The Lost Weekend



USA 1945 : Billy Wilder : 101mins

The fact that this pioneering study of alcoholism remains, over half a century later, the best known movie on the subject is probably more to do with Lloyd Cole borrowing the title for a mid-80s hit single rather than any enduring intrinsic merits of its own. Because, despite its multiple Oscar haul (picture, director, script, actor), The Lost Weekend is no classic. Even by the standards of its time, this is a very broad-strokes kind of drama – one that sacrifices subtlety and complexity in favour of a public-service “message picture” exploration of an Issue.

Ray Milland is Don Birnam, 33-year-old failed novelist living with his straight-arrow brother Wick (Philip Terry) in a Manhattan apartment. He’s been alcoholic for years, making only occasional attempts to sober up. When Wick plans a healthy weekend away in the country, Don promptly escapes to a neighbourhood bar where he tells his sorry tale to bartender Nat (Howard de Silva). As the long weekend wears on, Don gradually descends into a pit of suicidal, whisky-fuelled despair – but his girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman) won’t give him up without a fight.

“I don’t like you much,” snaps Nat to Don at one point – and the audience may well sympathise. Sober or drunk, Don is rude, sarcastic, aggressive and, worst of all, verbose. He never seems to shut up, flaunting his literary ambitions with endless high-faluting references – tellingly, the scene where Milland makes the strongest impact is the one where he says least, a near-wordless visit to the opera where Don becomes distracted by La Traviata‘s copious drink-swilling.

Wilder and Milland clearly intend to present Don as a self-pitying heel, and they succeed all too well – it’s hard to see what would attract Helen in the first place, let alone lead her to put up with the louse’s boorish antics for over three years. And Helen isn’t the only glamorous woman attracted by Don’s dubious charms – he also toys with affections of ‘good-time girl’ Gloria (Doris Dowling). Then again, Birnam displays few physical symptoms of supposedly chronic alcoholism – we see Birnam rapidly downing whisky after whisky – but he never vomits once, nor does he become especially inebriated.

For all its superficial ‘toughness’, Lost Weekend is very much a Hollywood fantasy version of alcoholism – right up to the entirely unconvincing happy ending which was reportedly imposed by the studio, and is a total deviation from the conclusion of Charles Jackson’s original book. Wilder has some serious points to make about the perils of drink, and society’s treatment of alcoholics – but while he succeeds in his aims, he can’t quite integrate the public-service stuff within a coherent or especially engaging narrative.

The structure is uneven and episodic, with several clumsily-inserted flashbacks in which the image goes ‘gauzy’ in the classic old-movie manner that’s typical of Wilder’s by-the-numbers approach. He’s especially heavy-handed with the background music – excessive even by the norms of the mid-40s, as James Agee’s December 22, 1945 review in The Nation wearily points out. Wilder is on safest ground with comedy, and Lost Weekend is most effective during its few, intermittent moments of dark humour.

The highlight is Don’s abortive attempt at petty theft, which sees him thrown out of a fancy cocktail bar. As the pianist leads the clientele in a mocking chorus of “Somebody stole a purse.” (to the tune of ‘Somebody stole my gal’) the film momentarily flares into vivid, unpredictable life. There’s another strong sequence in which fate plays a cruelly ironic trick on the desperate Don, whose quest to pawn his typewriter on the Saturday morning becomes an epic, fruitless trek as he finds all the pawnbrokers (Jewish and Irish alike) closed for Yom Kippur. This another mercifully dialogue-light for Milland – whose performance elsewhere too often flies way over the top into a very theatrical, hammy kind of capital-A “Acting”. Wyman, de Silva and Terry are stuck with purely functional roles, leaving Dowling and Frank Faylen (eerily Kevin Spacey-like as alcoholic-ward nurse Bim Nolan) to score vivid supporting turns in their brief appearances.

Another reason why the Yom Kippur footage remains of interest is the fact that most of it (with the exception of a few clumsy back-projection shots) was visibly filmed “live” in real Manhattan neighbourhoods – Milland trudges alongside the old Elevated Railway subway line. The “El” has long since gone – unlike McSorley’s Ale House (7th St and 2nd Ave), which was apparently used for the ‘Nat’s Bar’ scenes, and survives virtually unchanged to this day, trading on its Lost Weekend connections to serve drinks that are overpriced even by Manhattan’s exorbitant standards.

4th November, 2002
(seen 3rd November, CineSide Newcastle-upon-Tyne)

by Neil Young
Back to Film Index