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The Lost Weekend (1945) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

film helen don’s bottle

Principal social themes: addiction (alcohol), depression/suicide

Paramount. No MPAA rating. Featuring: Ray Milland, Jane Wyman, Phillip Terry, Howard da Silva, Frank Faylen, Doris Dowling, Mary Young, Anita Bolster, Lilian Fontaine, Lewis L. Russell, Frank Orth. Written by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder based on the novel by Charles R. Jackson. Cinematography by John F. Seitz. Edited by Doane Harrison. Music by Miklos Rozsa. Produced by Charles Brackett. Directed by Billy Wilder. B&W. 101 minutes.

Overview

When Paramount executives first previewed The Lost Weekend , they concluded it was a well-made example of social conscience filmmaking but with rather poor market potential. They were quite surprised when the film opened in New York not only to rave reviews, but with sizable box-office returns as well. When the West Coast premiere proved equally successful, they realized that director Billy Wilder and his film had tapped a problem that had been simmering in the American subconscious. The Lost Weekend touched many people who responded strongly to the film’s presentation and message. It went on to become a cinematic milestone, the most popular social issue film up to that time, spawning a number of other cinematic projects focusing on social problems, such as The Snake Pit (1948), dealing with mental illness, and The Well (1951), focusing on racism. The Lost Weekend won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Synopsis

The premise of The Lost Weekend is simple—an unflinching examination of four days in the life of Don Birnam (Ray Milland), an alcoholic writer living with his brother in New York City. As the story begins, Don and Wick (Phillip Terry), his brother, are preparing for a weekend holiday in the country, but Don’s mind is not on his packing. It is on a bottle of rye whisky suspended on a rope hanging outside their apartment window. When Don’s girlfriend, Helen (Jane Wyman), an editor at Time magazine, shows up to wish them well, Don hatches a scheme to persuade them to go to the afternoon symphony concert. By then, Don explains, he would be ready to take the evening train to the country. Reluctantly, Wick agrees. Before he and Helen leave, they find Don’s bottle hidden outside the window. Don asks them to have faith in him and promises to be ready for their trip. After they leave, he searches desperately through the apartment, but Wick has already found all his hidden stashes of liquor. When their housekeeper turns up for her wages, she tells Don where the money is usually placed for her. Don finds it, but pretends the money is not there, telling the woman to come back next week for her pay. He then heads to the local liquor store and the bar, and his downward journey begins.

Don never makes it back to the apartment in time to leave for the trip. Disgusted, Wick tells Helen he has decided to go on the trip anyway. He is tired of caring for his brother through his many binges and he leaves, telling Helen to let Don fend for himself. She will not, but since she is working the entire weekend, she is unable to look after him. Don’s downward spiral continues. Returning to the bar the following morning, he tells Nat the bartender (Howard da Silva), how he met and fell in love with Helen. Don vows to write his novel about alcoholism, to be titled The Bottle , but finds himself unable to get past the title page. He ends up at a nightclub unable to pay his bar tab. After stealing some money from a lady’s purse, he is caught and tossed out into the street. The next day, Don becomes desperate for a drink and tries to pawn his typewriter, but finds himself stymied when all the pawnshops are closed due to Yom Kippur. He begs a drink from Nat at the bar, and then goes to borrow money from Gloria, a prostitute who likes Don’s courtly manners. He collapses and is taken to the drunk-tank ward at Bellevue. Bim Nolan (Frank Faylen), a male nurse, warns Don that he is an “alkie” and will soon suffer other symptoms, such as seeing visions during spells of delirium. Later that night, one of the patients in the ward has a violent spell. As the nurses and guards take him down to the elevator, Don sneaks out of the usually locked ward, steals a doctor’s coat, and escapes into the night. He waits outside a liquor store, and as the proprietor opens up, he bullies him into handing over a bottle of rye whisky.

Don goes back to his apartment and starts to scream when he imagines he sees a bloody encounter between a bat and a tiny mouse. The landlady calls Helen, who comes over immediately, and tends to the groggy, frightened Don. The next morning, Don has regained his composure and makes a decision to end his life. He swipes Helen’s fur coat, taking it to the pawnshop. Helen follows him and is stunned when she learns from the pawnbroker that Don had purchased a gun. When she returns to the apartment, Don seems calm and resolved. She offers him a drink, but he refuses. Helen tries to talk him out of suicide, but Don says it is the only way out. At the climatic moment, Nat shows up at the door with an unexpected gift, Don’s typewriter, which Gloria had retrieved when Don was taken to the hospital. Gloria had brought it to Nat for safe-keeping. Don and Helen are moved by this gesture, interpreting it as a sign that Don can overcome his problem. Don begins his novel again, this time in earnest, in which he intends to detail the experience of his “lost weekend.”

Critique

Ray Milland wrote honestly about his work on The Lost Weekend in his autobiography Wide-Eyed in Babylon . When he was given the book to read, he found it repellent. He also had doubts that he would be convincing in the drunk scenes. In real life, he was a very light drinker, and his drunk scenes in earlier films were done mostly for laughs. As the film was shot, he relied heavily on Billy Wilder for direction. The novel’s author, Charles Jackson, also spent much time with the actor, explaining his personal ordeal with liquor, which led to his writing of the book.

The Lost Weekend was largely shot in inverse order, with Milland’s most haggard scenes done first. Location work was added in New York City, including the hospital ward scene actually shot in the drunk-tank ward at Bellevue. A hidden camera filmed the scenes of Milland staggering up Third Avenue. He was recognized, and sidebars appeared in gossip columns saying that the actor was actually on a bender in New York City. When the picture was completed, his publicist was able to correct these stories with fact.

When watching the film today, it is hard to realize the original impact, when such stark, unrelenting melodrama was largely limited to over-the-top exploitation films such as Reefer Madness. The Lost Weekend is successful on many levels. Milland’s acting seems natural and unforced, and he is completely convincing. The supporting players, particularly Howard da Silva, Frank Faylen, and Jane Wyman, deliver masterful performances as well. Wyman’s part as written is a thankless role, but she is able to fill it with a special, quiet pathos. The editing and continuity of the film is disturbing. If you follow the story closely, Don seems to experience Saturday twice. This confusion is deliberate, as Don stresses in his dialogue about the loss of time—not knowing if it is dawn or dusk, Sunday or a weekday—which is one of the most disturbing aspects of being on an alcoholic binge. Miklos Rozsa’s music score, with its use of the theremin, is superb. The shrill, electronic whining of the instrument became one of the most distinctive elements of the film. The cinematography is exceptional and straightforward. Wilder considered using a greater number of expressionistic shots, but then decided that it might prove distracting. In fact, the bat attack scene is one of the weakest in the film, with special effects below that of the typical vampire film. The bat, however, was supposed to be an alcoholic hallucination, so the cheesy effect was not entirely out of place. Milland’s frantic screaming managed to save the scene in any case. The other special effects scene, however, worked perfectly. This is the flashback where Don goes to see La Traviata , and during the drinking song, he imagines the cast dissolving into floating raincoats, reminding him that he has a bottle of rye whisky in the pocket of his coat. The only facet of the film that seems artificial is Don’s redemption at the end, which seems a trifle quick. The return of the typewriter, although well handled, just does not seem persuasive enough to reawaken Don’s will to live. Milland’s final narration, looping back to the opening scene of the film, is a remarkable and powerful screen moment and wraps the film up magnificently. One powerful testament to The Lost Weekend is that many problem drinkers have cited the film as one that personally influenced them in getting help for their alcoholism.

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