The Lost Weekend

(USA - 1945)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Ray Milland, Jane Wyman, Phillip Terry, Howard Da Silva, Doris Dowling, Frank Faylen
Genre: Drama
Director: Billy Wilder
Screenplay: Billy Wilder & Charles Brackett from Charles R. Jackson's novel
Cinematography: John F. Seitz
Composer: Miklos Rozsa
Runtime: 101 minutes

"Don't rub it away, Nat. Let me have my little vicious circle. You know, the circle is the perfect geometric figure, no end no beginning" - Don Birnam

Although hardly the best film in the late great Billy Wilder's cannon, one could make the argument that The Lost Weekend was his most important. The film broke the taboo that Hollywood had on the subject of alcoholism. Because it was financially successful in addition to winning much critical praise and taking several awards including best picture at both of the major American awards shows, the door was opened for Hollywood to tackle other social problems and further chronicle alcoholism. While master Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound was the best film the Academy nominated that year, you wouldn't have seen The Best Years of Our Lives or Gentleman's Agreement winning their subsequent two best picture awards if not for The Lost Weekend.

Obviously, this brave and frank picture was a highly controversial at the time of its release. The alcohol industry clearly recognized its power. They tried to suppress it; to keep their image and sales up by purchasing the film's negative from the studio before it was released so almost no one would ever have seen it. For it's time, the film takes no prisoners presenting a no-nonsense look at the horrors, nightmares, and humiliations of an alcoholic. Much of the film's strength comes from the fact that nothing is done to make Don Birnam (Ray Milland) likable. Certainly, one comes out of the film believing there is no depth Don won't sink to for the bottle. That said, the film is careful not to make Don too dislikable. While there is no sugar coating, the purpose is to better understand a sick group of people represented here by one individual not to despise them.

It may sound silly, but Hollywood portraying it for the first time in many ways legitimized the problem. In addition to increasing understanding of the disease in many ways, the movie upped awareness toward the scope of the problem by doing things like pointing out that it wasn't limited to lowlifes and bums. Don was not an outcast; he was turned into one. Thanks to his brother Wick (Phillip Terry) he still has good clothes and a nice apartment, but thanks to the alcohol that's all he has and he doesn't appreciate it. It might not be readily obvious to those that don't know him, but if the gossipers don't get them to have no respect for him, being around him a little while usually will.

Don is a gifted and good looking mid 30's former child prodigy who became a drunk trying to find the words to follow up the one acclaimed piece he penned at 19. Writing success being a thing of the past also turns Kirk Douglas' journalist Chuck Tatum into an alcoholic in Wilder's later The Big Carnival, allowing Wilder to build on the themes he depicts here without repeating the basics. Don's addiction is presented as a form of possession. In his head, there's always someone suggesting a reason to have another drink. "Before I could really grab it and throw it down on paper the drinks would wear off and everything would be gone like a mirage. Then there was despair, and a drink to counterbalance despair, then one to counterbalance the counterbalance…" Don makes the demonic analogy to Nat the Bartender (Howard Da Silva) early on. "What you don't understand, all of you, is that I've got to know that it's around, that I can have it if I need it. I can't be cut off completely. That's the devil; that's what drives you crazy."

This, of course, is not The Exorcist. It's a film about how alcoholism effects Don and those around him. For one, it makes Don a compulsive liar. His lying isn't limited to creating the opportunity to drink, rather doing so repeatedly for that purpose has made him someone so lost in his sea of lies that he neither cares about truth nor whom his deception harms. This is the aspect that the Gloria (Doris Dowling) character brings out. She's a tough free spirited hooker that is too cool to finish her phrases (he catch phrase is "don't be redic"), but actually is a lonely girl that lives with her mother. She still idolizes Don and wants him as her only real love. Not seeing that he only cares about himself nor hearing in his voice that he has no intention of leaving the bottle for her, even for one night, she gives up a trick and does herself all up for her "date" with Don.

