The Lost Weekend Review

Even as a borderline apologist for its director, The Lost Weekend is not a film I'm entirely sold on, save for a few touches and specific scenes. It isn't a bad movie by any means, and I know that its inclusion in the Masters of Cinema Series will result in some new attention, but it feels woefully limited when seen by the modern eye. Billy Wilder, the supreme cynic of classic Hollywood cinema, made a movie about an alcoholic writer that is somehow lacking in potent cynicism. The social awareness angle that probably, along with a loss the previous year for Double Indemnity, propelled the picture to win the Academy Award for Best Picture cannot help but feel dated. Alcoholism has now been portrayed on film so many times, from painful rawness to black comedy and with many in-betweens, that such an early attempt which also carries rather little weight otherwise is bound to have lost much of its fire.

Based on a best-selling novel by Charles R. Jackson which was published a year prior to the film's 1945 release, The Lost Weekend has the task of selling Ray Milland to the audience for the bulk of its running time. His character Don Birnam is in his early thirties, a writer who doesn't write and has no job now or ever yet lives in a Manhattan apartment with his brother and has a girlfriend of three years played by Jane Wyman. Milland is just bland enough to distract us into at least not disliking him. We can't be convinced of his talent or even his charm, making the entire relationship with Wyman somewhat questionable, but there's some evidence that he's a clever enough guy. For one thing, he's good at finding ways to feed his addiction to alcohol. He hides bottles in so many places that he doesn't always remember where they are when he's later looking for them. He also talked bartenders and liquor stores into supplying him with booze on credit, probably long after they shouldn't have. The brother and the girlfriend have both been little more than enablers for an extended period of time.

It's easy to wonder why any of this ever started or dragged out for so long. Milland has a monologue, a beautiful, shining one he delivers in full-on Oscar-winning mode, about the virtues of his alcohol consumption. After acknowledging its effects on his liver and kidneys, he gets to what it does to his mind. "It tosses the sandbags overboard so the balloons can soar. Suddenly I'm above the ordinary. I'm competent. I'm walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls. I'm one of the great ones." And he continues with the flourishes, but there's never any mention of concrete accomplishments being made while he's on the stuff. It's entirely destructive for him. He barely even starts his stories and novels. The one piece of writing we see him attempt in the film is limited to a title, his credit and a dedication. If he has any talent for this stuff, and there's certainly no indication that he does in the movie, it's entirely obscured by the alcoholism.

A possibly more compelling insight into Birnam's drinking is found in the film. "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation," he says before exclaiming that he can't take quiet desperation. Rather than holding up the character's alcoholism as a form of writer's block or, as Jackson does in the book but Wilder probably wouldn't have been allowed to explore, blaming it on a childhood trauma or potentially related to repressed homosexuality, the idea that Birnam drinks because he can't take the alternative seems much more interesting at least from an existential angle. Though it's an overly cute film at times, the James Stewart vehicle Harvey, made five years later, does just that in its depiction of an alcoholic man who drinks because he simply can't take the world and its people as they are while sober. By contrast, Birnam seems to drink out of some kind of self-loathing defeatism. Even if the film carries no real hint at a repressed homosexuality there's still reason to see Birnam as a guy who's completely undone by something within himself.

One can argue it was admirable or, if emboldened, brave for Wilder to bring the life of an alcoholic to the screen. There were other serious depictions beforehand but none probably had the depth or focus found in The Lost Weekend. It's a movie about alcoholism that also revolves around it. There's little to the film outside of alcoholism. That's the picture, for better or worse. What results when seen now is that it's no longer terribly interesting beyond being an artifact. For a Wilder film this is deadly. In many ways, The Lost Weekend is fairly atypical for Billy Wilder. It may have a protagonist who somewhat thrives on his selected opportunism and also feature a thinly veiled prostitute character, but there's not much bite or moral grey. What occurs here is pretty clearcut. There is no defense of alcoholism on display. Wilder kept some ambiguity in the ending, dealing in darkness until the last few moments, but still siphoned off a tone which now feels surprisingly safe.

Birnam, by most all logic, should fall even further into his alcoholic abyss. He's instead given an almost magically understanding support system of his brother and girlfriend and an unconvincing cure at the very end. The demons of alcohol are treated as akin to alien, evidenced by Miklos Rozsa's score that equates the bottle with something out of science fiction. The film doesn't seem to want to present alcoholism as a condition so much as a problem. Its melodrama dramatizes the struggle rather than humanizing it. When the barfly floozy who'd been pursuing Birnam every chance she had finally gets a knock on her apartment door from him, the scene plays as the most real of any in the movie. It actually feels like it came from a Billy Wilder picture.

