Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

The Lost Weekend (1945)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

The Lost Weekend (1945)

In director Billy Wilder's dark-tempered, melodramatic social-problem film - it was a serious, painful and uncompromising, frank look at alcohol addiction. It followed almost five days ('one lost weekend') in the life of a chronic, failing and tortured alcoholic, and unaccomplished writer. The revolutionary, ground-breaking motion picture, with an effective musical score by Miklós Rózsa (with innovative use of the early electronic instrument known as a theremin during drinking episodes and nightmarish sequences), marked the first time that Hollywood had seriously tackled the taboo subject and created social awareness of alcoholism as a modern illness.

In the story, talented New York aspiring novel writer Don Birnam (Ray Milland) - a chronic alcoholic with writer's block - spent a 'lost weekend' (from a Thursday to a Tuesday) on a wild, self-destructive drinking binge. Eluding his persistently-supportive and loyally-helpful girlfriend Helen St. James (Jane Wyman), he desperately trudged down Third Avenue on Yom Kippur attempting to find an open pawnshop to hock his own typewriter for another drink. In Bellevue Hospital's alcohol detoxification ward, he awakened to shrieking inmates suffering the DT's, and in his apartment experienced hallucinations of a mouse attacked by a bat. He narrowly avoided committing suicide in the 'optimistic' ending.

From its seven Academy Award nominations, it won five Oscars, Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay. It set a pattern for more adult, socially-responsible Best Picture winners in the late 1940s. Serious "social issues" films would win the Best Picture award in four of the next five years: e.g., The Lost Weekend (1945), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Gentleman's Agreement (1947), and All the King's Men (1949)

The drab, gritty black and white cinematography of the expressionistic, noir film emphasized the menacing, warping, and harrowing power of alcohol. The main character, an alcoholic writer, lost his money, his freedom, and his sense of reality due to the effects of drink, resulting in his incarceration in an alcoholic ward. The film's screenplay (by director Wilder and screenwriting partner Charles Brackett) was based on Charles R. Jackson's 1944 best-selling novel of the same name, referred to in its tagline: "The Screen Dares to Open the Strange and Savage Pages of a Shocking Best-Seller!"

  • in the opening scene, after the title credits, the aerial camera above Manhattan zoomed toward a window on the side of an apartment building where a half-full whiskey bottle was hidden and hanging from a rope attached to the window crank; the occupant of the place was NY wanna-be writer Don Birnam (Oscar-winning Ray Milland), who was struggling with writer's block and alcohol addiction, and was also metaphorically hanging by a thread to life [Note: Hitchcock's similar opening to Psycho (1960) paid homage to this introduction]
  • on a Thursday early-afternoon, he was packing for a short five-day vacation and train trip with his devoted but distrustful brother Wick (Phillip Terry), and trying to hide the fact of his dangling bottle outside the window; after the arrival of his sophisticated girlfriend Helen St. James (Jane Wyman), wearing a leopard-spotted coat, Don convinced Wick to attend an afternoon Carnegie Hall symphony concert with her as a diversion
  • just before the two left, after Don's dangling bottle was discovered, Wick emptied it into the kitchen sink while Don falsely vowed to Helen: ("I didn't know it was there. Even if I had, I wouldn't have touched it"); still desperate to get a drink and purchase booze that afternoon before the 6:30 pm train, Birnam stole $10 dollars that had been secretly left by the supportive Wick for the cleaning lady Mrs. Foley (Anita Bolster), and then rushed out to buy two bottles of rye whiskey at a liquor store to conceal in his luggage for the trip

Buying Two Bottles of Booze at the Liquor Store

An All-Afternoon Visit to Nat's Bar on 3rd Ave.

Nat the Bartender (Howard da Silva) Pouring Drinks
  • before returning home, Birnam ventured to his favorite Third Avenue bar near 42nd Street for "one little jigger of dreams"; his struggle with alcohol was signified by the increasing number of concentric shot-glass circles left on the bar counter; he was approached by prostitute-call-girl Gloria (Doris Dowling), who flirted with him by running her finger along the back of his neck
  • in the bar, Don conducted a memorable dialogue with his favorite and congenial bartender Nat (Howard da Silva), as he described to his father-confessor his delusion that drinking actually improved his mind and was beneficial: ("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")

