Wilder: The Lost Weekend (1945) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
16Sep/120

Wilder: The Lost Weekend (1945)

Don Birnam (Ray Milland), long-time alcoholic, has been "on the wagon" for ten days and seems to be over the worst; but his craving has just become more insidious. Evading a country weekend planned by his brother Wick (Phillip Terry) and girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman), he begins a four-day bender. In flashbacks we see past events, all gone wrong because of the bottle. But this bout looks like being his last... one way or the other.

We've now come to The Lost Weekend, Billy Wilder's first Oscar winning movie. This movie won the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Screenplay. The Lost Weekend might be an "award winner" but is it one of Wilder's timeless classics?

I would answer no to that. While it is well written and gives Ray Milland a meaty role to go wild in, I don't think it has stood the test of time as well as many of Wilder's other films. This movie is so preoccupied with being about IMPORTANT THINGS that it becomes too preachy. I also think the ending wraps everything up way too quickly and gives the audience a happy-ish ending the movie did not earn or build up.

So before we really get too far into talking about this film, Danny, I have a question I would love to hear an answer to. Would you rather win awards and for the rest of your career be known as "award winner" or would you rather make films ahead of their time that will be watched and admired for years past your prime? Never winning an Academy Award for Best Director never seemed to hurt Hitchcock.

Well, that's an odd question. I'm not sure Hitchcock was ever 'ahead of his time' but rather he was very much timeless. I don't think anyone needs awards to legitimize their works, as history has proven time and again that the ones that people remember usually cruise comfortably beneath the radar.

However, if you're implying that The Lost Weekend got the award erroneously, I have to disagree. Compared to the other releases from 1945, with the exception of maybe Mildred Pierce, this was heads and shoulders above every other nominee. I mean, it was up against The Bells of St. Marys and Spellbound for Christ's sake! I'm sure even the lamented Hitchcock was okay with these results.

We're going to hit a lot of Wilder movies far worse than this, so I'm guessing your dislike may come from this not fitting into the pantheon as neatly as some of his other works. What separates this from his other works is the grim sense of humor that punctuate Double Indemnity or Sunset Boulevard and even Some Like It Hot is missing here. The funniest thing in Lost Weekend is a coat check guy getting annoyed with Birnam's impatient wait for a mismatched coat and his much desired bottle of rye. This is a march straight into the gaping unpleasantness of human addiction, and doesn't attempt to pull away from painting its subject in the worst light possible.

It's masterfully constructed, but the emotional beats seem muted. I think all of the film's accusations thrown at Milland's Birnam begin to reflect in the screenplay: everyone is theatrical by a half a step. I don't mind it too much since we're essentially watching a grand tragedy, and to an extent we're watching Birnam's idea of what's happening rather than the reality of it; we keep getting playful hints that he's writing his own reality, which is why the ground beneath him keeps falling out. Every time he thinks he has a handle on himself, he loses connection to that little voice in his head that needs the alcohol to keep everything under control.

And that ending is not nearly as happy as you're painting it out to be. He finally loses everything, even the sympathy of the woman who loved him. He almost puts the gun to his head (or as close as the censors of the time would allow), but comes down from it when Helen reawakens his inner writer. He's a selfish person, and stroking his ego is the only way to break him out of this horrible cycle of alcoholism -- though one must wonder why no one thought of that three years earlier...

Regardless, there's a lot of great details in the movie. Using the watery rings of shot glasses to show time passing. Birnam so overcome with a desire to drink he almost lights the wrong end of the cigarette, and then the way that relates to his final interaction with a glass of rye. Ray Milland probably wouldn't have been my first pick for the part, but he and his stubble play the hell out of it.

Anyway, I should probably pass the baton back. So, Ryan, Birnam's obsessed with drinking rye, which at least proves he's in the major leagues of alcoholism because that stuff is disgusting. Do you like rye? If so, what's your problem?

And on a more serious note, this is one of those films that believes that being someone who creates art can redeem past sins. Birnam's creative streak saves his life, even if it is what almost destroyed it in the first place. I guess my question here, Ryan, is: do you buy that?

I think I might have started a little too grand of a scale on this movie because I really didn't dislike it and I thought it was a good drama. I believe that it deserved the Oscars it won, I just find it amusing how the first award winning picture in his career is one of the weaker movies he wrote with Brackett.

I am glad you brought up my favorite moment of the film with the rings that the glass made. It was a great way to show the passage of time and also the amount that the man could drink in a given day. It was a little playful moment in a movie that was very serious, yet at the same time was one of the most damning shots of Birnam's addiction.

