The Lost Weekend (1945)
“The screen dares to open the strange and savage pages of a shocking bestseller!”
Director: Billy Wilder
Cast: Ray Milland, Jane Wyman, Phillip Terry
Synopsis: The desperate life of a chronic alcoholic is followed through a four day drinking bout.
WARNING! This review contains SPOILERS!
The Lost Weekend opens with a view of New York City. The camera slowly pans right until it reaches an apartment building in the foreground and begins a slow zoom in on an open window. A bottle is suspended on a piece of string hanging from a nail on the window ledge, and as the camera continues its approach we see the occupant of the room as he packs a suitcase. We also witness his pre-occupation with the bottle that hangs from the window. It’s an arresting opening scene that immediately captures the audience’s attention and piques its curiosity. What follows is a movie that is packed with one powerful scene after another, and which encapsulates what it is like to be an alcoholic in a way that movies up to that point never had. Before The Lost Weekend, alcoholics on the screen were figures of fun, and actors like pencil-moustachioed Jack Norton built careers around playing comical drunks.
The man packing his suitcase is Don Birnam (Ray Milland), a failed writer who is chafing at the prospect of a long weekend spent in the country in the company of his upright brother, Wick (Phillip Terry). The opening scenes tell us all we need to know about Don. His girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman) arrives, announcing that she is on her way to a concert. She is going alone, but has two tickets, and Don is quick to suggest he and Wick delay their journey for a couple of hours so that Wick can attend the concert with Helen. Wick is immediately suspicious. He’s all too familiar with Don’s wily attempts at subterfuge. And just as he’s about to leave he spies the nail on the window ledge. Don claims he didn’t know it was there, that he must have hid it while on a bender, but Wick isn’t convinced.
Don is a chronic alcoholic. His affliction stems from his failure as a writer, his inability to handle this failure, and his fear of the blank page that confronts him each time he sits at his typewriter. Alcohol helps get the creative juices flowing, but the problem is that it wears off too quickly, that it only holds his insecurities at bay for a short time. What creative talent he has comes in useful for quickly dreaming up plausible excuses when trapped by one of his frequent lies. But Wick’s discovery of that bottle is one incident too many, and marks the beginning of Don’s Lost Weekend.
Stealing a few dollars from the apartment after Wick has left for the country alone, Don buys a couple of cheap bottles of rye and conceals them in a brown bag beneath a few apples. Such is the cunning of the alcoholic, always thinking ahead, always disguising or denying the truth. He then stops off at Nat’s Bar, his regular watering hole. Don likes to wax lyrical when drinking at Nat’s, and his speech is filled with fanciful phrases and literary allusions. But Don doesn’t bore — his knowledge of his situation is too acute for that. Don knows that he’s trapped in a vicious circle like the ones the bottom of his glass makes on the counter of Nat’s bar.
The strength of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder’s script is in its insight into the mind of an alcoholic. The Lost Weekend doesn’t just settle for showing Don’s downward spiral and its impact on those around him, but provides a probing examination of the psychology of a drunk. ‘It shrinks my liver, doesn’t it, Nat?’ he says to the bartender (Howard Da Silva). ‘It pickles my kidneys, yeah. But what it does to the mind? It tosses the sandbags overboard so the balloon can soar. Suddenly I’m above the ordinary. I’m competent. I’m walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls. I’m one of the great ones.’ The reality he avoids is that the high provided by alcohol is just a brief, temporary boost to his fragile ego; a boost which ultimately takes away more than it provides.
While Brackett and Wilder compress the decline of an alcoholic into one long weekend, Don’s descent into near-madness is never less than believable and still packs quite a punch today, even though it doesn’t dwell on the squalor and misery of the life of a drunk in the way a modern movie might. In fact Don lives a pretty cushy life for an alcoholic; he lives rent free in his brother’s apartment, and is cared for by the ever-patient Helen. He even has a second female admirer, Gloria (Doris Dowling), the local tramp at Nat’s Bar who provides the movie’s only false note. For a seasoned hooker, Gloria is way too naive when it comes to Don and his problems. Despite this relatively easy life, Brackett and Wilder’s script still manages to convey the desperation of a drunk who can’t get a drink, of the way that his desire for alcohol becomes so all-consuming that he is barely able to function.
The incisively intelligent script is aided immeasurably by a career-best performance from leading man Ray Milland, who won the Best Lead Actor Oscar for his performance. Considering that Milland’s movie career spanned seven decades, it’s surprising how few high points there are on his filmography. He was never the most charismatic of leading men, but he was the solid, dependable type who could usually be relied upon to carry a movie. It’s just as well here, because the success on-screen rests almost entirely on his shoulders. Jane Wyman provides decent support in the role of Don’s long-suffering girlfriend, but has little to do other than look anxiously at Don’s swift decline.
Taken at face value, the ending of The Long Weekend is an optimistic one. As Helen prepares coffee in the kitchen after talking Don out of committing suicide, he picks up a glass of rye and looks at it for a long moment before finally dropping his lighted cigarette into it, much to the relief of Helen, who looks on from the kitchen. It appears that he has overcome his demons, but no film that ends at this point can provide a definitive conclusion. Writing that great novel — the one he’s been trying to write in his sober moments for years — could still prove a hurdle too high for him to overcome. Helen’s relief seems premature to me, and the way the film’s concluding shot repeats its opening — but in reverse — suggests not that Don has turned a corner, but that he’s simply had one good day.
(Reviewed 22nd July 2012)