The Lost Weekend
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The Best Picture of 1945 has lost none of its bite or power in this uncompromising look at the devastating effects of alcoholism. Ironically, this brilliant Billy Wilder film was almost never released because of poor reaction by preview audiences unaccustomed to such stark realism from Hollywood, but the film has since gone on to be regarded as one of the all-time great dramas in movie history. Ray Milland's haunting portrayal of a would-be writer's dissatisfaction with his life leads him on a self-destructive three-day binge. Filled with riveting imagery, the multiple Academy Award-winner offers an unforgettable view of life on the edge.
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There were some memorable characterizations in this one: 1- Nat, the bartender, played by the always charismatic and terrific character actor Howard Da Silva---piericing eyes, flared nostrils, sharp tongued, and all. He is Birnum's oasis---his father confessor, his enabler. Great repartee between the two. You just have to love his rebuke of Birnum for conning Gloria the barfly, accepting a date he will never be sober for, and for having such a refined young woman as Helen constantly worried and looking for him, not knowing where he is or if he is well; 2- Gloria, played by Doris Dowling, whose stop-the-presses appearance---smoothly striding behind Birnum and stroking the back of his hairline then pointing and "clicking" a gun she feigns---is as sharp and sensual as anything Lauren Bacall did in TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT  and leaves all noir femmes in the dust; 3- Birnum's elderly landlady who knows everything about her alcoholic neighbor by studying his movements, counting the number of milk bottles left at his doorstep, and listening to the sounds behind his locked door. The old lady is a doozy; 4- Bim, played by vet Frank Faylen, the male nurse at the hospital alcoholic ward where Birnum ends up. He knows everything about the furtive and recalcitrant ways, and the guises and horrors of, the alcoholic. His blunted affect and detached manner are disturbing. There were also some delightfully endearing moments such as Helen sporadically asking the taller Don to "bend down" [for his kiss] and repositioning his cigarette end correctly into his mouth. Throughout the play, though, Helen was certain that Don's need for the bottle was greater than his love for her.
As Birnum's funds run out and his memory becomes more impaired he resorts to lying, stealing and just plain taking. This leads to humiliation, degradation, and like the "vicious" circles of his shotglass stains on the bar, to a greater need for escape and self-medication via the bottle. He ends up in an alcoholic ward but, repelled by the loony's around him, manages to escape. He returns home only to experience hallucinations and to rock-bottom and plan his suicide. He procures a gun at a pawn shop but Helen finds out and confronts him. Helen won't let up trying to deter the slippery, double-talking Birnum from carrying out his impulsive final act. It looks like she's going to fail until a knock at the door. It's guardian angel Nat returning Don's misplaced typewriter and wishing him well with a reattempt at writing and with "lilacs from Illinois"---the latter a reference to an earlier conversation between the two in which Birnum was trying to describe his love for Helen whom he had just met and for whom he had abstained for six weeks. Nat's appearance just a tap on the shoulder that outsiders with no clear bonds to him cared, and that they wished him love and success. Even Gloria, whom he had stood up, came through for him at the worst of times.
Disappointing, uninspired ending was only shortcoming. While Nat may have been Don's guardian angel, Helen was the hero in this film. Waiting and waiting at the end for the self-involved big lug to finally verbally and affectionately reciprocate Helen's singular and unwavering love, loyalty and dedication and to reward her with the sincere, implicit commitment she has fought for. Not even a thank you? Instead we have an impersonal news-reporter-like ending with Milland talking about the plights of others in NYC who have a problem with the bottle, like himself. Director Wilder probably believed that, in the throes of alcoholic ambivalence/withdrawal/cold-turkeying, reciprocation was not emotionally feasible at that time, but, I would have preferred the Hollywood ending with the adorable and admirable Helen getting her due. Just irked me that twice Helen extended her arms out to Don supplicating for his commitment only to be ignored. Felt like smashing a bottle of spirits over his head. In addition, after all the nightmares, Don's sudden cessation of imbibition was not credible. There's a great deal of work yet to be done, and Don is going to need Helen now more then ever. Otherwise, a superb production, pefectly cast, a memorable screenplay, outstanding performances by all involved. Going to Nat's next Saturday night---but won't be leaving any circles on the bar.
To re-hash the plot would be redundant as so many reviewers have already done so. I will concentrate my review on the protagonist: writer Don Birnam. The movie opens (and closes) with an aerial shot of a NYC apartment window and a bottle suspended outside. Don and his brother Wick are packing for a long weekend in the country and Don is trying to figure out how he is going to smuggle his bottle along. Priceless is the disdain with which Don responds to Wick touting the countryside, with its fresh air and clean, crisp well water! The very thought of having to drink water sets Don off into a nasty and biting rejoinder. Needless to say, Don doesn't go and the result, told partially in flashbacks, is one man's descent into the deepest, horrific depths of alcoholic hell.
Every time I think about this film I get that crazy background sound in my ear---that eerie, high-pitched howling that Don Birnam (aka Ray Milland in his Best Actor, Oscar-winning performance) must have piercing his alcohol-saturated brain after downing two quarts plus of cheap rye. He becomes Don Birnam. Absolutely believable! Surrounded by a fine supporting cast and expertly directed by Billy Wilder, his is a performance for the ages. I can't say enough about it. Never would Ray Milland achieve such notoriety again. Sad. He was an amazing actor and it just goes to prove that talent, combined with brilliant directing is a sure-fire combination for success. Every aspiring actor should watch this film.
I have on more than one occasion contacted the people at the Criterion Collection requesting that they restore this classic. It deserves their treatment. I give it my highest recommendation.
Don Birnam is an alcoholic, he'll do anything for a drink. 'The Lost Weekend' is a short tale of a short part of Don's life, covering his frenzied movements from bar to liquor store to pawn shop. The movie does a pretty good job of externalizing what is happening inside Don's mind.
"Most men lead lives of quiet desperation," Don says, "I can't take quiet desperation." Don is a writer, living off his brother, and spends his weekend boozing it up and reminiscing over days gone by.
My favorite flashback is the one where Don is watching 'The Drinking Song' from the first act of Verdi's 'La Traviata'. It's priceless. Don drools over the drinking and the ladies' bell-skirts turn into raincoats, one of them his with his booze in the pocket.
If you love "addiction" books and films as I do, this one is a must have for your collection. Though filmed in black and white, and made in 1945, 'The Lost Weekend' has lost none of its charm, nor it's bite, in the years between then and now. Addiction is personality, not era, and its still an entertaining movie. Enjoy!