Pinter was one of the groundbreaking playwrights that emerged out of the 1950s,
along with Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, and a handful of others. They changed
the landscape of what audiences could expect on the stage. Pinter’s first
decade of remarkable plays (and a few screenplays) fall into a category dubbed
by critics as “comedies of menace.” They feature (usually) working-class
Britons in situations in which an ambiguous threat lies underneath the surface
of an otherwise mundane existence. The subtext
is everything in a Pinter play. Known for the pauses in dialogue
(specifically designated in the scripts), Pinter was able to pack weighty
meaning in what is not said, more so
than perhaps any other modern playwright.
The Birthday Party was his first
full-length play (written in 1957, premiered in 1958) and is one of his
most-produced and well-known works—although probably not so much by anyone who
isn’t an aficionado of the theatre. You’re not going to see a production of The Birthday Party at your local high
school. The Homecoming (1967) won
Pinter the Tony Award, and, for my money, is his greatest work (it was
brilliantly filmed by Peter Hall in 1973 for the American Film Theatre
experiment). As a screenwriter, Pinter’s work on The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981) and Betrayal (1983) received Oscar nominations, and he received the
Nobel Prize shortly before his death.
filmmaker William Friedkin, who had yet to make The French Connection and The
Exorcist, had seen a production of The
Birthday Party in England in the early 60s and, by his account, was knocked
out by it. He personally met with Pinter to convince the elusive playwright to
allow him to adapt the play into a film. It took some doing, but finally Pinter
relented and wrote the screenplay himself. The picture was produced on a
shoestring budget, but Friedkin managed to employ several outstanding British
actors—many of whom were already a part of Pinter’s unofficial “repertory
those familiar with Pinter, the results are outstanding. For everyone else—The Birthday Party could very well be a
Shaw stars as Stanley, a nervous boarder in a seaside village rooming house run
by Meg (Dandy Nichols) and Petey (Moultrie Kelsall). It may—or may not
be!—Stanley’s birthday. Enter two mysterious new boarders, Goldberg (Sydney
Tafler) and McCann (Patrick Magee), whom we know have an agenda with Stanley
but we’re never sure what it really is. We just know it’s a threat, and they
make things very uncomfortable for him… and the audience. Shaw and Magee,
especially, deliver riveting performances.
say more would be a disservice to the viewer and to Pinter, for much of the
power of The Birthday Party is its
mystery and ambiguity. Just know that by embarking on this journey you will be
entering a heightened realism in which characters never say what they mean and what
they don’t say means more. As an adaptation of Pinter’s play, Friedkin’s The Birthday Party is quite faithful and
Lorber’s new Blu-ray presents a 1080p transfer that looks fair enough for its
age and intentionally drab cinematography and setting. The nearly half-hour supplemental
interview with director Friedkin is fascinating—he relates the entire history
of how he got involved with Pinter and the film, and he throws in anecdotes
about the playwright and a few other characters (like Joseph Losey). Theatrical
trailers for this and other Kino Lorber releases—many related to Pinter—are
The Birthday Party will certainly be
appreciated by those of us who were theatre majors many years ago, and by the
art house cinema crowd. For others, the picture might be an acquired taste.
hindsight, the most enjoyable thing about Manhattan
Murder Mystery was Diane Keaton’s return to co-star with Woody Allen in what
will most likely be their last screen appearance together. Released in 1993, Murder Mystery was Allen’s obvious
attempt to regain public favor after an acrimonious split with Mia Farrow and
the surrounding uproar of allegations and custody battles. Keaton’s presence
served to remind us that the old chemistry between the two actors could still
generate sparks, and it did.
