Filmsite Movie Review
The Lost Weekend (1945)
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Background

The Lost Weekend (1945) is a serious, painful and uncompromising, frank look at alcohol addiction that follows almost five days ('one lost weekend') in the life of a chronic, tortured alcoholic, and failed writer. The dark-tempered, melodramatic social-problem film was both a critically- and financially-successful endeavor. This was Billy Wilder's fourth directorial effort, after The Major and the Minor (1942), Five Graves to Cairo (1943), and the classic film noir Double Indemnity (1944). The film was given a subtitle for its British release: The Lost Weekend: Diary of a Dipsomaniac.

It was also a revolutionary, ground-breaking motion picture - because it was the first time that Hollywood had seriously tackled the taboo subject and created social awareness of alcoholism as a modern illness. Previous films had only made fun of drunks and lushes (e.g., The Thin Man series, or W.C. Fields' films). Its release was threatened when the alcohol industry offered to purchase the film's negative and remove it from circulation, but then praised and supported the film following its popular release (and critical success).

Audiences, critics and the studio (before its release) viewed the film's subject matter as sensational, controversial, daring, and starkly real. The drab, gritty black and white cinematography of the expressionistic film emphasized the menacing, warping, and harrowing power of alcohol, as some of the booze-soaked scenes were shot through or in the presence of numerous whiskey bottles and shot glasses. The main character, an alcoholic writer, loses his money, his freedom, and his sense of reality when confined in an alcoholic ward.

Miklos Rozsa's eerie score featured the first use in a feature film of electronic music - from an instrument called a theremin that produced oscillating, wailing, other-worldly sounds to express the drinker's distorted perceptions of reality during the nightmarish sequences.

The film's screenplay (by director Billy Wilder and screenwriting partner Charles Brackett) was based on Charles R. Jackson's 1944 best-selling novel of the same name, although its unconvincing, rehabilitative 'happy ending' conclusion was more optimistic, upbeat and hopeful than the one in the novel. The novel also changed the protagonist's troubled bi-sexuality and confused sexuality to frustrations due to creative writer's block.

The film was nominated for seven Academy Award nominations and received four major accolades: director Billy Wilder scored a double-win, both as Best Director (Wilder's second directorial nomination and his first Oscar win), and co-writer of the Best Screenplay (his fifth screenwriting nomination and first win). Popular matinee idol Ray Milland, cast against type, won the Best Actor award for his greatest career role as the hopelessly-obsessed drunkard, and the film also captured the Best Picture Oscar, defeating nominees including Hitchcock's Spellbound and Leo McCarey's The Bells of St. Mary's (both with Ingrid Bergman), Michael Curtiz' Mildred Pierce, and the musical Anchors Aweigh. Its other three nominations were Best Score (Miklos Rozsa), Best Film Editing (Doane Harrison), and Best B/W Cinematography (John F. Seitz). Jane Wyman also was cast in a different role than her normal characterizations as a bright, loving, patient and happy screen ingenue. It was the first Best Picture Oscar winner to also win the Cannes Film Festival's top prize, now known as the Golden Palm (Palme d'Or).

The film had enormous impact, especially upon returning combat-fatigued GIs from WW II who were adjusting and struggling with their own difficulties in civilian life and often turning into alcohol dependents. In fact, its success spurred further black and white, post-war dramas dealing with social-problems, e.g., returning war veterans in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), anti-Semitic prejudice in Gentleman's Agreement (1947), treatment of the mentally-ill in The Snake Pit (1948), and political demagogues in All The King's Men (1949).

It also spawned further attempts to chronicle the theme of alcoholism, including A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman (1947), Come Back, Little Sheba (1952), Country Girl (1954), I'll Cry Tomorrow (1955), Days of Wine and Roses (1962), Under the Volcano (1984), Barfly (1987), Ironweed (1987), Clean and Sober (1988), When a Man Loves a Woman (1994), Leaving Las Vegas (1995), Affliction (1997), and 28 Days (2000).

