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Birthday Party, The

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    Ian Jane
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  • Birthday Party, The



    Released by: Kino Lorber Studio Classics
    Released on: September 5th, 2017.
    Director: William Friedkin
    Cast: Robert Shaw, Patrick Magee, Dandy Nichols, Sydney Tafler, Helen Fraser
    Year: 1968
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    The Movie:

    The Birthday Party originated as a stage production written by Harold Pinter that debuted in London in 1958. Widely regarded as the play that brought his career to the forefront of the live theater scene of the era, this work stands alongside material by David Campton, Nigel Dennis, N. F. Simpson as one of the most frequently cited examples of a 'comedy of menace.' Printer himself wrote the screen play and was involved in the casting of the picture - which is at least part of the reason that it serves as such a successful adaptation of the source.

    The story is set in a boarding house located on the coast of England run by Meg (Dandy Nichols) and Petey Boles (Moultrie Kelsall). Their sole boarder is a middle-aged man named Stanley (Robert Shaw) who one day receives two visitors in the form of Goldberg (Sydney Tafler) and McCann (Patrick Magee). Around the same time, the neighbor, Lulu (Helen Fraser), arrives with a toy drum for Stanley, offering it to him as a birthday present. From here, Goldberg and McCann insist on hosting a party for Stanley who all the while protests that, no, it's not actually his birthday at all… yet they continue to push, after all, it's what Monty and 'The Organization' want.

    Produced by Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky (the men behind Amicus!) and an early directorial effort from none other than William Friedkin, The Birthday Party is, not surprisingly, quite a stagey picture. The vast majority of it takes place inside the boarding house, which is hardly the most thrilling of locations, but it allows the audience to focus on the talented cast as they do what they were hired to do. The performances really make this, Shaw in particular is fantastic here, his character increasingly irritated by these unexpected guests. If the situation provides the comedy, Magee and Tafler provide the menace. We don't quite understand just what it is they're after, but they're interesting characters. Goldberg is the talkier of the two, while Magee seems to be there to make sure things go as they want. Both men deliver fine work, with Moultrie Kelsall and Dandy Nichols offering fine supporting performances in their own right.

    Shot without a score or background music of any kind, the film has a decidedly strange tone to it. It's comedic, but for reasons that don't always make sense in terms of how traditional comedy plays out. The dialogue that occurs between the characters is amusing but it almost doesn't matter because frequently it doesn't actually tie into what's happening to Stanley. Time, place and language all seem very liquid, giving the whole thing a decidedly absurdist bent that actually works quite well. This isn't a flashy looking film at all, the whole thing takes place inside the house save for the opening and closing sequences, but it is nicely shot. It's stagey at times, as you'd expect, but the characters and performances are so strong it doesn't matter.

    The movie was a commercial flop, but it's gone on to build a cult audience of the years. And rightly so. The film holds up well not just as an adaptation of an important play, but also as a darkly comedic mix of tension and horror with underlying violence. As such, it is quite funny but so too is it tense and gripping.

    Video/Audio/Extras:

    The Birthday Party is presented on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition presentation on a 50GB disc (with the feature using up roughly 27GBs of space) framed at 1.78.1 widescreen. The transfer, while more than watchable, doesn't offer perfect fine detail and at times actually looks a little soft. This could be the way it was shot or it could be the result of an older scan being used, it's tough to say. Close up shots are the most impressive, detail here is actually quite good. Colors look decent enough, though this is a drab film by nature so keep that in mind. Black levels look good, the film's grain structure is left intact and there are no noticeable problems with compression artifacts, edge enhancement or noise reduction. This is certainly better than DVD would be able to provide, but it also leaves room for improvement.

    The only audio option on the disc is a DTS-HD 2.0 Mono track in English, there are no alternate language options or subtitles of any kind provided. There's mild background hiss here and there and times where the dialogue is muddy, even when the characters appear to be speaking clearly. There are spots where dialogue is intentionally mumbled, you can't fault the disc for that, but the audio could and should have been better than it is here.

    The main extra on the disc is a twenty-five-minute-long interview with director William Friedkin in which he talks about how he first became aware of the play that the film was based on and why he decided to turn it into a film. He also talks about the shoot, some of the cast members he worked with on the picture, going up against Robert Shaw in a game of ping-pong and quite a bit more! This is quite interesting and well worth taking the time to appreciate.

    Aside from that we get trailers for a few unrelated Kino properties on Blu-ray, menus and chapter selection.

    The Final Word:

    The Birthday Party will probably be more appealing to those with a pre-exiting affinity for Pinter's writing but even if you don't fall into that camp, there's enough to like here to make it worth seeking out. Shaw's performance in particular is excellent, and Friedkin's direction even at this early stage in his career is very strong. Kino's Blu-ray release is of okay, if hardly perfect, quality while the bonus interview with Friedkin a very welcome addition to the disc.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!




















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