The Lost Weekend (1945)

One more for the road: Ray Milland spend the rest of his life reassuring people he wasn’t an alcoholic. Talk about the film that keeps on giving.

Director: Billy Wilder
Cast: Ray Milland (Don Birnam), Jane Wyman (Helen St. James), Philip Terry (Wick Birnam), Howard da Silva (Nat), Doris Dowling (Gloria), Frank Faylen (‘Bim’ Nolan)

It opens like a counter view of the American Dream: a long pan down through the New York skyline. A voiceover leads us through the window (via a shot of a bottle hanging out of the window) onto a pair of brothers packing for a weekend away. Only of course the bottle is really the third character here, and it’s all that one of the brothers has on his mind.

The Lost Weekend is simply that: a long weekend in which we see alcoholic would-be author Don Birnam (Ray Milland) lie, cheat and steal with a shabby English charm through the bright lights of the city, occasionally resolving to quit the demon booze, but constantly drawn back by its siren charm. Other characters drop in and out of his story: an almost fanatically supportive girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman), his weary brother Wick (Philip Terry), an ambiguousbartender (Howard da Silva – very good), a naïve hooker (Doris Dowling – innocent in the way only Hollywood golden age hookers can be) and finally a truth-telling male nurse Bim (Frank Faylen).

Probably what’s most remarkable about this film is that it was made at all, especially considering that this was when Hollywood’s “morality” dictates ruled. Film historians have suggested that Wilder’s introduction of an obvious hooker, and the suggestions of the Nurse’s homosexuality, so focused the Hays Code’s attention that they let slide that the central character is a lying, shifty drunk who feels only slight shame and very little regret for his actions, and whose announcement at the end that he has changed is potentially just the beginning of another cycle of sobriety in the addicted alcoholic.

Wilder’s genius here in filming is, instead of judging him or pitying, the camera sticks firmly with Don and makes us a co-conspirator in his low cunning and desperation to obtain alcohol. Don is a man who, during the course of the film, pawns several valuable possessions (some not his own), trashes his own apartment in search of booze, fleeces money from people with sympathetic-sounding grandiose stories, and is reduced to attempting public theft. But instead of placing us in the perspective of the (overly) saintly girlfriend frustrating us by striving to reform Don, we stick with Don and are invited to see those standing between him and the booze as the antagonists that Don perceives them to be.

Wilder also skilfully suggests that the same earnest help that Helen (and to a lesser extent Wick) are piling on Don is actually contributing to pushing him further into desperate addiction by smothering him. Don doesn’t seem to be ready to listen to anyone until, sunk to near rock bottom and hospitalised in the drunks’ ward, nurse Bim tells him out right that he is a self-destructive loser who is controlled by his addiction (I’ll also point out this doesn’t stop Don trying to bribe him to facilitate his escape from the ward). I’m also going to mention here a popular theory from film critics that Bim is a figment of Don’s imagination (his name is a near anagram of Don’s, he talks only to Don in the film, seems to know everything about Don’s inner thoughts, and his coded homosexuality links to Don’s own suggested homosexuality in the original book – the underlying cause of his addiction).

The film also has a wonderful noirish quality, capturing of the seedy world of the drunk: the bars and pawnshops that are Don’s world, and the impressionistic lighting used to dramatise Don’s drunken states. In one shot I particularly enjoyed, Don searches desperately for a bottle he hid while drunk the night before – he can’t remember where he hid it because he was pissed, but we know it’s hidden in the lightshade. The camera frames Don and his search with the lampshade constantly in shot above him. A later agonising sequence captures a hideously hungover Don staggering down Third Avenue to reach the pawnbrokers – only to find on arrival (in another moment of black comedy that permeates the film) that it, and all other pawnbrokers, are closed for the day.

The film wouldn’t work though without the excellent performance of Ray Milland in a role that he never matched again. Milland, an ex-pat Welshman with a theatre background, has just the right edge of shabby nobility to make you believe that everyone would continue to find this man endearing and constantly want to give him that second, third, fourth chance. Milland and Wilder are also not afraid to show us that Don’s only real creativity with language comes from drink – his inspired, poetic speeches grow with fervour the more beer he consumes, while his attempts to write without a drink get little further than the front page. Don is sympathetic to us, because I feel we all recognise our failures in him and our self loathing. Hating Don would almost be like hating ourselves – after all who hasn’t looked at their life and thought (to quote another classic) “I coulda been a contender”?

Brilliantly directed and with a fantastic central performance, this is perhaps one of the most empathetic films made about addiction. It’s not perfect – Wilder I think does his best to suggest that the rather sudden happy ending could be the start of another cycle of recovery and collapse, but I’m not sure if there is quite enough in the film to suggest this. Similarly Jane Wyman’s loving girlfriend is so cloyingly devoted you can well imagine she would drive a man to desperation – it’s a very dated character, and hard for a modern viewer not to see her as a facilitating doormat. But all that aside, this is a film packed with beautiful moments, great images and a knock-out performance by Milland. Recommended!

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