Don Birnam, long-time alcoholic, has been “on the wagon” for ten days and seems to be over the worst; but his craving has just become more insidious. Evading a country weekend planned by his brother Wick and girlfriend Helen, he begins a four-day bender. In flashbacks we see past events, all gone wrong because of the bottle. But this bout looks like being his last…one way or the other.
Fifty-six years have seen many advances in the level of realism portrayed on film, but it is safe to say that The Lost Weekend remains the benchmark against which all other films on alcoholism are measured. Its view is uncompromising yet it manages to present that view in a manner that does not require resorting to tasteless violence or nihilism to make its point (unlike, for example, a more recent film such as Leaving Las Vegas , well-acted as it may be). The film’s realism is enhanced by extensive location shooting in New York, somewhat of a rarity for the time.
In keeping with the traditional functional style that Billy Wilder’s films typically had, The Lost Weekend follows a fairly straight-ahead narrative approach. The exception is the use of flashbacks to recount Birnam’s first meeting with his girlfriend. Otherwise we see the weekend unfold linearly as Birnam does. There is nothing in the way of intricate camerawork or particularly ingenious composition. There are, however—as is often the case with Wilder’s films—several sequences in the film that are particularly memorable.
The first is Birnam’s initially optimistic but soon increasingly desperate trek along New York’s Third Avenue, clutching his typewriter to him as he searches fruitlessly for an open pawnshop in which to exchange it for the price of a few drinks. Like a thirsty man searching unsuccessfully for an oasis in the desert and finally prevailing on passing strangers to give him directions, he finally happens on two pawnshop owners on the sidewalk who inform him that all pawnshops are closed for Yom Kippur. Birnam still possesses enough awareness to ask why then the stores run by the Irish are also closed. The answer is simple. There’s an informal agreement that the Irish-owned pawnshops remain closed on Yom Kippur in return for the Jewish-owned ones doing likewise on St. Patrick’s Day. Defeated, the penniless Birnam must seek out his local bar and beg for the needed drink. The second sequence is the oft-cited scene in Birnam’s apartment when he suffers from the DTs. In today’s era of elaborate special effects, the sequence with the bat and the rat is at times crude, yet the bat’s sudden attack on the rat, the dribble of blood on the wall that results, and Birnam’s terrified yells are still chilling to behold and hear.
Little in Ray Milland’s résumé suggested he had the acting capability needed for the role of Don Birnam. Essentially a light-comedy actor, Milland was Paramount’s choice as the company felt a matinee-idol type was needed to sell the picture given its content. Wilder acquiesced once it was clear there was no chance his choice of José Ferrer would be accepted. Milland himself had doubts, not just about the film’s subject matter, but also about his own ability to be able to do the part justice. With some trepidation, but with the urging of his wife, he accepted the role. His preparation included spending one night in the psychiatric ward at New York’s Bellevue Hospital as well as going on a diet so as to accentuate the look of a drinker who habitually forgets to eat. Milland’s performance is astonishingly good. As Milland grew older, he increasingly had a hint of desperation in his demeanor and this worked to good effect in playing Don Birnam. Milland allows that slight hint to gradually blossom in Birnam during the course of the film until it completely overpowers him in the DTs sequence. With the exception of one or two brief lapses, there is none of the stereotypical Hollywood-drunk behaviour about Milland’s portrayal. His Don Birnam is a man deeply troubled and deeply in trouble, and we are left in no doubt whatsoever about his problems.
Nor does the list of supporting actors and actresses promise, on the surface, anything particularly special. Yet the fact that it draws from that seemingly inexhaustible supply of character performers from Hollywood’s Golden Age should be enough to tell you that they will be uniformly excellent. And so they are—from a young yet experienced Jane Wyman as Birnam’s girlfriend, to Howard da Silva as the bartender, to Frank Faylen as Bim the male-nurse with the slight suggestion of gayness, to Phillip Terry as Birnam’s long-suffering brother. Even newcomer Doris Dowling as the woman in the bar who is interested in Birnam delivers a memorable performance with her wisecracking exchanges with him.
[Possible Spoiler Alert!!!] The ending of The Lost Weekend has been criticized as being too pat—that it suggests that Birnam can stop drinking almost on a whim. Yet I see no such suggestion in the ending. All we have is one more Birnam declaration that he won’t take that next drink. But dropping a cigarette into his glass doesn’t prove anything. He’s just one more stressful moment away from another drink, and there’s nothing that happens at the film’s end to suggest that anything has yet really changed in that sense. Being resolute for five minutes doesn’t cure alcoholism. If the film is hinting that a positive ending is possible, well what’s wrong with that? We all want a positive outcome for Birnam, but that doesn’t alter the fact that a great deal of work and will-power on his part and care and work on his girlfriend’s part are going to be needed in order to change anything.
Subtitles:English (Deaf and hard of hearing)