The Lost Weekend
THE LOST WEEKEND
Director: Billy Wilder
Production: Paramount; black and white; running time: 99 minutes; length: 8,912 feet. Released August 1945.
Producer: Charles Brackett; screenplay: Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, from the novel by Charles R. Jackson; photography: John F. Seitz; process photography: Farciot Edouart; special effects: Gordon Jennings; editor: Doane Harrison; art directors: Hans Dreier, Earl Hedrick; music: Miklos Rozsa, Guiseppe Verdi.
Cast: Ray Milland (Don Birnam); Jane Wyman (Helen St. James); Phillip Terry (Wick Birnam); Doris Dowling (Gloria); Frank Feylen (Bim); Mary Young (Mrs. Deveridge); Lillian Fontaine (Mrs. St. James); Anita Bolster (Mrs. Foley); Lewis R. Russell (Charles St. James); Helen Dickson (Mrs. Frink); David Clyde (Dave); Eddie Laughton (Mr. Brophy).
Awards: Oscars for Best Actor (Milland), Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay.
Brackett, Charles, and Billy Wilder, The Lost Weekend, in The BestFilm Plays of 1945, edited by John Gassner and Dudley Nichols, New York, 1946.
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* * *
This was Hollywood's first serious treatment of the problem of alcoholism and was made in spite of studio jitters, and protests from the brewers that it would discourage drinking and from prohibitionists that it would encourage it. It also was something of a landmark in Wilder's output; as he put it, "it was after this picture that people started noticing me." The film also contains the finest performance which Ray Milland had so far given in his career; however, like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard he was to find the role something of a mixed blessing. Bob Hope's quip on finding a hidden bottle (in My Favorite Brunette) "Ray Milland's been here" was the expression, albeit in comic form, of a certain tendency to confuse Milland with Don Birnam, the failed, alcoholic writer at the centre of The Lost Weekend.
The story is simple and covers five days in the life of an alcoholic who has more or less conspired to get rid of his girlfriend and brother for the weekend so that he can indulge in a massive binge. It ends with her returning and encouraging him to try to write a book about his experiences in the hope that this may keep him off the bottle. There is no such ray of hope, incidentally, at the end of Charles Jackson's original novel. Furthermore, the script also suppresses the suggestion that Birnam's drinking may be due to closet gayness, though this doesn't stop it representing the sadistic nurse in the Bellevue Hospital alcoholic ward in unmistakably gay terms.
In other respects, however, the film was undoubtedly very daring for its time, and even the "happy ending" is not particularly reassuring in the light of what has gone before. As Wilder himself put it "we don't say that the man is cured. We just try to suggest that if he can lick his illness long enough to put some words down on paper, then there must be some hope." Certainly, for the most part, the film avoids sugar coating or preachy-ness and isn't even particularly concerned with the reasons for Birnam's state. Rather, it tries to communicate what it's like actually to be an alcoholic. But although very much a "first person" film, like Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard, it largely avoids voice-over narration and the usual "subjective" visual devices. This means that when they are used—as when Birnam falls downstairs, or in the horrific hallucination in which a bat appears to kill a mouse—they are all the more effective for being sparingly applied. Nonetheless, the whole mise-en-scène is the expression of Birnam's bleary, drink obsessed perspective. Everything looks drained, bleak and tawdry, the frame seems haunted by bottles, and at the opera all he can focus on in La Traviata are the tempting glasses in the famous "Drinking Song." Rosza's Theremindominated score is the perfect counterpoint to this eerie, hazy vision of a world at one remove from reality. One of the film's supreme achievements in conjuring this effect is Birnam's famous walk up Third Avenue in an attempt to pawn his typewriter so that he can carry on drinking. Wilder had considerable difficulty in getting the studio to let him take his cameras out on the street, as location shooting was still relatively uncommon in those days, but the effect (which was achieved by hiding the cameras in trucks) is quite remarkable. Birnam's walk developing into a veritable Via Crucis as he discovers that all the pawn shops are closed for Yom Kippur.
Later, other movies such as Smash Up, I'll Cry Tomorrow, and Days of Wine and Roses would tackle the theme of alcoholism impressively enough. Addicts of one kind or another also crop up in other Wilder films such as Some Like It Hot, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, and Fedora. None of these, however, can match The Lost Weekend's sheer unremitting quality, its terrifying sense of an ineluctable descent into the depths.