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The Lost Weekend (1945)

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1997

A grim but compelling study of alcoholism, The Lost Weekend shocked on its release and still packs a knowing and disturbing punch. In their Manhattan apartment, Don Birnam (Ray Milland) and his brother Wick (Philip Terry) pack their suitcases. Preparing for a weekend in the country, at their parents home, the mood is jolly but perhaps also slightly strained. The problem is that Don's attention is focused on the half-full bottle of bourbon hanging on a string from his window. He really doesn't want to rush to catch the 3.15 train, instead he wants to sate his thirst with a few illicit swigs. However, while Wick is unaware of the nearby liquor, he is only too familiar with Don's habits and is doing everything in his power to prevent the convergence of Don and any source of spirits.

Arriving onto this scene of domestic bliss, Helen St. James (Jane Wyman) is planning on a rapid farewell given that she's got tickets for Carnegie Hall. Being Don's girlfriend she knows all about his destructive passion, though Helen retains a hopeful optimism. She and Wick, however, underestimate the lengths to which Don is willing to go in order to procure a shot (or two). By persuading them both to attend the concert, leaving the option of a later train, Don hopes to liberate one of his secret caches. Wick is, however, way ahead of him, removing both bottles and funds from reach. Since his credit is all used up in the neighbourhood bars, Don is left high and dry. Unfortunately Wick doesn't reckon on the appearance of their cleaning lady and her inadvertent revelation of the sugar-bowl money stash. Handily disposing of her, Don has bottles dancing before his eyes as he steps out to Nat's bar.

A regular customer for Nat (Howard da Silva), Don surprises the world-weary bartender by flourishing his hard cash. Financially solvent, for a limited time, Don lets the whiskey flow freely and attracts the attention of hooker Gloria (Doris Dowling). Taken in by his supposed class, she loves to flirt even as she recognises the souse that he is. The departure time comes and goes however, effectively stranding Don alone in the city (Wick leaves in disgust while Helen has much work to do). This is of little consequence to self-absorbed Don, since he has identical twins to nurture (a couple of quarts of the rough stuff). Carefully secreting one of these, an almost reflex action, Don settles down with every intention of blotting out the external world. Thus begins his descent into hell and ultimate humiliation at the hands of brutal nurse Bim (Frank Faylen).

Stunning in its intensity and unrelenting focus, The Lost Weekend is far from an enjoyable experience even if you're not drinking. In the capable hands of Billy Wilder, both the vicious spiral that ensnares Don and the reason for his addiction are clearly portrayed. In candid detail, Wilder shows how Don sees himself, how others see him and what he's really like; it's not a pretty sight. There's no degradation that Don will not endure in order to imbibe, fearing the horrors the come with sobriety. The key to this slow build-up, which reaps an unbearable reward, is Wilder's quiet inclusion of the markers of consumption. Wet glass rings multiply on a bar surface, unsold bottles frame Don's face like prison bars, the distorted shadow of a forgotten resource brings light to his eyes. All around lie the traces of his obsession, artfully ignored in public and endlessly gossiped over in private; in sum, the signs of a roller coaster ride which only one man can halt. The catch is that unless Don wants to be helped, no one can force it upon him.

Present in almost every scene, Milland is the motor that drives The Lost Weekend. It's up to him to be convincing and, with every fibre of his body, he achieves this with a frightening effectiveness. By looking deep into his eyes, a private hell of lost faith, selfishness and utter craving can be glimpsed. In the grip of dipsomania, Don will say anything and mean nothing, thanklessly surviving on his brother's charity and love. When sober, Don is an ashamed mess of self-hate and total honesty. Milland's performance here is so powerful and unsettling it sends shivers along your spine. Trying to save him with devotion, both Wyman and Terry are fine, each certain that there is a decent core within. The pain of having their faith continually broken can be seen in their eyes, even though they try to hide the hurt with positive words. In smaller roles, Faylen and da Silva are superb. Their characters have both seen too many drunks and lost causes, yet the outcome could not be more different.

With a film like The Lost Weekend creating the right atmosphere is of paramount importance, which is where Miklos Rozsa's score comes in. Many of Don's scenes are utterly wordless, hence the music must work with Milland's physical expression to transmit the emotional tone. That this partnership functions so well, especially during the opening of La Traviata, is a testament to the skills employed. In another way, the shrill tone chosen for Don's telephone sets your teeth on edge; such is the importance of sound.

In combination, these elements acutely recreate the experience of being an alcoholic (or even occasionally having a few drinks too many). The whole idea of booze conferring feelings of superiority, clarity and creativity is familiar to many, as is the transience of such emotions. This deceptive support achieves nothing and, in The Lost Weekend, is tied to Don's inability to write (having shown early promise). Curiously, the novel indicates Don's repressed homosexuality as the cause for his depression. Perhaps this would have just been too much for audiences of the time? Regardless of this edit, Don's journey into oblivion and dissolution (ending up on the Bellevue detox ward) is incredibly well portrayed. The Lost Weekend is a timeless study of the chains of addiction, excellent in all departments and horrifying at every turn.

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