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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » The Birthday Party (1968) (Blu-ray)
The Birthday Party (1968) (Blu-ray)
Kino // Unrated // September 5, 2017 // Region A
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Randy Miller III | posted September 1, 2017 | E-mail the Author

Casual fans of director William Friedkin will instantly recall his more well-known films like The Exorcist, To Live and Die in L.A., and The French Connection, or slightly more obscure fare like Sorcerer, Cruising, and...uh...Good Times. His films have often been lightning rods for controversy, thanks to the director's attraction to dark subject matter and his bristly reputation behind the camera, but Friedkin is an easy director to admire for his willingness to take risks and an obvious love for cinema as an art form. This "easy to admire" stamp has naturally transferred over to many of his films during the last 50+ (!) years...but "admire" and "enjoy" are two entirely different words, so your long-term feelings for Friedkin's body of work may hinge on what exactly you want out of your moviegoing experience.

Case in point: The Birthday Party (1968) is an easy movie to respect, but one that consistently keeps viewers at arm's length with stilted, almost random dialogue and characters that abuse one another constantly. Not that it shouldn't, of course: based on Harold Pinter's 1962 play, Friedkin's film is a faithful adaptation of difficult subject matter whose screenplay was written by Pinter himself, and its well-rounded cast---many of whom were extremely familiar with the source material---was hand-picked by both men. Filmed for under $700K and starring the bankable Robert Shaw (already an established presence, but The Sting and Jaws were still a few years away), The Birthday Party nonetheless failed to connect with audiences at the time but has grown in stature during the last five decades.

Most of The Birthday Party seems to follow the fate of Stanley (Shaw, in fine form), the lone guest at a run-down seaside boarding house owned by Meg and Petey (Dandy Nichols and Moultrie Kelsall). Stanley, a former touring pianist, has been staying there for the better part of a year, and his relationship with the owners has become unusually personal. The Birthday Party sets us off balance almost immediately, and things feel even more unsettled after the arrival of McCann and Goldberg (Patrick Magee and Sydney Tafler), two mysterious men who are after Stanley for unknown reasons and, with the help of Meg, decide to throw him a birthday party which he's adamantly against (it's not even his birthday, after all). What follows during the next 24 hours is a tense, chaotic, and at times frustrating examination of authority and compliance, served with heavy amounts of symbolism and a circular ending that offers no clear answers. Simply put, The Birthday Party is a uniquely turbulent film that will either attract or repulse its audience.

On a fundamental level, it's hard to hate: well-crafted and smartly shot, The Birthday Party often crackles with tension as certain characters exercise their own levels of authority over one another. The claustrophobic boundaries of this boarding house are rarely broken, and there's no background music or narrative to guide viewers along the way. While I appreciate the bold stances that films like The Birthday Party take, mere appreciation for committed performances and tight direction can't change the fact that this is a thoroughly unpleasant experience in almost every sense of the word: though delivered with conviction and not without highlights, the dialogue feels purposefully absurd and, even worse, doesn't reveal any truths that couldn't have been obtained in half the time of its 123-minute lifespan. It's the kind of film that really seems to wear on instead of build momentum and, while some viewers may be more tolerant of its flippant attitude and unsavory characters, The Birthday Party feels like an event I should've passed on.

Regardless, die-hard fans and curious newcomers will at least be glad to see The Birthday Party on Blu-ray (apparently, it's the film's Region 1/A home video debut), which features a fairly solid 1080p transfer and an enjoyable interview with Friedkin. Unfortunately, the rough audio and lack of optional subtitles---which may have played a major role in my dislike of the film---are two major strikes against what might otherwise be a decent catalog release.

Quality Control Department

Video & Audio Quality

Presented in a slightly expanded 1.78:1 aspect ratio (I'm assuming the original framing was 1.85:1), The Birthday Party looks good in high definition with a few small nitpicks. On one hand, it's hard to judge the film's visual merits: I never saw it theatrically or even on DVD, so comparisons or comments about its accuracy are all but impossible. Either way, image detail is relatively strong and, despite a few contrast and black level fluctuations along the way, The Birthday Party is at least generally consistent from a visual standpoint and looks exactly as you'd expect for a film of its era. Dirt and debris are occasionally present but hardly distracting, as this seems to be a very clean print. The only mild issues were what appeared to be slight ringing (edge enhancement?) during a few opening shots, as well as a mild amount of noise at times. Overall, what's here will satisfy die-hard fans, even if there's some room for improvement.

NOTE: The compressed, resized screen captures featured on this page do not represent Blu-ray's native resolution.

This Blu-ray's DTS-HD Master Audio mix splits The Birthday Party's one-channel audio into a 2.0 spread, but I can't say I'm all that impressed with how it sounds. To be fair, the hollow and occasionally shrill dialogue is probably limited by its source material---and while there's little to no hissing or pops that distract along the way, many of the conversations can be tough to decipher the first or even second time through (also due to some of the regional accents). To make matters worse, no optional English subtitles have been included; this has been a problem on other Kino discs (including Richard Lester's How I Won the War, which suffered similar problems), and that almost makes this a deal-breaker for all but the film's most die-hard fans. It's a tough one to follow already, and this only makes things worse.


Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging

The static menu includes separate options for playback, chapter selection, and bonus features, with quick loading time and minimal pre-menu distractions. This one-disc package arrives in a standard keepcase and includes poster-themed artwork and a promotional booklet highlighting other Kino Blu-rays and DVDs.

Bonus Features

There's only one extra, but it's a good one: a mid-length Interview with director William Friedkin (25:03), who seems to be in very candid, entertaining, and self-promotional spirits here. Among other topics, Friedkin talks about making his first film (a 1962 TV documentary, The People vs. Paul Crump), seeing Harold Pinter's play for the first time, meeting him in 1967 to pitch this adaptation, securing funds and assembling the cast, having Pinter on set every day, disappointment at the box office, authority vs. weakness, friction with director Joseph Losey, ping-pong and hoops with Robert Shaw, The French Connection's interrogation scene, adding in a few lines of dialogue, and his love of ambiguous endings. It's a fine interview and, if I'm being completely honest, quite a bit more enjoyable than the film itself.

Final Thoughts

Well-acted, unpredictable, and loaded with symbolism, William Friedkin's adaptation of The Birthday Party is an easy film to admire but a hard one to actually love. It's filled with characters that have no real identity, are driven largely by blind emotion or habit, and have the tendency to not make a lick of sense at times. I can't say it's a film that I'll revisit very often, although the strong performances and confident direction make this worth a once-over for curious parties. Kino's Blu-ray features a good 1080p transfer and excellent bonus interview with Friedkin, but the rough-sounding audio and complete lack of optional subtitles will be a major problem for some viewers. Rent It.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.
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