Helen St. James, a cultured supposedly intelligent woman with a good job, is "Don's woman." Their relationship is as one-sided as can be. Helen's devoted woman character and Jane Wyman's performance are really annoying, and the reason the film, unlike almost all of Wilder's others, doesn't age like fine wine. This type of loyal steadfast not particularly useful character is littered throughout the old Hollywood films, and is probably the biggest deterrent in my enjoyment of them. Anything with the great Barbara Stanwyck, who starred in Wilder's previous and best film Double Indemnity, ages well because she plays independent minded characters that at least attempt to be the equal of any man. She'd probably outsmart Don and expose just how silly he was, yet fall deeper in love with him at the same time because she accepted his faults as part of what made him himself (i.e. The Lady Eve). At the same time, while she loved him for who he was she would also love him for not who she wanted him to be but who he should be (i.e. Golden Boy). She'd know that her strength rather than her blind devotion would help get him to that place. Unfortunately, after the good roles were snatched up by the most talented actresses like Stanwyck, Bette Davis, and Joan Crawford (I would have used Ingrid Bergman, but she had the integrity to seek out neorealist icon Roberto Rossellini while still at the height of her career and go to Italy to make what she thought would be an important foreign film for him. Stromboli should have been, but the butchered version released here and mainly the ridiculous scandal brought on by what else those two were doing quickly sent her career spiraling in the other direction) there wasn't much left for the others. Then again, there aren't close to three actresses today that consistently get strong roles working solely in Hollywood films.

The reason Helen stays with Don, aside from not being able to convince herself not to love him, actually does makes sense. "He's a sick person. It's as though he had something wrong with his heart or his lungs. You wouldn't walk out on him if he had an attack," she tells Wick. Supposedly her and Wick have tried everything, but all we see is Wyman getting all melodramatic and trying to pump her hope and optimism into Don. I'm not saying she should give up, but she's such a deluded sap saying things like "after all your not an embezzler or a murder." Until revelation brings on what I'd like to say is a huge change, we don't see any self-respect on her part, nor do we see any of the Birnam brother's cleverness. I say I'd like because even then she's still stuck on her it could be worse bit saying, "I'd rather have you drunk than dead." In any case, what we get before that is certainly a bunch of pointless emotion, pleading and whining for things to suddenly be okay. To say the least, it's not very motivating because Don has nothing to strive for. He has no reason to do something different to attain or retain her, only reason to disdain her because she gets in the way of the bottle. No matter how far he falls, I feel she'll still be there in a way acting just as foolishly as he is. While her message is that he should do it for himself, Stanwyck knew the prize was the motivation of the self.

One reason it's hard to feel for Helen is that Don was a lousy person right from the start. What makes one want to go with the rudest person they've ever seen, a grumpy man that throws your umbrella at your feet when you delay him by mentioning he's accidentally walking off with it? If his bottle didn't slip out of his coat and smash on the sidewalk, he wouldn't have gone with her to the party that night. While he did temporarily reform, which shows he could do it again if he had reason, the sensible thing would have been to leave the opera that night before he ever had the chance. In her defense, Wyman does have one classic hyper outburst of enlightenment that's the most devastating line of the film. Cutting right to the bone, she tells him, "For three years they couldn't talk me out of you. I was the only one that really understood you. I knew there was a core of something, while there is a core and now I know what it is, a sponge."

Wick's tactics ultimately may not have been any more successful in attaining Don's reform than Helen's, but kept trying to amend them. He used to make excuses for Don to protect him, but now he only tries to protect Don from himself. I like the cynicism that the Birnam brothers are filled with, it's the kind of truthfulness that helped Wilder's films outlast the shiny melodramas. It shows how long these games have been going on. At the beginning there's a scene where Wick is trying to pump Don up for their big weekend. Don's total disinterest and contempt toward the dreaded excursion are expressed simply by him replying, "sounds long all right." That line coming after we see the bottle outside the window immediately makes us pretty sure Don isn't on the level with his brother when he tries to get him excited that he's changed by talking about using his time on the farm to write his novel. After Don hatches his elaborate plan to get Wick & Helen to leave him alone for a few hours, we understand the type of characters Wick and Helen are by their one line each. "You've told us a good many things Don" Wick replies to Don assuring them he's not leaving the apartment. "We've got to trust Don, that's the only way," says Helen. Wick's relationship with Don is a chess match, while Helen naively believes is she stands by Don offering full support long enough he'll suddenly get better. Thus Helen kisses Don trying to convince herself more than anyone else that a change is upon them, while Wick finds and dumps out the bottle Don is hiding before he leaves.