There's no denying that the film overall is a decidedly grim affair, and never more so than in the hallucinatory sequence where Milland sees a bat attack a rodent crawling through a hole in his apartment wall. If this is symbolism, and I'm not convinced it is, then Wilder and co-screenwriter Charles Brackett chose a particularly crude depiction. Milland's persistent cold sweats and self-destructive behavior also make for an especially nasty means of relating to the protagonist. Only those who've battled the bottle or, perhaps, the blank white page, can find something to relate to among his struggles. And therein lies some of the problem with The Lost Weekend when seen through a contemporary perspective. Its relevance straddles a line between feeling daring for its time and limited by today's standards. Had the film been about more than the Milland character's alcoholism then I think it would consequently hold a stronger appeal. As it stands, Wilder made many other films which were better and more attuned to his unique voice.

An unfair postscript sort of lingers over the film. The author of the source novel, Charles Jackson, later admitted to having based the lead character on himself, a New York-based writer struggling with alcohol. Though The Lost Weekend was a best seller, Jackson, whose relationship with another man later in life certainly gives credence to the theory of repressed homosexuality in the book's protagonist, committed suicide at the age of 65. He killed himself while in his room at the Hotel Chelsea in 1968. He had three novels published after The Lost Weekend, none of which found the success of his debut.

The Disc

From Eureka's Masters of Cinema Series comes a Region B Blu-ray of The Lost Weekend. It's also available in a limited edition Steelbook edition (with identical disc and booklet content) and is released concurrently with Billy Wilder's previous feature, the  film noir classic Double Indemnity. It is spine number 45, matching the year of original release.

A new high definition master of the film, in its proper 1.37:1 aspect ratio, was licensed from Universal Pictures for use here. The lack of damage is encouraging, as is the delicate balance of grain. Greyscale, too, appears fine. Nothing at all proves overly nagging in this transfer. There are, however, a couple of things worth mentioning. The detail, particularly in shadows and darker areas, is a little below what we've seen elsewhere in classic titles on the format. There's also a flickering visible at times. I don't know how anyone could decide against a purchase based on these relatively small matters but it's good to keep them in mind for purposes of expectations.

An English DTS-HD Master Audio track is spread across the front two channels. The mono sound emerges without incident. Fans of Rozsa's score will hopefully be pleased. Dialogue courtesy of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett dances merrily out of the speakers. Volume remains under control throughout the viewing. No damage was audible in the track. There are optional English subtitles, white in color, for the hearing impaired.

The character of Bim, the male nurse played by Frank Faylen, is given a special appreciation in an "introduction" (6:36) by Alex Cox which, ideally, should still be watched after viewing the film. Bim is certainly one of the more interesting aspects of the film and I like that Cox has chosen to specifically highlight him in this piece.

The real treat found on this release, arguably even more so than the film, is the three-part "Billy, How Did You Do It?" directed by Volker Schlöndorff and Gisela Grischow. This is the version which aired in 1992 on BBC's Arena. At about three hours total, it's significantly longer than what Kino released on DVD a few years ago as Billy Wilder Speaks. However, if you add in the additional footage found on that Kino DVD, the times do become closer. The real advantage here is that it's all edited together as a mostly chronological exploration of Wilder's career and the BBC program also seems to use more clips from the referenced movies rather than still photos. This version is probably superior to Kino's Billy Wilder Speaks, which didn't go chronologically or have the little connective tissues showing Schlöndorff, but I'm glad to own both. It's just a little unfortunate that Wilder stops at The Apartment rather than continuing the discussion about the rest of his career. The Kino disc does at least have some talk about One, Two, Three on it.

Part one (59:40) covers Wilder's career up to and including A Foreign Affair while the second part (61:29) handles The Emperor Waltz until The Spirt of St. Louis and Love in the Afternoon. The Seven Year Itch is included in part three (62:06) next to Some Like It Hot, and The Apartment becomes the last film discussed.

A radio adaptation of The Lost Weekend done for the Screen Guild Theater in January of 1946, and featuring Ray Milland, Jane Wyman and Frank Faylen, has also been included on the MoC disc. It runs half an hour.

The film's original theatrical trailer (2:06) rounds out the special features on the disc.

An included 36-page booklet features a commendable essay by David Cairns, who actually doesn't seem much more enthusiastic about the film than I am. It's a good read, to be sure, if still not quite a rousing defense of what is, to me, a flawed movie which tried to be important instead of great. There's also an interesting comparison between Charles Jackson's book and the screenplay by Wilder and Charles Brackett regarding the hallucination sequence. This adds shots from the film as a further visual companion.

A final little piece reprinted in the booklet is pretty cute. It has Seagram's congratulating Ray Milland on his performance as the alcohol company also steadfastly reminds us that some people simply should not drink.

7 out of 10
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