The Lost Weekend: Innovative for 1945



Directed by Billy Wilder

Paramount, 104 minutes, NR (pre-ratings system)





The Lost Weekend cleaned up at the 1946 Oscars. It got seven nominations and won four: Best Picture, Best Director (Billy Wilder), Best Actor (Ray Milland), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Wilder and Charles Brackett). It would have won a fifth for Best Original Score, except that Miklós Rózsa lost–to himself! (Rózsa also scored Spellbound and won for that film instead.) The Hungarian-born Rózsa is no longer a household name, but few rivaled him for scoring films whose subjects begged for tension-laden music. But, The Lost Weekend was really Ray Milland’s moment in the sun.


Perhaps I should say Milland’s moment in the murk. His was once considered the portrait of an alcoholic. Milland is Don Birnam, a New York-based critic/writer who has struggled with the bottle, despite the efforts of his brother Wick (Phillip Terry) to keep him sober, and support from his attractive girlfriend Helen St. James (Jane Wyman). Don met Helen when their coats were mixed up at an opera house. The Lost Weekend leads with that and tells its tale in reverse.


That was one of several innovative things that led to Billy Wilder’s Oscar. Back-to-front scripts are now so common that today’s directors often dispense with any sort of linear plot. Wilder didn’t invent reverse narratives, but his was a superior take on the device. He also added edginess by having Milland walk/stumble the streets with everyday New Yorkers while hidden cameras filmed him. Wilder also got permission to film inside an alcohol ward of Bellevue Hospital, which added another layer of verisimilitude.


Wilder wasn’t showing off. Don Birnam is the very embodiment of character disorder. Drunks do horrible things, but most of the damage they inflict upon those who care is the equivalent of a daily dose of paper cuts, not any one (or two, or three, or…) blow-up moments. If you see a film in which the latter happens more than once, you know that the script writers are more in love with melodrama than fact-gathering. In essence, the cumulative toll of most alcoholic behavior unfolds slowly and is hard to portray on film, let alone lend itself to being encapsulated in a single “lost weekend.”


Don’s crisis coincides with Yom Kippur, not because Don is Jewish but because most of New York’s pawnshops were once operated by Jews. That’s inconvenient for an alky who wants to pawn his typewriter (again!) to buy rotgut. He will manage to get a few drinks on tab at Nate’s Bar, until Nate (the vastly underappreciated Howard DaSilva) cuts him off with a lecture on how shabbily he treats Helen. Message sent, but not received. Don cons an ex-girlfriend (Doris Dowling) out of some dough, drinks to oblivion, and wakes up in a Bellevue drunk tank overseen by cynical ward nurse/counselor Bim Nolan (Frank Faylen, in an acidic turn). Don manages to bust out and not take the cure. All of this leads to a crisis point when he does find an open pawnshop, but uses his gain to buy a gun to put an end to his woes. Does he do it? Watch and find out.


The Lost Weekend was bold on other levels. The Hollywood Code was still in effect and had strict rules about how to portray tough subjects. The usual standard was that your subjects had to experience comeuppances or land in a net when they fell from the wire. Some studios, especially Warner, pushed the envelope because they owned theaters and could ignore pressure on distributors. (That would change in 1950.) By 1945, the Code was weakening, Paramount had its own screen network, and it needed the big hit The Lost Weekend provided. (Paramount was in receivership from 1931-40.) Another gutsy thing Wilder snuck in was that Birnam was modeled on one of his friends, crime fiction writer Raymond Chandler.


The Lost Weekend occasionally feels naïve and old-fashioned. That’s because we know a lot more about alcoholism today. Suffice it to say that in 1945, alcoholism was viewed as a moral or psychological failing, not a disease. Remember also that Freud was once the gold standard for disorders. The film’s glancing forays into dual personalities is a nod to Freud. All of this said, no matter what lens you bring to your living room chair, The Lost Weekend is a poignant reminder of the bottle and the damage done. Treatment modalities have changed, but the problem remains.


Rob Weir   

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