critics at the time commented that the pair could have been playing the characters
of Annie and Alvy (from Annie Hall) sixteen
years later, now settled in an imperfect, but comfortable, marriage. In fact,
much of the plot of Manhattan Murder
Mystery was originally a part of Annie
Hall! That 1977 classic, co-written by Allen and Marshall Brickman,
contained not only the Annie/Alvy love story but also a murder mystery the
couple attempts to solve. Eventually that was all thrown out of Annie Hall (thank goodness!). Years
later, Allen and Brickman decided to resurrect the discarded plot elements and
fashion a brand-new script in which a couple like Annie and Alvy—now middle-aged—get themselves embroiled in
(Allen) and Carol (Keaton) live on the Upper East Side of Manhattan (where
else?) and meet their apartment building neighbors, Paul (Jerry Adler) and
Lillian (Lynn Cohen). The next day, Lillian has died of a heart attack. Larry
and Carol notice that Paul doesn’t seem too broken up about it. Furthermore,
Carol discovers an urn full of ashes in Paul’s kitchen, even after Paul has
said that Lillian was buried in their “twin cemetery plots.” Enter Larry and
Carol’s friend Ted (Alan Alda), who encourages Carol’s imaginative speculation
that Paul murdered his wife. Larry’s client, Marcia (Anjelica Huston), gets into
the act as well, and the foursome embark on exposing Paul’s nefarious scheme
that involves a series of lies, a mistress, and his wife’s twin sister.
plot is far-fetched, but Allen treats the material as a farce anyway. It works well
enough. Much of the fun of the picture is watching Allen and Keaton as their
characters do astonishingly stupid things, such as when Carol, thinking Paul is
out of the building for a while, sneaks into his apartment to snoop. Of course,
Paul returns, forcing her to hide under the bed and lose her glasses at the
has included references to cinema history that are a lot of fun—clips from
Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944)
and Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai (1947)—inform
the story with thematic and visual motifs. There are laughs, to be sure, but Manhattan Murder Mystery does not rank
among Allen’s best comedies. It’s enjoyable fluff, and perhaps that was all it
was meant to be.
Time’s limited-edition Blu-ray (only 3000 units) looks very nice in its 1080p
High Definition transfer, showing off Carlo Di Palma’s colorful cinematography
and New York City landmarks that are always a treat in a Woody Allen film. The
audio is 1.0 DTS-HD MA, with an isolated score and effects track. The
theatrical trailer is the only supplement.
for a lightweight romp around the Big Apple, Manhattan Murder Mystery will please fans of Allen and, especially,
was the film that convinced audiences and critics alike that Jane Fonda could
act. After appearing throughout the Sixties in glamour-girl and comic roles (Cat Ballou, Barbarella) that barely scratched the surface of what this talented
actress could do, along came They Shoot
Horses, Don’t They?, which featured a tough, cynical, mean-spirited, and
take-no-prisoners Jane Fonda as Gloria, a down-on-her-luck contestant in a
Depression-era marathon dance contest. The showy role resulted in her first
Best Actress Oscar nomination.
picture also awarded Sydney Pollack his first Directing nomination; in fact,
the film received a total of nine Oscar nominations, including Adapted
Screenplay, Supporting Actress (Susannah York), and Supporting Actor (Gig
Young, who won); but it did not, curiously, land a Best Picture nod. It
dance marathon contests in the early 1930s were an American display of
spectacle and madness. On the one hand, they provided cheap entertainment for
audiences who wanted to watch the progression of misery as dancers remained on
their feet (aside from occasional ten-minute breaks for food and very rare
longer breaks) for hours, days, weeks… until one couple was left standing. On
the other hand, it provided some kind hope for the contestants themselves, as
the payout was a whopping $1500—a big chunk of change in Depression-stricken
(Fonda) matches up with Robert (Michael Sarrazin) by default. There’s also
Alice (York), a Jean Harlow wannabe, aging former Navy man Harry (Red Buttons),
and married couple James and pregnant Ruby (Bruce Dern and Bonnie Bedelia). The
proceedings are MC’d with ringmaster showmanship and a canny sense of sardonicism
by Rocky (Young, who is marvelous in his award-winning role). “Yowza, yowza,
yowza!” he calls into the microphone, as the contestants go through hell in the
guise of showbiz.
the picture was released in 1969, it provided a social commentary that was a
metaphor for life itself—that we’re competing in a never-ending marathon of
hardship until you either drop out, drop dead, or win the big prize. The final
irony is that the big prize isn’t such a big prize after all. Not a feel-good
movie, to be sure, but certainly a thoughtful statement on the human condition.