The Story

Thursday Afternoon:

After the credits, The Lost Weekend opens with a panning, left-to-right cityscape view of New York City. [The film, possessing a circular structure, ends with a pan moving in the reverse direction.] The camera slowly zooms in toward the third window on the side of a brick building where a half-full whiskey bottle hangs from a rope attached to the window crank. Don Birnam (Ray Milland) and his devoted brother Wick (Phillip Terry, Joan Crawford's ex-husband #3) are inside their shared, top floor apartment packing for a proposed five-day, extended "long wonderful weekend" trip by train to a country farm where there will be "trees and grass and sweet cider and buttermilk, and water from that well that's colder than any other..."

A struggling, wanna-be writer who has been off-the-wagon for ten days, Don is determined to get back to his compositions: "I'm gonna write there - get started on that novel." But Don, deviously and secretly, has hidden bottles of booze throughout his New York apartment. He is desperate for another drink, but wishes to conceal his 'weakness' and hopeless passion for booze from his crusading, responsible brother.

His sophisticated girlfriend, Helen St. James (Jane Wyman), wearing a leopard coat, drops by with presents for his recuperative weekend:

the new Thurber with comical jokes and pictures, a nice quiet little double-murder by Agatha Christie, cigarettes, chewing gum...

To stall for time by taking a later train (the 6:30 train) rather than their scheduled 3:15 train - and to allow time to have a few swigs and smuggle liquor into his luggage, Don persuades Wick to attend an afternoon Carnegie Hall symphony concert with Helen: "I want to be alone for a couple of hours to kind of assemble myself. Is that such an extraordinary thing to want?" Just before they leave, Don's wily strategy of dangling a bottle from his window is revealed, and he deceitfully spins lies to hide his compulsion: "I didn't know it was there. Even if I had, I wouldn't have touched it." Wick sees through his brother's duplicity and empties the bottle down the drain in their miniscule kitchen. Don's humiliation makes him lash back with threats:

Do you think I wanted you out of the apartment because of the bottle? I resent that like the devil. If there's one more word of discussion, I don't leave on your blasted weekend.

Before a loving, understanding and sympathetic Helen leaves with Wick for the matinee show, Don confides in her about how difficult it is:

Don: Let me work it out my way, I'm trying. I'm trying!
Helen: I know you're trying, Don. We're both trying. You're trying not to drink and I'm trying not to love you. (She hugs and kisses him before leaving)

Caring for his brother and knowing the lengths to which he must go, Wick has taken the extreme, vigilant precaution of stripping the apartment of all liquor bottles. He believes Don will be left dry - unable to satisfy his cravings while they're gone:

There isn't a store or a bar that will give him five cents worth of credit...I went over the apartment with a fine-tooth comb - the places he can figure out!

Don's mounting desire for booze compels him to frantically search in all his favorite, obscure hiding places - in the medicine cabinet, behind a heater grating in the bathroom, in the vacuum cleaner bag, and behind his bed. When the cleaning lady Mrs. Foley (Anita Bolster) buzzes at the door, he refuses to let her into the apartment. He steals her $10 wages left by his brother when she inadvertently mentions that the money is cleverly concealed in the lid of the sugar bowl in the kitchen. Debasing himself in order to mis-appropriate her earnings, he tells her that she will be paid the following Monday.

He hastily rushes to the nearby liquor store to purchase two bottles of rye. The bar scene is shot through a lined-up row of whiskey bottles - a pitiful alcoholic, Birnam orders two bottles of rye from the store owner (Eddie Laughton): "You know what brand, Mr. Brophy. The cheapest. None of that twelve year old aged in wood - not for me." Even his ploy of covering the top of his brown-papered bag with apples from an open-air market doesn't fool two gossipy old ladies on the street: "That's the nice young man who drinks."

On the way home, he stops in for a few drinks at his favorite watering stop - Nat's Bar on Third Avenue [the legendary P.J. Clarke's], where he seeks companionship in his drinking with congenial bartender Nat (Howard da Silva). He flashes his money and orders a jigger of "straight rye...on a cash basis." Don's imprisoning struggle with alcohol is signified by the concentric shot-glass circles left on the bar counter - a round impression created by the damp base of the jigger. He stops Nat from wiping away the enclosing rings - a symbol of the depth of his drunkenness:

Don't wipe it away, Nat. Let me have my little vicious circle. You know, the circle is the perfect geometric figure. No end, no beginning.

