Sunday 28 May 2017

Movie Review: The Lost Weekend (1945)

A stunning alcoholism drama, The Lost Weekend packs a knockout punch as a dark exploration of a grim human addiction.

In New York City, Don Birnam (Ray Milland) is a struggling writer and a hopeless alcoholic. In front of his girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman) and his brother Wick (Phillip Terry) Don pretends to be on the road to recovery, but in reality all he can think of is getting the next drink. He stashes bottles in hiding places throughout his apartment to hide them from Wick, but sometimes also outsmarts himself.

Don, speaking to bar owner Nat: 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 competent, supremely competent. 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 moves the barge of Cleopatra.

Don finagles his way out of Wick's weekend trip to the country, staying behind in a city full of temptations and embarking on a quest for money to buy booze. Despite Helen's increasingly frantic efforts to save her man, Don's real companions are bartenders and floozies as his weekend becomes a downward spiral of desperation towards the bottom of the bottle. As the weekend wears on, he also recounts the history of his relationship with Helen to a bartender.

Nat: Why don't you cut it short?
Don: 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?

Directed and co-written by Billy Wilder, The Lost Weekend is the first serious on-screen treatment of alcoholism's vice-like grip. The disease is presented for what it is, a destructive controlling force with potential to crush careers and relationships. Far from the hitherto traditional portrayal of jovial drunks cracking jokes and providing comic relief, The Lost Weekend is an unyielding and fearless journey into the abyss.

The tone is set early. From the opening scene a bottle is hanging outside the apartment window, hiding in plain sight, Don waiting for any opportunity to be alone and take a swig. And as soon as he rids himself of Wick's attention he turns to lies, theft, and pawn shops to scrape together the dollars needed to supply himself with alcohol for his weekend binge. The film captures ingenuity sparked by despair, and the depths to which Don will sink to secure the next drink.

Helped by a dedicated Ray Milland performance revelling in the freedom of abdicating to an insidious disorder, Wilder conjures up two unforgettable highlights. The first finds Don at a swanky late night lounge, racking up a large drinks bill he cannot afford to pay. He attempts to improvise a solution, risking the depths of humiliation to service his addiction. The second climax features Don reduced to pawning his typewriter to again raise some much needed drinking funds, the final surrender of a career capitulating to substance dependency. All the pawnshops are closed, and Don's trek takes him across New York, but he will not give up the search for a few dollars to satisfy his cravings.

Nat, to Don, referring to the number of drinks: One's too many an' a hundred's not enough.

Still turning the screws Wilder pushes deeper. Don's thoughts turn to more permanent solutions, and even Helen's love and commitment become opportunities for more self-annihilation. Drowning in the sorrow of an all too common condition, The Lost Weekend is horrific, essential and unblinking.

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  1. I love this film. Genuinely love it. While I think it could be argued that the ending is too easy and not really earned, everything leading up to it is so brutal and ugly. That typewriter scene is absolutely gutting and horrible, and tells the entire tale of the film. That it holds up today shows just how much Wilder understood the nature of addiction. Don both loves and hates booze and he hates himself for loving it, but only feels like himself with it. It treats the addiction seriously, not as something to take care of, but as something that exists almost as a character in its own right.

    1. It's one of those rare films that has lost none of its power. I fully excuse the ending -- in 1945, Wilder would not have had a choice. Anyway, the film's core message pulverizes that last scene, and Wilder probably knew it.


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