Pollack’s direction is superb, an early indication of the long career he would
have in Hollywood.
Husbands and Wives was released in
September 1992, the news was full of the Woody Allen/Mia Farrow/Soon-Yi Previn
scandal, which had recently broken. The studio, Tri-Star, seemingly rushed the
release of the film to capitalize on the gossip, and, as a result, the picture
did pretty good box office (better than Allen’s previous two films). Although
the public found out about Allen’s dalliance with Farrow’s adopted daughter a
little later, Farrow discovered it at some point during the filming of Husbands and Wives. Talk about what must
have been a tense set...!
so this is a case in which a reviewer can’t look at a movie without the
real-life baggage encroaching on the evaluation. In fact, I’ll argue that it’s
impossible not to do so.
said, Husbands and Wives is one of
Woody Allen’s greatest—albeit darkest—works. It might be his most insightful,
honest, and disturbingly analytical treatise on affairs of the heart,
especially as they apply to American—and specifically New York City—upper and
upper-middle-class men and women.
a “reality TV” approach to the way it’s shot and directed, with hand-held
cameras and a narrator/interviewer (the voice of Jeffrey Kurland, the costume designer of the film!), who elicits
commentary from the characters outside the main action of the story. This was a
revelation at the time, since the concept of reality television had been only teased
on MTV during the 1980s and had not fully developed as a primetime phenomenon.
Allen’s regular director of photography, Carlo Di Palma, provides a gritty,
jerky, documentary feel to the proceedings, and it works beautifully.
(Allen) and Judy (Farrow) are married with no children. He’s a college
professor in literature. Their best friends Jack (Sydney Pollack) and Sally
(Judy Davis) are a couple that announces at the beginning of the film that they
are getting divorced. They’re both ostensibly okay with that, but Judy and Gabe
are shocked and upset. Jack and Sally, throughout the film, begin to date
others. Jack sees Sam (Lysette Anthony), a much younger aerobics teacher who is
intellectually incompatible with him. Judy matches Sally with Michael (Liam
Neeson), although Judy has the hots for Michael herself. Sally is too neurotic
and so-not-ready for dating again that it doesn’t work out with Michael.
Meanwhile, Gabe becomes infatuated with a very
young college student, Rain (Juliette Lewis), who has a history of dating
this a film fraught with art-imitating-life syndrome, or what? Without
revealing how these romantic and not-romantic liaisons work out, let’s just say
that Allen consistently shows us ugly truths about lies, trust, and compromise.
Is it a comedy? Yes and no. There are laughs, but mostly this is a biting, dark
satire that is more akin to the works of, say, Jules Feiffer, than Woody Allen.
There are moments of sheer brilliance, and others that are too close to the
headlines for comfort.
the most revelatory statement in Husbands
and Wives is that Gabe, Allen’s character, refuses to take his involvement
with student Rain any further after one kiss (that she asks for on her birthday) because it’s “not right.” It’s
amazing that Allen’s character
performs with wiser moral integrity than Allen himself did in his personal
life, considering that the movie was written and made while he was courting a
much younger woman. Ironic, if anything.
Davis received a much-deserved Academy Award nomination for Supporting Actress
for her performance. Pollack (director of such works as Tootsie and Out of Africa),
too, is exceptional, and it’s a wonder why he never got more recognition for
his occasional acting stints. Jack and Sally’s story is the most engaging piece
of the film. Allen’s script, a striking piece of work, was nominated for
Time’s Blu-ray release looks and sounds exemplary, with its 1080p High
Definition transfer and 1.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. The only
supplements are the theatrical trailer and an isolated music and effects track.
The essay in the booklet is by critic Julie Kirbo.
to only 3000 units, Husbands and Wives is
a collectors’ item that explores the hurricane that can exist within a relationship,
and one that blew up in the tabloids.