The Passage of Time - 6 Drink Circles on the Bar Counter

12 Drink Circles on the Bar Counter
  • six rings or circles (and then 12 rings) from the drink glasses portrayed the passage of time - and the number of drinks he had consumed that afternoon; meanwhile, Wick and Helen awaited his return (Wick had proposed giving up on his brother and told Helen that he was a "hopeless alcoholic"); a half-hour late and drunk after losing track of time at the bar, Don arrived back at his apartment just as Wick called for a taxi and left for the country alone after urging Helen: "Let go of him, Helen. Give yourself a chance"; he avoided being noticed by Helen and stealthily entered his apartment where he sat down to drink down one entire bottle of booze he had purchased, after hiding the other one in the overhead lamp fixture; the next morning, he found a note tacked to the outside of his door by a concerned Helen
  • the next day (Friday) at Nat's bar early in the day (with tables still stacked with chairs), he arranged for a date with Gloria that night at 8 pm to see Hamlet at a theatre on 44th Street, but Nat knew that he wouldn't keep his commitment: ("You know you're not going to take her out"); to dissuade Nat, Birnam boasted about his aspirations to write an semi-biographical novel titled The Bottle, about a desperate alcoholic ("I've got it all here in my mind") - his own life's tale

Back at the Bar on an Early Friday For Binge Drinking

Arranging a Date With Gloria That He Won't Keep

Boasting to Nat About His New Novel ("I've got it all here in my mind")
  • he explained - seen in flashback, how he had met his genteel and pretty girlfriend Helen at the Metropolitan Opera House three years earlier; during an aria of La Traviata with the actors drinking champagne on stage, Don began to become feverish for a swig when he imagined that the flowing gowns of the singers were multiple copies of his overcoat hanging in the cloak room; salivating for a drink, he went to retrieve his coat (with a hidden bottle of rye whiskey in one pocket), but had to impatiently wait until the end of the opera due to switched claim checks by the cloak-room - Helen had been given his claim-check; they met at the cloak room after everyone had claimed their items
First Flashback: Feverish For a Drink at the Opera - Hallucinating About His Overcoat (with a Bottle of Booze in One Pocket)
  • during a second flashback, 33 year-old Don began to develop a relationship with Helen during a period of some sobriety, although he overheard that her parents disapproved of his lack of secure employment and his lower stage in life, causing him complete demoralization; the aspiring writer confessed his drinking problem to his newfound, supremely-patient girlfriend Helen ("I'm not a drinker - I'm a drunk"); he also explained how his soaring, creative juices flowed with just a few drinks, but then spiraled down into despair and agony when the booze wore off
  • he also told how he was helplessly and schizophrenically divided between Don the Drunk and Don the Writer: ("That made all the difference. Suddenly, I could see the whole thing. The tragic sweep of the great novel beautifully proportioned. But before I could really grab it and throw it down on paper, the drinks would wear off and everything would be gone like a mirage. Then there was despair, and I'd drink to counter-balance despair. And then one to counter-balance the counter-balance. And I'd sit in front of that typewriter trying to squeeze out one page that was half-way decent...")
Second Flashback: Confession of Don Birnam's Drinking Problem to His Girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman) - But She Refused to Admit Defeat
  • Birnam confessed to Helen that he was a terminal drunk and a "zero" person who lived off his brother Wick's charity; he then challenged Helen to leave him: ("Look Helen, do yourself a favor. Go on, clear out"), but she lovingly refused to admit that either of them were defeated, and vowed to help him: "I'm gonna fight, and fight and fight..."
  • after the flashback ended, Birnam vowed to Nat that he would become the accomplished writer Helen had always believed him to be; he was motivated to return to his writing back in his apartment, but self-doubt and writer's block engulfed him after he typed the title page for "The Bottle"; since he couldn't remember where he had hidden the second bottle of whiskey in his place, he tore his apartment apart before he ventured off to satisfy his cravings in Harry and Joe's Bar on 52nd Street; he was caught stealing money from a woman's purse in the men's room and was thrown out onto the street
  • back home, he happened to see above him the shadowy outline of a whiskey bottle in his overhead light fixture - the tempting femme fatale of the film! - and he again became drunk during his weekend binging
  • on the next day (Saturday), Birnam made a vain and pitiful attempt to sell his typewriter (to buy even more booze); he engaged in a desperate search from one closed pawn shop and loan shop to another along Third Avenue on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur as he lugged his heavy typewriter; he was forced to return to Nat's bar at 4 pm where he deposited his typewriter and begged for one shot from the reluctant Nat: (Nat: "One's too many, and a hundred's not enough")
  • he also visited Gloria at her place (she was at first insulted and miffed that she had been stood up), who softened when he kissed her and asked for money; she gave him a $5 dollar bill, but then he slipped, fell and injured himself in her stairwell while departing
  • he was admitted as a psychiatric patient into the alcoholic ward of Bellevue Hospital (nicknamed "Hangover Plaza"); after awakening on Sunday amidst a few other scary looking patients, he was mocked by cynical, gay male nurse 'Bim' Nolan (Frank Faylen), who called the place a "halfway hospital, halfway jail" and refused to discharge him; the sadistic and taunting 'Bim' was well-aware of the behavior of alcoholics, and forecast: "You're an alky. You'll come back. They all do"
In Bellevue Hospital - Warned of the DTs While Detoxifying and Suffering From Withdrawal Symptoms with Male Nurse 'Bim' Nolan (Frank Faylen): "Delirium is a Disease of the Night"
  • 'Bim' warned of DT's in Birnam's future when detoxifying and suffering from withdrawal: ("They'll happen to be a little floor show later on around here. It might get on your nerves...Ever have the DT's?...You will, brother...After all, you're just a freshman. Wait'll you're a sophomore. That's when you start seeing the little animals. You know that stuff about pink elephants? That's the bunk. It's little animals! Little tiny turkeys in straw hats. Midget monkeys coming through the keyholes. See that guy over there? With him it's beetles. Come the night, he sees beetles crawling all over him. Has to be dark though. It's like the doctor was just telling me - delirium is a disease of the night. Good night")
  • terrified at night by other patients' screams, early Monday morning, Don stole a doctor's discarded overcoat and escaped from the hospital in his bedclothes into the night as the staff attended to one of the other violent and crazed patients
  • back in his apartment (on Monday night) after demanding a quart of rye from a liquor store owner, the delirious Don experienced alcoholic nightmarish hallucinations of a bat and its attack upon a mouse (in a crack on the wall) that dripped blood down the wall; hearing Birnam's screams, the landlady called Helen and she arrived to care for him, and spent the night on his couch
Hallucinatory Effects of Alcoholism - Bat Flying in Birnam's Apartment
  • the next morning (Tuesday), he slipped out after he stole Helen's leopard coat, and pawned it in a nearby shop in exchange for a gun; Helen caught up to him on the street and demanded her coat back; when he refused, she spoke to the pawn store owner, who claimed that Birnam had swapped the coat for a gun; meanwhile, Don had written a suicide note to Wick; upon her urgent return to the apartment, she spotted the gun in the bathroom sink (in a mirror reflection), and realized that he was planning to shoot himself; during her efforts to dissuade him from killing himself: ("I'd rather have you drunk than dead"), including getting him drunk again, she tried to persuasively encourage him to not end his life
  • she begged him to save Don the Writer by funneling his talent and ambition into his compositions: ("There were two Dons. You told me so yourself. Don the Drunk and Don the Writer"); in the midst of her attempts to stop him from drinking and revert to writing ("There is no cure besides just stopping...You've got talent and ambition"), Nat arrived with Don's typewriter that had been discarded when he fell down Gloria's steps; it was a miraculous omen - encouraging him to resume The Bottle - his pseudo-autobiographical novel to describe the familiar story of his own life (his 'lost weekend'), now that he knew the ending; it would be a way to exorcise his demons (Helen: "Put it all down on paper. Get rid of it that way")

