Why I Love… #27: The Lost Weekend

Year: 1945

Director: Billy Wilder

Stars: Ray Milland (Don Birnam), Jane Wyman (Helen St. James), Phillip Terry (Wick Birnam), Howard de Silva (Nat)

Genre: Drama

Billy Wilder’s greatness can be his undoing on occasions. With such beacons as The Apartment, Some Like It Hot, Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard  to his name, his perceived ‘smaller’ pictures lose the limelight, and some seem to suffer by comparison. The Lost Weekend is hardly an unknown picture. Quite the opposite in fact; it is highly regarded, an Oscar winner, and rightly so. However the more publicised hype that flows around the aforementioned masterworks does help elevate them in the mind. They’re classic go-to pictures. The Lost Weekend, perhaps because of its subject matter, becomes a less obvious choice.

When I first saw it, not more than a year ago, I filed it as good-yet-unremarkable. But then I first saw it as part of a movie marathon, clustered in a day of movie watching that became more an exercise in ticking titles off of a list as opposed  to fully appreciating them. Perhaps my attention had wandered some. On returning to the film, my mind fresh, and no The Postman Always Rings Twice waiting round the corner, I immediately saw the film for what it is; a cut above the usual, blessed with one of the smartest scripts I’ve heard, and performances to match.

Ray Milland plays alcoholic Don Birnam, testing the patience of his brother Wick and his girlfriend Helen. Don is due to go on a vacation with Wick, but his surreptitious drinking sabotages the plan. Wick, incensed to have played the fool once too often, leaves Don to his own devices. And so we chart Don’s lost weekend of drinking and misadventure.

When Don is drinking in a local dive, his whiskey poured by rueful barman Nat, Ray Milland is the equal of a down-and-out Jack Lemmon, recalling the pitiable good nature of CC Baxter. However Don is a far darker, less sympathetic character, and The Lost Weekend a problematic film for the audience. Milland doesn’t shy away from the grey areas in his debasing performance. Don’s behaviour is at times deplorable, as Wilder and fellow screenwriter Charles Brackett press the viewer into deciding how far they are willing to allow him to go. At what point does a character become irredeemable? An attempt to snatch from a purse in a crowded public place is arguably his personal nadir.

By today’s standards, Don’s misdeeds appear fairly tame, as cinema’s depictions of spiralling addiction have become more and more sensational. But for 1945 The Lost Weekend was a rather confrontational film, a clear highlight in a slew of morality pictures that were beginning to emerge. It appeared at just the right time, really, before the balance tipped and the exploitation movie began to steamroller. Movies drawing crowds by promising depraved behaviour under the façade of condemnation.

Because of this, The Lost Weekend occasionally feels like a lecturing exercise prone to melodrama. Were people in the forties really in danger of being institutionalised for being found drunk? Alcohol is bad for you, the movie says, and here are the reasons why. Don’s pouring another drink? Better cue that serious music sting. Uh-oh, the villain of the picture is back. Yet, crucially, The Lost Weekend has loftier aspirations. Wilder’s film is not just out to criticise, but to educate. The script pointedly takes time to highlight alcoholism as a disease, not just an absence of willpower. Don’s failure as a writer causes him to drink, yes, but it isn’t why he’s an alcoholic. There aren’t easy answers. I’ve seen alcoholism myself. It’s a terrible, complicated thing to witness, let alone succumb to, and I applaud the efforts made here to examine its strange nature.

And that script works other wonders. As previously mentioned, these words, banded back and forth by such accomplished actors make The Lost Weekend a joy, despite the grim story. When Nat is cleaning the bar, Don stops him, indicating the mark left by his glass. “Don’t wipe it away, Nat. Let me have my little vicious circle.” A tremendously bitter little moment. Later on, Nat gets to have his say, “One’s too many and a hundred’s not enough.” Likewise the parlance of the times gives the film a charm lacking from modern takes on this story. There’s something delightfully vintage about phrases like, “He wants to be alone with that bottle of his. It’s all he gives a hang about.” Perhaps I’m guilty of codifying a bygone era, but it pleases me all the same.

Wilder, realising that the tone and topic of his movie aren’t the greatest of crowd-pleasers, brings some of his most interesting directorial choices to the table. Don’s vision of a parade of ghostly raincoats at a show is unusually surreal for the man, as are the zooms into the bottoms of Don’s whiskey tumblers. Don’s enforced stay in a rehabilitation centre is as close as Wilder came to the trappings of horror, at least as far as I’ve seen, not to mention the slew of drunken hallucinations that haunt Don in his apartment. The film virtually drowns in shadow, complimenting Don at his darkest hour. Miklos Rosza’s theramin score only adds to this heightened, torturous element of the story.

As has probably been made all too clear (between this piece and Why I Love… #6: The Apartment) I am biased toward Billy Wilder films. He was a great popularist, making movies for the masses that often delved into dark or ambiguous territories. His nose for a good tale well told allowing us to follow him without feeling manipulated.

I expected to find myself writing up either Some Like It Hot or Double Indemnity next, and was surprised to find myself drawn back to The Lost Weekend. It feels like a less obvious choice. But watching it again, as I have for this, I realise it justifies itself. Harder to love than Wilder’s more digestible classics, for sure, but no less rewarding.

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