Billy Wilder, 1945
Starring: Ray Milland, Jane Wyman, Phillip Terry
"One drink's too many, and a hundred's not enough."
"One drink's too many, and a hundred's not enough."
Don Birnam, an alcoholic writer, is supposed to go on a long, dry trip with his brother for a four-day weekend in the country. Wick, his brother, and Helen, his girlfriend, come to see him off and are skeptical that he isn’t hiding liquor somewhere. He convinces them everything is fine and the two of them attend a quick concert before Don and Wick’s train ride that evening. While they are gone, Don happens to find $10 hidden in the kitchen and immediately uses it to buy two bottles of alcohol and get a few shots at the neighborhood bar. This results in him missing the trip and going on a weekend-long bender, where he manages to give Helen the slip and hit absolute rock bottom. He is hung over, increasingly sick, steals, and winds up in hospital ward specifically for alcoholics. Will anything be able to make Don stop drinking?
Director Billy Wilder was allegedly inspired to make this film after his work with alcoholic novelist Raymond Chandler on Double Indemnity. His regular writing partner, Charles Brackett, considered Double Indemnity too lurid (though he co-wrote The Lost Weekend). Wilder was able to recognize Chandler’s powerful talent, despite the fact that the two did not get along. He claimed he made The Lost Weekend to show Chandler a portrait of himself.
Though this is not a film noir, I think it belongs in my series because of two elements: the style and the subject matter. First and foremost, the look of the film is incredible. Wilder decided to forgo the studio set and it was shot on the streets of New York with cameras allegedly hidden in empty trucks and in buildings to give the film the most realistic feel possible. It really paid off and The Lost Weekend is an absolutely beautiful, if grimy, alcohol-soaked look at New York in the ‘40s. The wave of postwar realism is certainly a factor in noir films (director Jules Dassin’s work springs to mind) and it is utterly convincing here.
Wilder’s regular collaborators – cinematographer John F. Seitz and composer Miklós Rózsa – are in rare form here. Seitz’s gloomy, atmospheric cinematography rivals the work he did in Double Indemnity and New York is truly a place of terror and defeat. Milland is constantly obscured by shadow, while the camera lovingly frames and caresses a bottle of booze, a shot of whiskey. Rózsa’s eerie score was the first to ever use a Theremin. This incredible work is nightmarish and adds to the dreamlike, occasionally surreal quality of the film. He would use the same instrument soon after on his equally chilling score for Hitchcock’s Spellbound.
The tone is incredibly dark and depressing, hopeless, and nihilistic. Though there are two romantic scenes, they certainly aren’t able to break through the gloom and almost feel pointless. It’s unclear why Helen is so attached to Don, though it’s easy to assume that his charm and intelligent while sober helped to win her over. There are some very disturbing moments, such as when Don wakes up in the hospital – the legendary Bellevue Asylum – and when he is consumed by delirium tremens and hallucinates. A mouse crawls out of one of the walls in his apartment and is attacked by a bat; blood drips down the wall.
This horrific moment is underlined by the feeling – especially during the second half of the film – that violence could erupt at any moment. Part of the genius of the script is that the further Don recedes into his downward spiral, he moves further from a state of civilized humanity. He is somewhat aggressively thrown out of a bar and later robs a liquor store. This escalates to his time in Bellevue, where the other patients become violent. In a terrifying scene, one of them must be removed. The question of whether or not Don will harm himself, a stranger, or even Helen, constantly hangs in the air.
Despite the taboo subject matter, the film was a smash hit and also cleaned up critically. Star Ray Milland (Dial M for Murder) won Best Actor at the Academy Awards and Wilder won Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenwriter. At the very first year of the Cannes Festival, the film also won the Grand Prix (the first version of the Palme d’Or) and Milland again won Best Actor.
As with Double Indemnity, Wilder had some trouble casting the film due to the subject matter. A young Ray Milland (Dial M for Murder) eventually took the role and wound up winning an Oscar for his incredible performance. He is wonderful as Don, though Milland himself was practically a non-drinker. Allegedly writer Charles Jackson – the film is based on his book of the same name – gave him some coaching on how to accurately portray alcoholism.
Though the film belongs to Milland, the small supporting cast is excellent. Jane Wyman (Magnificent Obsession) is likable as Helen and not overly saccharine. Don’s stern, worn out brother is played by a fittingly stern Phillip Terry (Born to Kill) and Howard Da Silva (They Live By Night) absolutely shines as the gruff, but understanding bartender.
The Lost Weekend comes highly recommended. It bears certain similarities to Double Indemnity. Both had difficult casting processes, both were nearly shut down by the Hayes Code, and both were created seemingly by Wilder’s sheer force of will. As with Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend was based on a novel. Though Charles Jackson’s autobiographical book is even grimmer in tone, the film remains largely faithful. The only serious change was in the story’s conclusion, which ends on a tentatively positive note in the film. Though Don appears to have given up drinking, nothing about this feels permanent. The film also leaves out any references to homosexuality or sexual repression, making Don a fairly asexual figure.
The film is available on region 1 DVD, though the release is nothing special. The Masters of Cinema Blu-ray comes highly recommended, though it is only a region B release. Either way, The Lost Weekend is one of the best – and darkest – films of the ‘40s. You owe it to yourself to see this grim, realistic portrayal of a problem that still grips America (and much of the world) nearly 70 years later.