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The Birthday Party (1968)

The down-at-heel lodger in a seaside boarding house is menaced by two mysterious strangers, who eventually take him away.



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Complete credited cast:
Shamus McCann
Dandy Nichols ...
Meg Bowles
Sydney Tafler ...
Pete Bowles
Helen Fraser ...


Based on Harold Pinter's enigmatic play about a border in a British seaside dwelling who is visited by two strangers. They torment him verbally, ask him idiotic unanswerable questions, force him to sit down and stand up, and give him a "party." Then, eventually, they take him away, a tongue-tied idiot. The trivial becomes the terrible, and with it a certain wonder, a certain pity. Written by alfiehitchie

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Release Date:

9 December 1968 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

A Festa de Aniversário  »

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(some sequences)| (Technicolor)
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Did You Know?


The movie was a passion project of director William Friedkin who called it "the first film I really wanted to make, understood and felt passionate about". He had first seen the play in San Francisco in 1962, and managed to get the film version funded by Edgar J. Scherick at Palomar Pictures, in part because it could be made relatively cheaply. Pinter wrote the screenplay himself and was heavily involved in casting. "To this day I don't think our cast could have been improved," wrote Friedkin later. See more »


Stanley Webber: How would you like to go away with me?
Lulu: What?
Stanley Webber: How would you like to go away with me?
Lulu: Where would we go?
Stanley Webber: Nowhere...
Lulu: Well that's a charming proposal.
Stanley Webber: There's nowhere to go, so we could just go, it wouldn't matter.
Lulu: We might as well stay here.
See more »


Referenced in Making the Boys (2011) See more »

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User Reviews

an odd cookie of a movie
1 February 2016 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

I think that Roger Ebert pinned this work down when he said that adapting the Pinter play would inherently cause some problems - what one can buy as a little more fantastical and hermetically sealed on a stage, where one can be just stuck with these two people on the 'job' with their assignment as Mr. Stanley Webber (Robert Shaw) is a little harder to buy in a film because the reality is different (at least in this case. While I would recommend the film to people, especially for those who want to seek out Friedkin's oeuvre, and it has some terrific performances, it is an exceedingly strange and odd sit.

The film is about... well, what is it really? I suppose it's about what happens to a man when he cracks under the weight of pressure and has a nervous breakdown, but that's the sort of main-ultimate point, if there is one. I felt like Pinter was challenging me and the audience, though to what end I am sure I don't know. Of course there is a great deal of suspense - what Shaw knows that the owners of the house don't about these two stranger-boarders (Patrick Magee, who you may recall as the Writer from Clockwork Orange, and Sydney Taffler who is really razor-sharp and wonderfully sadistic as Nat Goldberg) - amid this 'birthday party' which is now really on his birthday.

Of course this is what is called 'theater of the absurd'. And to this point there are a few funny moments, but I wouldn't necessarily call it a comedy, at least in Friedkin's hands. Perhaps it's because of the edge of Robert Shaw, who is probably the main reason to watch the film is for his startling performance that keeps an emotional through-line. When he first starts off in the movie he's mad at Dandy Nichols for... something or other (the tea, the corn flakes, the milk, for not, uh, talking to him in a particular way). One almost wonders if he's about to strike her, it's that sort of intense screen persona. But there's a lot more to his character and Shaw conveys this in this big early scene (he's also, I think, an ex-concert pianist or something).

You have to be set in the right frame of mind for this movie, and it definitely won't spoon-feed you easy dramatic answers to questions that are posed. By the end I was still not sure who Goldberg and McCann represented (my first thought was they were in some criminal organization - the "job" aspect made me think of a heist, and perhaps that's not that far from the truth by the very end, in a sense). Maybe it's a metaphor for how easily people can crack up, how manipulation and torture are so insidious, especially when pressed hard enough, and meanwhile the mostly happy old Mrs Bowles has her own dimensions too and works as a counterpoint for everyone else (she, along with her husband, has nothing to hide).

There's also some dazzling and bizarre camera and lighting choices, though these mostly come in the last couple of reels as the birthday party 'amps up' so to speak, with a camera at one point latched on to a character's head for dizzying perspective and when the lights go out at one point it's... I can't even. The point is, The Birthday Party is a good little find that is Friedkin in love with a piece of material that is bold, difficult and gives himself some chance to take what he learned directing television (I'm not sure if he did live theater but it wouldn't surprise me) into cinema and make it alive and thrashing. Whether it all makes sense is another story.

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