Lost Weekend, The (1945)
Release Date: November 29th, 1945 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Billy Wilder Actors: Ray Milland, Jane Wyman, Phillip Terry, Howard Da Silva, Doris Dowling, Frank Faylen
n one of many, average New York apartments, 33-year-old, aspiring novelist Don Birnam (Ray Milland) and his brother Wick (Phillip Terry) pack for a lengthy weekend vacation to a farm. But the act of choosing shirts and thinking about the fresh air and buttermilk is torturous for Don, as he’s gone 10 days without booze. He’s perpetually preoccupied with the stuff – so much so that he attempts to get his girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman) to go off to a concert with his brother, just so that he can have a drink from a bottle, hung by a piece of rope and stashed over the side of his window.
Helen and Wick leave, reluctantly, but only after they’re certain that Don no longer has any alcohol secreted away in the walls of the bathroom or inside the the bag of the vacuum cleaner or in any other overlooked spot. Plus, he hasn’t a nickel to his name, and no bar will give him credit. But a stroke of luck comes his way when the cleaning lady arrives and reveals that a $10 bill is hidden inside the sugar bowl in the kitchen. In a matter of seconds, Don has purchased two bottles of rye – for the trip – and then sits at a bar, knocking back shot after shot. “You don’t approve of drinking?” he grills the bartender. “Not the way you drink,” retorts the pourer, Nat (Howard Da Silva).
Don is paranoid, belligerent, nervous, impatient, selfish, and hopelessly overcome by his dependancy. He reasons with himself that it’s merely a comforting notion to know that alcohol is around, maintaining that he may not even touch the stuff – though it’s obvious that his self-control is utterly gutted. It doesn’t help that the neighborhood knows of his spells – his six years of crippling alcoholism – and whisper about him behind his back. But it’s also apparent that he’s unable to focus for too long on the embarrassment of gossip; satisfying his urge for another drop trumps all other concerns.
The characters surrounding Don take on the various voices of reason in this film about a very specific moral message. Wick is the stern, uncompromising one, tired of dealing with his brother’s sickness; Helen is the overly compassionate, understanding, forgiving one, insistent that Don needs their help to combat a disease beyond his control; and the viewer is left in the middle, hopefully to sway back and forth between the two extremes. And with writer/director Billy Wilder at the helm, it becomes a trying task to sympathize with the protagonist; even when he shows brief moments of charm, they’re ravaged by that unavoidable ulterior motive that keeps expectedly resurfacing. In particular, it’s emotionally crushing when Helen falls for Don and can’t seem to find her way out of an unrequited love, combating his disorder as if a challenge that she’s unwilling to fail.
Miklos Rozsa’s haunting score, very much like something from Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (Rozsa did, in fact, compose “Spellbound” the same year), nicely presides over the happenings, making “The Lost Weekend” feel hallucinatory – or like a psychological thriller (and finally like a horror picture toward the conclusion). With its pitch-black tone (devoid of any comic relief), downward-spiraling self-destruction, and shadowy sequences, it resembles a film noir from time to time as well. There’s even another vice on display (ignoring the frequent cigarette smoking, which was too common in the ’40s to consider a problem), with tainted bar patron, Gloria (Doris Dowling), entertaining men for money. But the subject matter (based on the novel by Charles R. Jackson) regularly supersedes the characters and their poignant interactions (led by those between Don and Helen), preventing the film from retaining much of an identity beyond that of a public service announcement. It’s a potent statement piece (disregarding Don’s unlikely sex appeal with the ladies), with a rousing (if unbelievable) ending, but its entertainment value is stifled by its singular purpose.
– Mike Massie