The Lost Weekend (1945)

Billy Wilder | 1hr 41min

Don Birnam would like to believe that within his body, there resides two versions of him: Don the Writer and Don the Drunk. Never mind that his sober self collects and stashes bottles of liquor in nooks around his flat, actively enabling his own addiction. With this fancy literary conceit of dual personalities, it is easy enough for him to blame it on his fear of creative failure, and escape culpability for whatever he gets up to while under the influence. There is no doubt he is an intelligent man capable of far greater things than what he is currently achieving in life, especially since Billy Wilder relishes writing his dialogue with loquacious, dramatic zeal, letting him romantically soliloquise the sublime effect alcohol takes on his consciousness.

“It shrinks my liver, doesn’t it, Nat? It pickles my kidneys, yes. But what does it do to my mind? It tosses the sandbags overboard so the balloon can soar. Suddenly, I’m above the ordinary, I’m competent, supremely competent. I’m walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls. I’m one of the great ones. I’m Michelangelo moulding the beard of Moses. I’m Van Gogh painting pure sunlight. I’m Horowitz playing the ‘Emperor Concerto’.”

A fine performance from Ray Milland, hitting the highs and lows of this charismatic alcoholic as he struggles with addiction.
Some excellent mise-en-scène work from Wilder as well, making use of foregrounds and backgrounds in these shots that tell entire stories.

Ray Milland’s delivery of such poetic lines goes beyond mere affection. Don is absolutely infatuated with his vice, going to remarkable lengths to satiate its craving, even while recognising it as a foible he must try to keep it out of the view of his brother, Wick, and long-suffering girlfriend, Helen. Minor inconveniences like the fact he can barely sit through an opera featuring actors drinking fake wine barely make a dent in his alcoholic resolve. It is not until the six days that The Lost Weekend takes places over that a steady downward slide sinks him deeper than he ever has been before, dampening his carefree demeanour with enough spirits to finally quench his thirst.

A number of rings from the bottom of a bottle – a smart cutaway that economically tells the tale of one drunken night.
Tracking in on the rippling surface of alcohol, tempting and intoxicating us with its dazzling beauty.

Wilder is not typically one to make daring stylistic choices, but neither does he let his camera become a mere passive observer in this film, as he skilfully develops Don’s substance abuse and breakdown through several alcohol-related motifs. The Lost Weekend efficiently depicts one drunken night through a simple shot noting the many rings of condensation left on the bar by his drinks. In another composition, the alcohol itself ripples and reflects lights with an overhead angle that tantalisingly pushes forward with sultry temptation, and as Don wanders liquor stores looking for his next dose, Wilder smothers him behind rows of bottles lined up in the foreground, turning the mere shape of them into a visual cue prompting his own compulsion. This conceit pays off again later as well when the distorted shadow of a bottle he previously hid in a light fixture casts a recognisable shadow up on the ceiling, thereby ending that night’s desperate search for a drink.

The shape of bottles become motifs of temptation, carrying unsettling implications for Don every time they appear.

Paired with Billy Wilder’s sharp direction is one of Miklós Rózsa’s greatest movie scores, developing a dizzying theme that wavers and spirals in a string orchestra before being passed off to a shrill theremin, where it uneasily underscores Don’s drunken self-degradation. Like the wailing musical saw from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest thirty years later, there is a tragic quality to this melody, similarly seeking to understand the fragility of its cynical male protagonist. It is a testament to the development of Don’s character that we still hold onto some empathy for him even as he hits new lows, where he is driven to stealing purses, holding up whiskey stores, and exploiting romantic crushes. As he sets out to pawn off his typewriter, Wilder dissolves between tracking shots moving down city streets and the alcoholic fully prepared to sacrifice his livelihood and talent, and though we pity him immensely at this point, the narrative is far from done with its torment.

Long dissolves and tracking shots as Don walks groggily down this street, searching for relief.

A brief stint in an alcoholic’s ward marks the point at which The Lost Weekend begins to verge ever so slightly on horror, confronting Don with a frightening, raving patient who could very well be a future version of himself. As he watches in fear from his bed at the man being whisked away, the shadow of the hospital doors swing across his face, casting him in an agitated darkness. Hallucinations of bats burying into walls, killing mice, and spilling blood across his apartment plague his delirious mind, until he is finally driven to rock bottom where suicide seems to be the only escape.

At the climax of Don’s visit to the alcoholic’s ward, the hospital door dramatically swings its shadow across his face, casting him in darkness.

Perhaps it is Wilder’s marvellous genre dexterity which helps him smooth over the tonal shift that comes in the final minutes, offering Don a real chance at redemption and sobriety. In the hands of a less talented writer, the miracle of his typewriter finding its way back into his hands and Helen’s pep-talk might not seem like enough to undo everything that has taken place, but nevertheless there is a strong formal cohesion to in the conclusion’s mirrored bookends. Where we came into Don’s life with a long take floating from a New York panorama into his apartment window, we leave the same way, flashing back to that opening shot that now moves in reverse, accompanied by his voice dictating the words that will introduce his autobiographical novel. For Wilder to draw such a hopeful resolution from what is certainly among his darkest films is a truly impressive feat, though with a complicated character as richly drawn and sympathetic as Don Birnam, The Lost Weekend deserves nothing less.

Returning to this opening shot…
…in the closing shot. Wonderful form from Wilder here, and an excellent camera movement to match it.

The Lost Weekend is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

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