The most interesting character Don deals with is Nat the Bartender. While certainly less effected, I feel he's actually more torn by Don's drinking than the others because his job gives him some understanding of the drinker. It hurts him to see Don gulp down drink after drink, but he has to make money and knows that turning Don down would be pointless because someone less caring would fill his glass until his money was gone. Wick is a prohibitionist, while Nat is a psychologist. Both constantly disapprove of Don's actions, but Wick makes him want to drink more while Nat gives him what he wants hoping to convince him that he really wants something else. He shows Don how selfish he's being by telling him how Helen & Gloria are when they are in the bar and Don isn't around, doing so in a way that points out Don's selfishness doesn't benefit him like selfishness should. Nat knows he can be confrontational when he needs to be because, unlike the others, he has what Don needs. Ultimately, although Don doesn't want to hear it, what Nat does is make Don face the truth. This obviously might not lead to Don going cold turkey, but at least makes it harder for him to hide behind the bottle.

The best scene involving Nat comes when he tells Don how his story is going to end. He scares Don into trying to prove him wrong by presenting him with his various suicide options spiked by a nasty neck breaking like snap of the fingers. Don desperately asks him what if Helen is right and he gets better through writing something good? Nat says, "This guy?" with this long surprised and amused smirk on his face like it's absolutely impossible "not from where I'm sitting."

Just because The Lost Weekend is one of Wilder's serious films, that doesn't prevent him from working a number of memorable lines into the screenplay. The lines are generally generated from the confrontations. Don tries to play dumb saying he doesn't know how the bottle got outside the window by the rope, so Wick says, "I suppose it dropped from some cloud or someone was bouncing it from this wall and it got stuck there." The scene that shows Don wasn't always callous and uncaring is one of the best. Wick invents a story where he's the family alcoholic to save Don from blame after he blows off the first meeting with Helen's parents, but for once Don puts himself aside and tries to make Helen see him for the undesirable alcohol has made him. As usual, Helen starts making excuses for Don when she finds out he's really the drinker by lumping him in with the most people that get tight and drink sometimes. However, Don tries to drive her away for her own good. "Sure, the lucky ones who can take it or leave it, but then there are the ones that can't take it and can't leave it either. What I'm trying to say is I'm not a drinker, I'm a drunk. They had to put me away once." When Don is put away again and questions his placement in the alcoholic ward, Nurse 'Bim' Nolan (Frank Faylen) replies, "Are you kidding? We had a peak at your blood, straight applejack 96 proof." When Helen asserts that Don has talent and ambition, he replies, "Talent, ambition, that's dead long ago. That's drowned! That's drifting around with a bloated belly on a lake of alcohol."

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Milland won best actor at Cannes and the Academy Awards for his daring dark performance. Several actors had turned down the role because the character was so unredeeming, and Milland himself was hesitant, but ultimately it turned out to be the high point of his career. He does a strong job portraying his discomfort, shiftiness, and madness. We see his disdain for Wick and Helen as well as his selfishness and self-loathing in many ways. His best scene is when he follows a liquor store owner in as he opens shop. Acting intense as could be and ready to explode, he and forces the owner to donate a quart of rye before he can even take his coat off.

What the film and Milland really focus on is the urgency of the addiction. You feel like Milland is sweating even though you don't often see it. You feel his heart racing as the conniver creates his little distractions to try to keep Helen or Wick away long enough that he can do something his bottle. Whether Don has a few hours or a few minutes doesn't matter. He has to consume as much booze as he possibly can while he has the chance, so the extra time just means that he has to "work" harder. This aspect of Don's addiction is not the most believable (thankfully there aren't too many Nicolas Cage's), but does make the point that the only thing he's concerned with is consuming the spirit. As quantity is the only thing that matters to Don, he only buy the cheapest. The scene that shows the patheticness brought on by his addiction the best has Don slumping over his shot glass holding an empty bottle in each hand over it in a desperate attempt to get every last drop out.