I really liked what you said about watching Birnam's idea of the situation instead of what is going on and I agree wholeheartedly. Birnam despises himself as much as the rest of the people and knows what he is doing is wrong but does it anyway. We know he likes to drink and maybe even needs to drink but what voice is he really quieting in his head? I think it's his conscious because even though he is down on himself, he really doesn't see how low a man he truly is.

This brings up another point I wanted to ask you about, Danny. Do you think that we are supposed to root for Birnam? I really was conflicted when I watched the film about what as an audience we were supposed to be doing. I think the main reason the ending bugs me is because you are watching the whole film knowing there isn't a light at the end of the tunnel for this guy and then the heavens part for him at the last moment. I was not really rooting for him and I pitied him, I am not afraid to admit that I was hoping he would pull the trigger because it would have saved all of the main characters a lot of pain in the future.

As for your question and explanation of the ending, I could see how his writing could stave off the drinking for a few weeks but he was not "cured" in the least. He might start writing but what if his voices don't like what he is writing? A more realistic ending would have been him drinking while writing, there have been many great artists that unfortunately did some of their best work while on some sort of drug or alcohol binge.

Maybe he could have kept the drinking down while writing, but I doubt that since he went straight to the rye when drinking, but he will always be a drunk. From where the movie left off, my belief is the book will never see the light of day because it will never get finished. I would have ended it with a page half written in the typewriter with a lot of rings right next to it. That would have been the just ending for this story.

Now that I have bummed everyone out with my bleakness, I would also like to know your thoughts on Helen. Everyone including Birnam knows that she should leave him but she doesn't, is she the movies weakest character or the strongest?

Somehow I don't think transition to being simply a functional alcoholic would quite have had the same impact. The movie's built to be uplifting; alcohol addiction wasn't exactly new at this point, but giving into despair was unthinkable. If alcoholism can't be cured, then what's the point of fighting it? Wilder and Brackett are trying to show that the road isn't easy, but it's possible.

(That and I'm 100% sure the Production Code Administration-- the film censors of the 1940's-- would never have let someone who's sunk to Birnam's deaths remain in such a state.)

In regard to Helen, she's the kind of woman Birnam needed. That might make her a bit of a doormat, but remember that they spent months together before his alcoholism reared its ugly head again. While she's been through three years of relapses and false starts, it's not impossible to consider that someone naive enough could push through this. The Lost Weekend is the darkness before the dawn, and it gets pretty bleak for everyone involved. He doesn't overcome it until she gives up on him, after all. She didn't know it, but she was enabling his addiction.

That reminds me of Birnam's own indiscretions during the film. Though he loves Helen, it's obvious that, as a drunk, he loves attention more. I think the alcohol gives him an outlet to be loved and admired by women, and he laps up that attention. He doesn't make any romantic overtures rather than basic flirting, but as he gets progressively further down the hole he begins to prostitute himself out. He kisses one woman he has no feelings for since he's so entirely desperate to borrow $10. She gives it to him.

And I think that's the interesting thing about this movie: Birnam is really good at being a drunk, and its his vocation to make up for his perceived failures as a writer. He's that guy people love to be around, he's cordial and funny. It's only when you get in the way of him and alcohol that things start to fall apart for him, and as he encounters more and more obstacles his desperation increases. The Lost Weekend isn't saying that Birnam is a bad guy at the beginning, but that even what seems to be harmless alcoholism puts you on the edge of a precipice, and the danger is always there.

That brings me back to the social stigmas that pop up in the film. Early on, we have Birnam, having just purchased and hidden a couple of bottles of rye in a paper bag under some apples, saying hello to a pair of nice old ladies. After he's out of earshot, one turns to the other and hisses, "That's the nice young man who drinks!" There's a lot of examples of societal backbiting, as most of the characters and their actions drive home just how hopeless they see Birnam's situation, from his brother to the people in charge of the detox chamber.

Perhaps Birnam's hopelessness stems from not only being a good drunk, but being popular as a drunk. Changing his ways now means erasing everyone's preconceived notions about him. There's only two people who don't give up on him, and that's Helen and his bartender, Nat. Nat's certainly seen plenty like Birnam, so his determination is just as admirable as Helen's.

Just a couple of other things I wanted to touch on briefly:

The Lost Weekend was adapted from a book, and I think this is one of those cases like with the first Harry Potter where the result feels deferential. The ramblings of Birnam sound rife with literary contrivance, which is fine since he's a bad writer wanting to make good, but Helen and Birnam's brother Wick both have their long monologues that sound like they'd be better read. This may also come from how good Milland is here (drunk acting has rarely been better) compared to pretty much everyone else, too.