Gloria (Doris Dowling in her film debut), a slim, attractive woman [probably a call girl] wearing a sheer, black lace top (open in the back) with a white bra underneath, a tight black skirt with sheer black stockings and black high heels, rises from a table (where she is in the employ of another bar patron) and strolls by. She cooly strokes the back of his neck's hairline with her left index finger as she passes on her way to the ladies room and confidently greets him: "Happy to have you back with the organization." He discusses with Nat how to smuggle his two bottles of rye to the country ("two time bombs past the royal guard"). One will be rolled up in a copy of the Saturday Evening Post so that it may be easily found and put his brother's "mind at ease." The second will be tucked in his brother's suitcase and "he shall transport it himself without knowing it." Don describes his addicted compulsion:

What you don't understand, all of you, is that I've got to know it's around. That I can have it if I need it. I can't be cut off completely. That's the devil. That's what drives you crazy.

Gloria returns and again flirtatiously runs her finger along the back of his neck. The siren temptress gets reacquainted with the confident, booze-soaked Birnam whom she suspects is a high-rolling, articulate, wealthy gentleman:

Don: Shall we dance?
Gloria: You're awfully pretty, Mr. Birnam.
Don: I'll bet you tell that to all the boys.
Gloria: Why natch! Only with you, it's on the level.

To Don's mild consternation, she cheapens herself by shortening her words in her speech: "Why imperil our friendship with these loathesome abbreviations?" (she says 'ridick' for ridiculous, and 'natch' for naturally). He casually turns down her offer to get together later in the evening. As she glides away from him, she strokes his hair again ("Just crazy about the back of your hair"), points her index finger at him, and clicks her tongue as she shoots.

Don encourages Nat to share some alcohol-induced "dreams": "Come on, Nat. Join me - one little jigger of dreams, huh?" The bartender declines, knowing that Birnam is not just a social drinker. In a memorable monologue to the bartender, Don describes the empowering benefits of booze:

It shrinks my liver, doesn't it, Nat? It pickles my kidneys. Yes. But what does it do to my mind? It tosses the sandbags overboard so the balloon can soar. Suddenly, I'm above the ordinary. I'm confident, supremely confident. I'm walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls. I'm one of the great ones. I'm Michelangelo molding the beard of Moses. I'm Van Gogh painting pure sunlight. I'm Horowitz playing the Emperor Concerto. I'm John Barrymore before the movies got him by the throat. I'm Jesse James and his two brothers. All three of 'em. I'm W. Shakespeare. And out there, it's not Third Avenue any longer. It's the Nile, Nat - the Nile, and down it floats the barge of Cleopatra. Come here...

Six rings or circles from the drink glasses portray the passage of time - and the number of drinks he has consumed that afternoon. The image dissolves back to the apartment where Helen and Wick return and find that Don has disappeared. She is fearful that Wick will leave by himself and abandon Don for a four-day, self-destructive weekend: "...if he's left alone, anything can happen. And I'm tied up at the office every minute, all Saturday, all Sunday, I can't look out for him. You know how he gets. He'll be run over by a car, he'll be arrested. He doesn't know what he's doing. A cigarette might fall from his mouth and he'll burn in bed." Wick is thoroughly disgusted and fed up after many years of tending to his irresponsible, terminally-degraded brother - a "hopeless alcoholic":

Wick: If it happens, it happens and I hope it does. I've had six years of this. I've had my bellyfull...Who are we fooling? We've tried everything, haven't we? We've reasoned with him. We've baited him. We've watched him like a hawk. We've tried trusting him. How often have you cried? How often have I beaten him up? Scrape him out of a gutter and pump some kind of self-respect into him and back he falls, back in every time.
Helen: He's a sick person. It's as though there was something wrong with his heart or his lungs. You wouldn't walk out on him if he had an attack. He needs our help.
Wick: He won't accept our help. Not Don, he hates us. He wants to be alone with that bottle of his. It's all he gives a hang about. Why kid ourselves? He's a hopeless alcoholic.

The scene dissolves back to a close-up of the surface of the bar counter where twelve damp rings are now visible - double the amount of drinks consumed from before. Roaring drunk and oblivious to time's passing - almost a half-hour late, he arrives home just as Wick calls for a taxi and departs for the country alone. Don overhears Wick's final words of advice to his own faithful girlfriend: "Let go of him, Helen. Give yourself a chance." Avoiding his well-meaning fiancee, Don stealthily climbs the stairs and determinedly locks himself inside his apartment to enjoy a private, self-absorbed weekend of boozing by himself. He hides one of the bottles in an overhead lighting fixture. As he relaxes in his easy chair with the second bottle and breathes a sigh of relief, a zooming close-up of his drink glass fills the screen.