The best sequence in the film is a flashback where Don, an opera lover, can't stand to watch because they are doing a party scene where everyone has a glass of wine in their hand. Wilder disliked directors using complicated cinematic technique, so he never engaged in such exercises. When the story called for it he did something simple but effective. Through straight cuts back and forth and the performance of Milland, he creates a tense and gripping scene where we truly feel Don's discomfort.

The second half of the film focuses on the major downward spiral in Don's life when Wick gives up and leaves him alone for the lost weekend. While Wilder and producer/screenwriter Charles Brackett have been fairly clever in adapting the novel, whether or not it's censor/code related, they lack a devastating scene that I'll be able to cite off the top of my head 3 years later, or even three weeks. It is more than possible that they didn't need one for their original audience because most viewers were already incredibly shocked having never seen anything like this film before.

There's a good sequence where Don destroys the Birnam apartment looking for the bottle he forgot where he hid. This segment, however, would have been much more effective if Don broke a thing or two of value rather than knocking some books off the case and tossing some clothes around. After all his booze runs out and he's ready to trade in his typewriter to get money for more, Don hesitates not because the typewriter symbolizes his chance to escape his addiction but because, "You'll never make that hock shop it's a block and a half away." Then again, I have neighbors who on Halloween have their kids get back in the car so they can drive them 40 feet to the next house.

The two key segments both come off cheesy. Don falls down a flight of stairs in a drunken stupor, but it's surprisingly overdramatized. I regularly have a hard time keeping a straight face when watching Wilder's films, but this is the only time I wasn't laughing with him. This lands Don in an alcoholic ward where 'Bim' puts the idea in his head that he'll see little animals at night. The part where his neighbor is going crazy because he believes there are beetles all over him is effective because to visualize this guys delusion would be to make Don share it. As we are getting Don's perspective, we have to see his later delusion to share his horror. The part where the bat kills the mouse works to an extent, but with it being limited to a little blood dripping I'd hardly say it was horrific, especially considering instead of being consistent and having it happen to Don it happened to a mouse I was hoping he'd find the strength to get up and kill. Regardless, the scene is killed before that point because we can tell the bat is a prop flying by string.

Even though a few scenes don't work for me, the overcast black and white look of the film goes a long way toward making it successful. The atmosphere is so bleak and dreary. The film is as dark as most any noir. Unlike a noir, I believe most of the film takes place during the day, but the passage of time is much more noticeable through empty bottles and rings on the table from shot glasses.


I've read a lot of people complain the film's ending is a let down. Although I haven't read Charles R. Jackson's 1944 best seller to understand how his ending may have been better, to me what the films ending really emphasizes is not anything "happy," but just how hard it is to break free of the addiction. It is true that the ending offers a good deal of hope; Don now knows what he's going to write about and this style of book should only stump him if he can't figure out how to word his recounting of his lost weekend. That said, after all the hell Don put himself through he's back to the same place he was when the film started.

The opening and closing shots are essentially the same thing to show that the film has come full circle. We begin with a pan of the big city (NY) to a window with a bottle hanging by a rope outside it that we see belongs to Don, and end with the opposite. This sequence definitely suggests that if a different window was selected we might also encounter an alcoholic. At least to me, it also suggests that there should be so much more to do than drink yourself to death.

The film's message is the only one it can offer, as Helen simply says, "The only way to start (living) is to stop. There is no cure besides just stopping." A simply truth doesn't make going about it any simpler though. Don's still circling, still an alcoholic trying to stay sober. He could just as easily fall prey to the temptation of the bottle next weekend, if not before that. He will not only need the same effort, willpower, and determination that had kept him straight for "10 days" until this lost weekend, he will need far more to prevent once again undoing anything he might have accomplished.




* Copyright 2002 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *