinter evoke a nightmarish atmosphere with allusions to paranoia, authoritarianism, and conformance, but the oblique nature blunts its impact.
Pinter seems aware, as Stanley, full of menace, says, “Tell me, Mrs Boles, when you address yourself to me, do you ever ask yourself who exactly you are talking to?”