JWR Articles: Film/DVD - The Lost Weekend (Director: Billy Wilder) - November 30, 2013

The Lost Weekend

4 4
101 min.

Well-made addiction primer lacks resonance in the 21st century

With the countless demons of 1945 being—at least temporarily—put to rest, it seems only appropriate that that year’s Best Picture award would go to a gritty film dealing with the ravages of alcoholism fuelled by a near-complete absence of self-esteem.

From the opening panoramic sweep of Manhattan’s concrete skyline, John Seitz’s stellar camera work eventually narrowing in on a bottle of rye dangling below a window—awaiting a surreptitious hoist to its owner’s unquenchable lips—to the mirrored fade-to-black (having just “seen the light”) at this incredible journey’s end, The Lost Weekend is a cinematic tour de force even if its storyline—viewed by 21st century eyes—severely stretches the limits of credibility.

Ray Milland’s portrayal of addiction denialist Don Birnam fare’s best when he shows rather than tells just how the booze is destroying himself and those few brave souls around him who stubbornly refuse to let him self-destruct. Searching for hidden-away bottles—stashed when drunk so near-impossible to recall the location—eerily demonstrates the terrible truth of having to get the next drink now! Salivating internally at the sight of a splendid production of Verdi’s La Traviata overflowing with bottle after bottle of champagne—the chorus magically morphing into a kickline of raincoats, each with a mickey of rye ferreted away for “emergencies”—speaks volumes about constant desire for the mind-blowing spirits (or enhancing, to all of those who feel they do their best work when bombed). Horrifically reacting to the promised (by male nurse ‘Bim’ Nolan—marvellously rendered with just a shot of lavender by Frank Faylen) “small animal” hallucinations—created when the inevitable delirium tremens kick in—won’t fail to bring a shudder as to just what lies ahead for those who cannot live up to the addict’s cure: “The only way to start [living life again] is to stop [universal to booze, drugs, gambling, sex/porn, etc.].”

The only false notes come from Milland looking far too fit and dapper to have been drowning himself in drink for a half-dozen years; his speech is frequently too articulate and expertly crafted to convince as a perpetual drunk.

For her part, Jane Wyman—as the leopard-coat-sporting Helen St. James—is too patient and forgiving by half: three years of courting a constant liar goes far beyond sainthood but, of course, is necessary for the drama (her spots never change). Don’s brother, Wick (Philip Terry is the ideal straight-up foil to his deadbeat sibling), is far more credible with his present-day exasperation and—during the flashback to happier times—when he attempts to lie for his bro in hopes that Helen won’t walk away in disgust. (To his credit, but, again, a bit off the mark of a serial drinker, Don owns up to the deceit only to word perfectly explain how his past as a flash-in-the-pan writer who couldn’t ever rekindle his muse’s flame.

At Don’s favourite watering hole, Nat (with a fine air of resignation from Howard Da Silva) dutifully pours “just one more” and listens to his increasingly desperate customer describing the long road to his current sorry state of affairs (maybe there’s a novel there…). Floozy Gloria—the bar’s resident tart for out-of-town lonely, married men—is given a gay turn by Doris Dowling but the character is never really developed, making her five-dollar contribution to the broke alkie slip the leash of believability,

Nonetheless, Wilder brilliantly weaves everything together making the time fly by—as if on a bender, once removed. Miklós Rózsa’s Theremin-infused score (kudos to Samuel Hoffman for his smooth-as-silk contribution) adds much to the drama; it’s leitmotif bearing a most curious resemblance to the theme from Born Free (for which John Barry snagged an Oscar in 1966).

Anyone who has lived with or near an addict will find some comfort in this production while those still unaware of their “problem” will be content to think, “Thanks god that could never happen to me,” then reach for their stimulant/depressant of choice. JWR

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