William Friedkin’s second film was an adaptation of The Birthday Party, one of Harold Pinter’s first plays, making this a watershed moment in the career of both artists. Friedkin apparently loved the play, and really succeeded in bringing it together as a film, paving the way for The Night They Raided Minsky’s and The Boys in the Band, which together cement him as one of the most underrated adapter of plays in New Hollywood. Despite a stately opening that takes us through the streets of Brighton, Friedkin stays close to Pinter’s script, which unfolds in a decaying seaside boarding-house, shot through with all the grotty, dreary, abject textures of the kitchen-sink movement, but transplanted from the working-class to a lower middle-class backdrop. Virtually the entire film takes place in a single room – the dining room of the boarding-house – and focuses on the relationship between two groups of characters. On the one hand there is Meg (Dandy Nichols) and her husband Petey (Moultrie Kelsall) who run the boarding-house, along with Stanley (Robert Shaw), their long-time (and only) resident, who has become a kind of surrogate son. On the other hand, there are Goldberg (Sydney Tafler) and McCann (Patrick Magee), a pair of mysterious visitors who arrive at the boarding-house for an unspecified purpose, and gradually unleash havoc upon Meg and Stanley in particular.
While the play and film occur early in both Friedkin and Pinter’s careers, their respective styles are fully-formed here, as Friedkin works hard to complement the “comedy of menace” that Pinter pioneered with his first batch of works. Pinter was brilliant at producing a creeping and amorphous unease, which Friedkin immediately establishes through anarchic, tipsy camera work, moving lopsidedly through spaces, and often leaving characters’ faces out of critical scenes or exchanges. For the most part, the film is driven by rhythm more than narrative, as Pinter periodically returns to the moment at which apparently quotidian bickering reaches a point of sudden existential intensity, and everything goes silent, before the scene eventually resets, but with less certainty than before. As a result, the sense of normality gradually deteriorates and decays, as everyday conversations loom with an ambiguous import that regularly breaks out into escalating crises and then recedes, as Pinter marvels at the ability of the English middle class to normalise crisis – or presents the middle class as normalised crisis.
In other words, The Birthday Party is a work of kitchen-sink existentialism – a study of English commonplaces and their relation to the unconscious. Cliches, platitudes and throwaway phrases are repeated, denatured and then circulated over and over again, as the English taste for euphemism, circumulocution and “tact” gradually evoke some unformulated horror lying beneath the most banal of utterances: “How often do you meet someone it’s a pleasure to meet?” As conversation succeeds conversation, each character exudes a barely contained hysteria with no clear or immediate cause, while it takes longer and longer for normality to resume after the silent interludes when the characters are left with no option but to avert their eyes from one another. Combined with the wintry opening shots of Brighton, and the desuetude of the boarding-house itself, society seems to be coming undone before our eyes, as the connective tissue of polite middle-class discourse dissociates under its own pressure.
This atmosphere intensifies when Goldberg and McGann arrive, since they start subtly torturing the guests into an even more pronounced sense of dread and doom. As their ambiguous “project” escalates, all the banal minutiae of middle-class life seem to be building towards some inexorable catastrophe or apocalyptic exhaustion – an apocalypse that sometimes appeared to have already occurred, leaving these five characters as the sole remnants of a middle-class experiment that went drastically wrong. While the film as a whole has a very different register from Fawlty Towers, Friedkin and Pinter traffic in exactly the same drab, aspirational, middle-class backdrop as John Cleese and Connie Booth’s series, painting a portrait of English culture as a pathologically polite compulsion to continually talk around things. Pinter has a brilliant ear for all this, precisely attuned to the small details of English parlance, and especially sensitive to the capacity of polite middle-class discourse to “reset” – to subsume incongruity, disruption and abjection back into a seamless veneer of normality.
Insofar as Goldberg and McGee have a project, then, it is to challenge the capacity of middle-class English discourse to absorb even the most grating sounds and gestures back into its own pervasive politeness. To that end, Friedkin continually juxtaposes fluid and jagged surfaces, sounds and textures, starting with the opening sequence, which sets a liquid tracking-shot down the main street of Brighton to the grating sound of newspaper being torn. This early shot paves the way for a series of abrasive sounds that are progressively reincorporated into an increasingly fluid mise-en-scene that subsists on the voracious silence that the two visitors both rupture and intensity. Even at this early stage in his career, you can see Pinter realising the power of silence in his dramatic lexicon, where it often speaks louder than dialogue. For the most part, there’s no difference between dialogue and monologue here, as the characters all use conversation to retreat into their own private anxieties, effectively speaking in silence.
In order to evoke this fluid silence becoming more flexible and elastic with every attempt to thwart it, Friedkin resorts to a remarkable variety of strategies to prevent The Birthday Party ever seeming stagey – an incredible achievement given that the action all unfolds in a single room. From start to finish, the film feels like a genuine chamber drama, rather than a filmed play, as Friedkin significantly expands his directorial vocabulary from his debut feature to make this room feel both as dynamic and claustrophobic as possible. Although we spend the whole film in the room, it’s almost impossible to get a sense of its dimensions, since it seems to expand, contract and contort with each new encounter. Additionally, the room is full of alcoves, nooks and crannies, with the result that it looks completely different from different angles. At times, I wondered whether Friedkin had changed the dimensions of the set subtly from scene to scene, or whether the room was just inherently difficult to visually navigate.
As the film proceeds, Friedkin further distorts this room by playing around with how the characters perceive it, only shooting the room in its totality during a manic game of Blind Man’s Bluff. Even these expansive shots serve to disorient us further,however, as Friedkin alternates between a distorted 360-degree perspective and an extreme bird’s-eye perspective that positions us twenty or thirty metres above the action, and so discorrelates us from the realistic dimensions of the room at the very moment at which the camera seems to be providing them. Add to that a series of “point-of-view” shots from the blindfolded characters – that is, a black screen – and a stylised black-and-white depiction of the room with the lights off, and the spatial and visual coordinates of the room deterioriate completely in the wake of this macabre Blind Man’s Bluff outing, as the film stock itself starts to decay and warp, and the dialogue completely devolves into a plethora of abstract, abrasive sounds.
As we reach the final scenes, the community at the boarding-house starts to feel like a nuclear family that has gone awry, unable to rely on the silence around them to function as polite connective tissue between their different hopes and aspirations. As both the enforcers and disruptors of this middle-class nucleus, Goldberg and McGee try to impress upon Stanley how their fathers taught them respect, but struggle to articulate a properly paternal lineage for their wisdom: “Who came before your father but your father’s father’s mother?” In the final moments, Stanley grows totally catatonic, struggling to speak, and to get the words out, until he grows red in the face, as Friedkin translates his frustration into a series of otherworldly electronic noises that presage the Tangerine Dream soundtrack in Sorcerer. Rarely has a director so perfectly fulfilled a playwright’s vision as in these final scenes, and rarely has a director been so underrated in his ability to do so as Friedkin, in these first films of his career.