Helen's Efforts to Persuade Don to Not Commit Suicide

Don's Ambivalence About Sublimating His Efforts into Writing Again

Don's Determined Resolve to Begin Writing Again
  • in the upbeat, tacked-on optimistic ending, Don vowed to sublimate "Don the Drinker," write his novel and remain sober (he extinguished his cigarette in a drink); however, there was always the possibility that he would relapse; he described his previous life as a drunk - in voice-over - the film's final line of dialogue: ("Poor bedeviled guys on fire with thirst. Such comical figures to the rest of the world as they stagger blindly towards another binge, another bender, another spree")
  • the film concluded with a backward-moving zoom-out shot from his window as he packed his suitcase - it was a reversal of the film's opening sequence

Don's Whiskey Bottle Dangling From His Outer Apartment Window

Don Birnam's Brother Wick (Phillip Terry) Packing For A Weekend Trip to the Country

Don's Girlfriend of Three Years Helen St. James (Jane Wyman)

Concerned About Don's Well-Being and Drinking Problem

Wick's Discovery of Hidden Bottle of Whiskey

With Prostitute-Callgirl at the Bar - Gloria (Doris Dowling)

The Delusionary Don Birnam's Ranting Monologue About the Benefits of Drink

Awaiting Don's Return - Wick to Helen: "He's a hopeless alcoholic"

Note Left By Helen For Don by Helen

Flashback: First Meeting with Helen 3 Years Earlier at the Opera Due to Switched Claim Checks

Failed Attempt at Starting to Write His Novel "The Bottle"

Desperate for a Drink

Scheming to Steal a Woman's Purse in a Nightclub

Back Home Again - Thirsting For a Drink

Shadow of Don's Whiskey Bottle Seen Hidden in Overhead Lamp Fixture

Don's Vain Attempt to Pawn Off His Typewriter on Third Avenue For Cash, on a Jewish Holiday

One More Shot at Nat's Place

Gloria At First Miffed That She Had Been Stood Up But Then She Gave Don $5

Birnam Reacting to Other Crazed Patients - Before Escaping From Bellevue

Helen Arriving in Birnam's Apartment to Care For Him

Birnam's Suicide Note


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