The Lost Weekend (1945)

Directed by Billy Wilder


The story goes that Billy Wilder made The Lost Weekend in response to working alongside Raymond Chandler while writing the script for his previous film, Double Indemnity.  Chandler was an alcoholic, and the two had trouble working together, so when Wilder read the book on which The Lost Weekend is based, he decided he had to make it as a way to understand Chandler.

The Lost Weekend refers to a crisis of faith, so to speak, experienced by writer Don Birnam (Ray Milland).  Even in a place as big as New York City, Don is a notorious alcoholic.  When he steals ten dollars his brother has left for a maid and uses it to buy two bottles of whiskey, he hides them underneath a few apples in a brown paper bag so that the people on the street who know him by name won’t think he’s fallen off the wagon again.  Everyone whispers about Don.

With his girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman) and brother Wick (Philip Terry), Don is meant to go away for the weekend, but he gets drunk and can’t bear to face either of them so he stays home in between trips to the neighborhood bars where the bartenders all express their reservations about serving him but do so anyways.

Like in Double Indemnity and Wilder’s later film, Sunset Boulevard, this story relies on the protagonist’s narration.  Don tells the bartender about how he met Helen, how he’s been an alcoholic for much of his adult life and how it all started when he struggled to write.  To quiet the voice in his head telling him he’s not good enough, Don turned to alcohol, and it’s only gotten worse since.

For the last three years, his brother and girlfriend have been by his side, but when the film begins his brother has finally had enough.  Helen, however, dutifully remains even as Don’s erratic behavior increases.

You can’t really overstate just how bad Don’s alcoholism is.  He desperately needs a bottle at all times, he hides the bottles throughout his apartment, even hanging them out the window in attempt to conceal them from his hawk-eyed brother, and he laments the time between waking up and the bars opening as something like hell.

As part of this Oscar-winning performance, Milland spent time at the Bellevue hospital in New York and tried to experience what it meant to be an alcoholic of this severity.  It’s easy to think this is something like Reefer Madness, over-dramatizing a problem to scare the audience because I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone with this much of an alcohol problem onscreen before.

Don is constantly sweating, constantly agonizing, and he feels more like a returning soldier suffering from PTSD.  Later in the film, during and after a brief hospital stay, we see just how frighteningly bad it can get.  Don witnesses other hospital patients hallucinating and screaming through the halls of one of those old hospitals that nowadays feels exclusively reserved for psychological thrillers in which the only point is to question the hero’s sanity (Shutter Island).  That night, at home, he hallucinates a bat gruesomely eating a rat with dark blood seeping down the walls.  It’s a traumatizing sequence if only because everything else feels so innocent beforehand.

The portrayal of Don’s alcoholism feels like it’s coming from someone who’s never had a drop of hard alcohol but who had a friend who had an uncle who had a drinking problem.  It seems to overstate the problem, and you kind of shake your ahead at the movie even if you agree that alcoholism is a problem.  But then Don really starts to freak out, and the movie doubles down on this commitment to show you the pain he’s in.

Maybe the movie overstates the problem.  It probably does.  It still feels like a PSA about drinking, ‘one drop and you’re screwed,’ type of thing.  The film sort of glosses over the nuances of how people develop certain addictions or any of the nuance of Don’s character.  All we’re told is that he was a writer, then hit a wall professionally and then started drinking, and suddenly he’s entirely dependent on the booze.  We never see that descent, how he so effortlessly slipped into this pattern despite an apparent support system (his kind brother) around him.

The film presents this all as a disease, as it is, and yet it ends with Don putting his foot down, finally saying no to the whiskey and earning a respectful smile from his girlfriend.  Then, as the camera pans out to show the New York skyline, he gives what is meant to be a rousing speech about the dangers of alcoholism and how people you don’t even realize are affected are around you everywhere:

“Out there in that great big concrete jungle, I wonder how many others there are like me? Poor bedeviled guys on fire with thirst. Such comical figures, to the rest of the world, as they stagger blindly towards another binge, another bender, another spree.”

So the film presents this problem with complete seriousness.  This is not a joking matter, and there is no comic element anywhere in this film as there are in so many of Wilder’s other films, even the darker ones like Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard.  He seems to be saying that this is an important story about an important issue, and the audiences/critics agreed.  The Lost Weekend cleaned up at the Oscars, winning Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director and Best Screenplay.

But the film is incredibly dated.  It tackles a serious issue but undermines itself by suggesting that all it takes to overcome this disease is to say “enough is enough.”  In reality, if Don’s alcoholism is as bad as it seems, then he lost control of himself long ago, and his refusal to seek treatment is possibly an indictment of people who should seek treatment.

Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life (1956) tackles a similar issue, seen through James Mason’s dependence on a life-saving, miracle drug that begins to corrupt his personality.  It’s a film that goes to places as dark as in The Lost Weekend though perhaps even darker, making the protagonist a much more rotten figure, but it’s also a film with a similarly melodramatic ending but with a little more nuance.  Both films are extended PSAs for drug abuse, but the Ray film discusses the benefit of the life-saving drug while cautioning us against the misuse of such a drug.  In The Lost Weekend there is nothing about how alcohol can be properly consumed, in moderation.  It’s all about the disease and the sudden yet unbelievable triumph over the disease.  You get the impression that the people behind the film want you to never drink a beer or a shot of whiskey ever again because, if you do, you’re down for the count.

Up Next: The Lady Eve (1941), Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017), Unfaithfully Yours (1948)

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