Friday:

The next morning, he discovers a concerned note written by Helen pinned to the outside of his door: "Don Dear - I waited for you to come home. Please be careful. Get some sleep. EAT. And call me, call me, CALL ME." Stepping over his morning paper and bottle of milk, Don descends the stairs and returns to Nat's Bar - desperate for a drink. Nat conscientiously encourages his customer to quit drinking: "Why don't you cut it short?" But Don is in the middle of a massive binge in which every minute is gripped with the temptation to drink, and dawn without access to a drink brings nightmares:

I can't cut it short. I'm on that merry-go-round. You gotta ride it all the way. Round and round until that blasted music wears itself out and the thing dies down and comes to a stop...At night, the stuff's a drink. In the morning, it's medicine....It's a terrifying problem, Nat, because if it's dawn, you're dead. The bars are closed and the liquor stores don't open until nine o'clock and you can't last until nine o'clock. Or maybe Sunday, that's the worst. No liquor stores at all, and you guys wouldn't open a bar, not until one o'clock. Why? WHY, Nat?

When Gloria walks into the bar, she is surprised to see that Birnam hasn't left for the weekend. She inquires about whether another gentleman has been asking for her - she regularly 'shows off' the town to fellas from upper-state New York. He invites her to see Hamlet at a theatre on 44th Street:

Gloria: A fella called me up about him. Wants me to show him the town.
Nat: Like Grant's Tomb, for instance?
Gloria: But death.
Nat: Ain't it amazin' how many guys come down from Albany just to see Grant's Tomb?
Gloria: (To Don) Sometimes I wish you came from Albany.
Don: Yeah? Where would you take me?
Gloria: Lots of places. The Music Hall, then The New Yorker roof, maybe.
Don: There is now being presented in the theatre on Forty-Fourth Street the uncut version of Hamlet. Now I see us as heading out for that. Do you know Hamlet?
Gloria: I know Forty-Fourth Street.
Don: I'd like to get your interpretation of Hamlet's character.
Gloria: I'd like to give it to you.

When her potential, uninteresting customer from Albany arrives late, Gloria blows him off with an excuse - preferring "to go out" in the company of Birnam. She arranges for him to pick her up at eight that evening - after she's had a "facial, a finger wave, the works right now":

I live right on the corner house - you know, where the antique shop is, the one with the wooden Indian outside? They got the Indian sign on me, I always say...Second floor front.

Birnam orders a last drink - with poetic flourish: "Pour it softly, pour it gently, and pour it to the brim." But Nat refuses to serve any more shots to the mellowed, sweet-talking drinker, and lectures him for two-timing his "high-class" girlfriend:

There are a lot of bars on Third Avenue. Do me a favor, will ya? Get out of here and buy it somewhere else...I don't like you much. What's the idea of pullin' her [Gloria's] leg? You know you're not going to take her out...You're drunk and you're just makin' with the mouth...I know the dame, the lady, I mean. I don't like what you're doin' to her, either...You should have seen her come in here last night looking for ya. Her eyes all rainy, and her mascara all washed away...That's an awful high-class young lady...How the heck did she ever get mixed up with a guy who sops it up like you do?

To justify his drinking and maintain his self-esteem, Birnam asserts, with a euphoric, overblown fantasy, that his imbibing will be the subject of his upcoming, semi-biographical novel entitled The Bottle. The subject of his "morbid," artistic work will be the confessional, whiskey-soaked story of a "booze addict" - the only tale he knows:

That's my novel, Nat...I was to start writing it out in the country. Morbid stuff. Nothing for the Book-of-the-Month Club. A horror story! Confessions of a booze addict. The log book of an alcoholic...You know what I'm gonna call my novel? The Bottle. That's all, very simply, The Bottle. I've got it all here in my mind. Let me tell you the first chapter. It all starts one wet afternoon about three years ago. There was a matinee of La Traviata at the Metropolitan...


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