Film Reviews (Seriously) Redux – THE LOST WEEKEND
On August 18, 2011, on a now-defunct personal blog, I published this FR (S) review of Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend. I thought I’d slowly migrate some previous work to this new site, so here is the latest. Thanks for reading (or re-reading). – Michael
Hollywood has had this habit (pardon the pun) of portraying alcoholics as funny drunks, getting cheap laughs from the “antics” of actors like Dudley Moore in 1981’s Arthur, and Foster Brooks, a Las Vegas comedian who appeared in various TV movies and series, and who was known as “The Loveable Lush.” Even legends like W.C. Fields and Dean Martin had popular and entertaining real-life personas of being perennially excessive drinkers.
All of these antics have also been to the delight of the industry’s wallet. If a man humiliates himself as a result of being intoxicated, Hollywood is ready to milk every slur, stumble, or fall for a laugh and a buck. Yes, there have been exceptions, like Leaving Las Vegas (1995) and 28 Days (2000), which are two excellent modern examples of how Hollywood deals with alcoholism’s debilitating hold on its sufferers. The best classic example, though, is The Lost Weekend (1945), a film that is more sobering than a month on the wagon.
Director Billy Wilder’s masterful establishing shot speaks volumes. It’s a wide shot of the city skyline, which is cliché, but this view of the city simply lulls us into thinking it’s a standard opening shot. Wilder pans and fixes the lens on an open apartment window; then, as Wilder slowly zooms in, we see, hanging by a length of rope from the open window, and dangling high above the street/sidewalk/alley below … a bottle of booze.
Not only does the sight of this shock us out of our lull, it tells us several things about the main character, and we haven’t even met him yet. We know that if a man hangs a bottle of booze from his high-rise apartment window, he must be hiding it from someone, and if he’s hiding it from someone, he probably shouldn’t have it to begin with. It shows his resourcefulness at finding unique hiding spots, because if he has gone to the extreme of hanging the bottle outside, chances are all of his inside hiding spots have been found. It also shows the desperate extent to which an addict will go to ensure that he gets his fix. We know, seconds into the film and without a word of dialogue, we are in for an intense ride.
Through the window and into the apartment, we meet Don Birnam (Milland), a failed writer and recovering alcoholic, who is packing for a weekend in the country with his brother, Wick (Terry). Don’s girlfriend, Helen (Wyman), arrives with a pair of concert tickets, and Don manages to persuade Wick to accompany her, after which the brothers can take a later train to the country. Fate steps in, and Wick finds Don’s dangling bottle, which he quickly pours down the drain.
Wick and Helen leave Don with no booze and no money, until Don finds some hidden for the cleaning lady. Don steals the money and heads straight for the liquor store for two bottles of rye. Then he heads for the local bar to down a few shots before he opens the bottles. As the weekend progresses, so does Don’s drinking, to the point of hospitalization. Wick abandons him, Helen worries for him, a local girl who hangs out at the bar looks for love from him, and Nat (Da Silva), the barkeep, keeps on pouring for him.
Watching a man drink himself into oblivion is a difficult thing to do. Going with him to the bottom of the bottle is harder still, and that’s exactly where Oscar-winners Wilder and Milland take us.
Wilder’s greatest storytelling achievement in this film is that he manages to take time away from us. We know that the “lost” weekend is a long one – Friday to Monday – and that it starts mid-afternoon on Friday. But once we get into the evening, the weekend grows more blurred for Don, so it grows more blurred for us. Wilder only uses subtle clues to tell us that a substantial amount of time has passed, like the number of shot glass-sized rings on the bar and the number of milk bottles outside Don’s apartment door. Don slips in and out of sleep, in and out of bars, and in and out of consciousness, and while we might be given hints as to whether it’s day or night, we’re never sure which day or night it is.
Time is not simply one of those elements that is crucial to a film’s believability, it is something that is important to all of us, because we never seem to have enough of it, so we are always aware of it. Think about the number of “timekeepers” in your life: clocks, watches, computers, cell phones, etc. All of them keep time. Losing this sense of time in the film is exactly Wilder’s goal; someone on a multi-day bender will not have a tight grip on time, so neither should we, and that gets us deep inside the character.
A sequence of note is the flashback, as told by Don to Nat, about the time Don and Helen meet for the first time. This sequence lays some nice groundwork on just how much of an impact alcohol has had on Don’s life, and on the lives of his loved ones.
At first, those supporting characters seem two-dimensional, but what they represent are standard personalities – common character denominators of people who populate an alcoholic’s world. Wick is the one who has tried so hard to help the alcoholic recover, but finally gives up; Helen is the one who loves the alcoholic, and who will do anything to keep the alcoholic alive; and Nat is the one who, despite knowing better, takes twisted pity and feeds the alcoholic’s needs. And all play their parts despite the consequences.
As for Milland, he rises to the daunting task of creating a character that is deceitful and mean and selfish, yet so tragically flawed and self-aware that he commands sympathy. Out of everyone in his life, he is his own greatest victim; not just by the damage he does to his own body and mind, but by the scars he leaves on his own soul. And it’s that soul that continues to fight, despite the scars. Nearly everything Don consciously does seems to have a dual purpose – selfish and unselfish.
He sends his brother to the concert with Helen, so that (selfish) he will be alone to drink, and (unselfish) because they are the two people who he has made suffer the most, and who deserve a couple hours away from the daily worry and care for him. He buys two bottles of rye with the expectation that Wick will find one. This “decoy” bottle (selfish) will make Wick think that Don has been caught, when Don’s second bottle is all he’ll need, and (unselfish) Wick will feel better about himself thinking that he stopped his brother from downing a bottle of booze. He arranges a date with Gloria when he already has a girlfriend, (selfish) so he can have companionship with someone that is not trying to save him or rehabilitate him, and (unselfish) he can give Gloria the opportunity for a night out on a “real” date, not the usual “dates” she makes with older men. Don’s split behavior continues throughout, even when he steals money from a stranger’s purse, so that he can pay a bar tab. He is thoughtful enough and remorseful enough about the negativity of his own actions to leave a flower in the purse as a form of apology.
Even after the Hitchcockian hallucinations Don he has while suffering through the DTs, some might consider the film’s ending to be a little too tidy, but having lived through Don’s experiences, it comes as nothing short of sweet relief.