Killer Joe (2012), both based on stage plays written by Tracy Letts who also wrote the screenplays for both films, William Friedkin has a knack for brining plays to the screen. Adapting a play isn’t always the easiest thing to do what with the task of keeping things interesting within the confines of limited settings (for the most part) and really only a handful of directors can pull it off with ease and make it look effortless. Probably the best example would be Hitchcock, who’s film adaptations of Rope (1948) and Dial M For Murder (1955) showcased masterfully how to transfer a play to film and while films like Lifeboat (1944) and Rear Window (1954) weren’t based on plays, several of the filmmaking techniques used in Hitchcock’s play adaptations are present. Back to Friedkin, even before his brilliant collaborations with Letts the man was no stranger to the stage having began directing opera’s in 1998 and continuing to do so to this day with great success. In 1968 Friedkin helmed The Birthday Party based on Harold Pinter’s second play of the same name with a script written by Pinter. While it may have only been his second non-documentary film, The Birthday Party not only showcased Friedkin’s talent for turning plays into films but also his ability to make audiences very, very uncomfortable.
Stanley Weber (Robert Shaw), the lone tenant at a seaside boarding house is informed by Meg, the landlady that two men have inquired about a room, news which Weber is taken aback by and seems rather nervous about. Meg also wishes Stanley a happy birthday, although Stanley insists that its not his birthday until the following month. When the two men, who go by the names of McCann (Patrick Magee) and Goldberg (Sydney Tafler) arrive later in the day Stanley immediately goes on defense and with good reason as the two being to terrorize him, interrogating him with a series of ridiculous questions. McCann and Goldberg are also informed by Meg of Stanley’s birthday and Goldberg insists that a party be thrown. Despite Stanley’s vehement protests, a birthday party is indeed thrown with events becoming more and more strange as the night goes on.
The go to term most often used to describe The Birthday Party is “comedy of menace” which is perhaps the most accurate way to describe this oddity. The Birthday Party is as humorous in certain scenes as it is horrifying in others and is quite often both at the same time. Perhaps the best example of this would be the “interrogation” scene as its usually referred to, never before have questions like “Why did the chicken cross the road?” and “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” been asked in such a psychologically traumatizing manner. The overall odd and random nature of the film makes certain scenes even more unsetting albeit in a perplexing way, for instance when a game of blind man’s bluff played at Stanley’s party, a scene which was strange enough to begin with, takes a sinister turn, at first in a slightly comedic fashion when McCann is playing, then becoming deadly serious when its Stanley’s turn. Even before McCann and Goldberg enter the picture there is a peculiar moodiness to the film, what with an early conversation between Stanley and Meg becoming more threatening in tone and the now iconic scene of Stanley performing an increasingly violent snare drum solo. Its important to note that save for the opening credits and the closing moments of the film, very rarely does Friedkin take the camera outside the boarding house, which, along with the precise direction gives off an uncomfortable, claustrophobic feeling throughout which is crucial to the films effectiveness.
The Birthday Party would also be the first of many times Friedkin would win the casting lottery. Interestingly, Pinter played a big role in the casting of the film and Friedkin would write in his memoir The Friedkin Connection that he felt the cast played it to perfection and couldn’t have been improved. One of the more brilliant things regarding Robert Shaw’s performance as Stanley is his ability to make Stanley a sympathetic character as he’s not exactly the most likeable of characters. Almost instantly after the introduction of his character he’s revealed to be irritable, rude and quick to insult Meg at every opportunity. Good as he is when it comes to those traits of Stanley’s, its later on in the film when Stanley is at a complete loss for words at the hands of McCann and Goldberg does Shaw really shine letting his facial expressions take over. Again, Shaw is flawless, but its Sydney Tafler and Patrick Magee who own the film as Goldberg and McCann. Tafler’s Goldberg goes beyond being “extraverted”, he’s overly chatty, radiates confidence and obviously fancies himself as a highly educated and cultured man and has the ability to go from friendly to fierce in a matter of seconds. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the stoic Patrick Magee as McCann who is imposing from the get-go and his curious demeanor contributes greatly to the general weirdness of the film. Just the sight (and sound) of him obsessively tearing strips of newspaper is bizarrely nightmarish.
Friedkin has stated that one of his upcoming projects is to direct The Birthday Party for the stage so when that finally comes to fruition it’ll be interesting to see how it compares to the film. Currently the film stands alongside Friedkin’s Rampage (1987) as well as the unrated version of Jade (1995) as being a more than deserving film that has yet to get a North American DVD release. Anchor Bay did release the film on VHS back in 2000 but for some reason not on DVD which is odd considering that the year before they released Friedkin’s still unfairly trashed The Guardian (1990) on both VHS and DVD. The film did however receive a DVD release in the UK which is now out of print and unsurprisingly goes for some pretty outrageous prices just like Anchor Bay’s long out of print DVD of The Guardian. The Anchor Bay VHS should be fairly easy to find via Amazon or eBay for good prices so thankfully the film isn’t impossible to get a hold of. The Birthday Party is perhaps forever going to be judged by how well it stands up to the play but as a stand alone film its not just a fascinating experience that exists within its own world and genre but also a shining example of Friedkin’s abilities behind the camera even at this early stage in his career.