There are some benefits to this, though, and I've always loved Birnam's description of his short story to Helen: an explanation of why the Leaning Tower of Pisa leans, and why all sensible buildings should lean. When you conflate leaning with drunkenness, you suddenly understand how far into denial Birnam's gone.

Taking interpretation a step further, the climax of the film is Birnam detoxing and hallucinating, going down the darkest part of himself and coming back. He sees the vision of a mouse breaking out of the wall and a fierce bat swooping in and feasting on the mouse. I'm going to wager that the bat is alcohol eating away at Birnam's exposed soul.

Pretty A is A stuff, but it's still creepy in how it's executed, and the line of blood is extremely effective. Does that sound right, or am I nutty?

You should do a commentary for the DVD because you are bringing up really good points that are making me appreciate the film more. I think it is a good point that Helen enables Birnam and he needs her to give up before he hits bottom but it still doesn't change the fact that she is a doormat for three years. They paint her to be a very smart, independent woman and I don't believe that she would give him this much time before leaving him.

When she first met him he was already a drunk because "their meet cute" is over a misplaced coat that he desperately needs because of the bottle or rye in the pocket. Helen never knew him before so couldn't think of "the good old days" and I have a really hard time someone like her would let her life be put on hold for such a lost case. Maybe she is just a much nicer person than me but I think I would be more like his brother and throw his ass to the curb.

Although she did not have a big role, I liked the character of Gloria who obviously has a huge crush on Birnam that is not acknowledged until his is trashed. She is the flip side of Birnam, and probably the type of girl he should be with instead of Helen. The scene where he whores himself out for a little bit of money is no different than something from Requiem for a Dream, just with less Keith David, and I find it interesting that the typical roles were reversed in this case. Yet the big question is what does Gloria see in Birnam? Has she even met the sober version of Birnam or does she just like the man free of all his inhibitions?

Finally I am glad that you brought up the bat/mouse scene because it is the most famous scene from the movie because it effectively sells his state. Thankfully this movie was in black and white because the shadows and the colorless blood made this scene play other worldly while in color it might have just seemed silly.

This also brings me to the last thing I want to talk about with this movie. Wilder again uses Cinematographer John F. Sietz for this film and it again looks beautiful. I feel each mood or place that Birnam is in gets a different look. The Lost Weekend throws you into this world and you can almost taste the rye and smell the smoke from the bar. For being so immersive, I would have to give equal credit to Wilder, Milland and also Sietz. Do you think I am missing any other  important component to this film?

Like I said, I think Gloria is seduced by his charm. I think the point is that there's a difference between drunks and alcoholics. Drunks are funny and sweet, and while an alcoholic is the man begging for just one more drink. Milland claims to be a drunk, but over the course of The Lost Weekend demonstrates his true nature.

I like that you brought up the cinematography. I've talked a few times about how the film is a journey into Birnam's darkness, and the visual style of the movie drive this home-- everything becomes grimmer as it moves along. His worst episodes are at night, and he sinks into pools of darkness the more he drinks. At last we're in that hallucination scene and it's basically just key lights in a sea of darkness. As the orderly puts it so well, "Delirium is a disease of the night," and that blackness literally envelops him. The suicide attempt the next morning is moving back into the light; hell, Birnam nearly goes to it. But it's clarity, and the shades soon match as we replay the beginning of the film.

I don't blame Wick for giving up on Birnam, but I don't blame Helen for sticking around, either. Mind you, she lasts less than 24 hours more than his brother, but she was more desperate than him. Keep in mind, we've seen Wick put up with all of Birnam's habits more than Helen, from eliminating the stashes to paying all his expenses to covering up for him. I don't think Helen had been exposed quite as much; a day without Wick running interference shows her the reality of Birnam's sickness.

I can't fault Billy Wilder for making this film, as it's very good. But then while it's a very good movie it doesn't feel like a very good Wilder movie. I like The Lost Weekend , but there's no trace of nasty fun like in a lot of other Wilder films. This is a Serious Movie about An Important Issue, done with professionalism. This and Ace in the Hole are as grim as his features go.

And that's probably why his next picture is a Bing Crosby vehicle where he costars with an adorable dog. But I guess we'll see that mood swing for ourselves.

 

Next Week: The Emperor Waltz (1948)

 

The Films of Billy Wilder

Posted by Danny

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