Billy Wilder’s first big Oscar winner holds up as fine work in every respect, and serves as evidence of the writer-director’s moviemaking instincts at a time when he could do no wrong. Starring Ray Milland as a self-destructive alcoholic, Wilder and Charles Brackett manage to retain much of the sordid truth and nightmarish horror of the ordeal of would-be writer Don Birnham, who ducks his guilty self-loathing by taking to the bottle. It’s still a harrowing experience, with a sharp emotional kick. This new remastered edition carries a commentary by Joseph McBride. Co-starring Jane Wyman, Howard Da Silva, Doris Dowling, Frank Faylen and Phillip Terry; the scary music is by Miklos Rozsa.
The Lost Weekend
KL Studio Classics
1945 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 101 min. / Street Date November 24, 2020 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Ray Milland, Jane Wyman, Phillip Terry, Howard Da Silva, Doris Dowling, Frank Faylen, Douglas Spencer, Harry Tenbrook, Max Wagner, Audrey Young.
Cinematography: John F. Seitz
Editor: Doane Harrison
Original Music: Miklos Rozsa
Written by Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett from the novel by Charles R. Jackson
Produced by Charles Brackett
Directed by Billy Wilder
Talk about an artist determined to make good: Billy Wilder arrived in America barely speaking the language but within three years was writing sophisticated screenplays. His partnership with Charles Brackett was mutually beneficial — we wonder what their creative spats might have been like. Can you imagine trying to talk Wilder into an idea he didn’t like?
Wilder conquered Hollywood with just his fourth feature. He directed one movie a year, each a keeper. The Major and the Minor was a ‘safe’ comedy supporting the war effort. Five Graves to Cairo shows impeccable thriller construction in a more serious and patriotic vein. But Double Indemnity was Wilder’s first big risk, a movie that defied tha Production Code and brought pulp murder fiction to the screen sans compromise. They say that wartime conditions made the James M. Cain adaptation possible, as films were becoming less reticent about sordid subject matter and violence.
Playing it safe wasn’t for Wilder, who at this time had complete faith in his own judgment. He was warned against making The Lost Weekend and only his flawless track record gave him the leverage to proceed. Hollywood deemed the misery of real alcoholism and its effects somewhere between bad taste and perversion. Under the Production Code, booze had been most associated with light comedy. Fall-down drunks were a source of mirth. A musical number in Broadway Serenade (1939) extolled the pleasure of ‘flying high’:
“It’s liquid crystal heaven, heading straight for paradise!”
Disney did make booze seem like an acid trip in Dumbo (1941), when a pachyderm suffers Technicolor DTs. But the benefits to Dumbo are spectacular: getting drunk liberates his ability to fly.
Wilder and Brackett tapped Jackson’s book immediately upon publication, and many of its production particulars have become basic Wilder lore: the suppression of the novel’s homosexual subtext, the filming of scenes on location in New York City, Wilder’s later marriage to the film’s barely-glimpsed coat room attendant Audrey Young. A preview was received badly because it lacked Miklos Rosza’s horror-film music, which cued audiences not to laugh at Ray Milland’s emphatic performance. We’re also told that the liquor lobby offered to buy the negative from Paramount at a profit — a story that might be true, considering that it doesn’t sound useful as a good publicity ploy. Wilder persisted, Paramount backed him and the show became the year’s must-see ‘adult’ picture.
The best known story happened after The Lost Weekend cleaned up at the Oscars, winning for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Screenplay. Wilder had been nominated several times before but now took home two statuettes. When he came to work the next morning and pulled in from Melrose Avenue, he found that the Paramount writer’s building had been festooned: from each window sill was a bottle hanging by a string.
How does The Lost Weekend hold up now, seventy-five years later? I’d say very well, with the proviso that its freshness has surely been dulled by a hundred subsequent dramas about desperate men trying to dry out. Don Birnham (Ray Milland) is a recovering alcoholic preparing to spend a weekend in the country with his brother Wick (Phillip Terry). But he’s up to his old evasive tricks, hiding booze and filching money to pay for more. Don’s long-suffering girl Helen St. James (Jane Wyman) tries to help with the send-off. Don decides to stay home to write, a dodge that the disillusioned Wick isn’t accepting. We learn how Don met Helen three years before, when she became a positive light in his life.
Don lacks the strength to face disapproval from any angle. He shrinks from meeting people, lies to Wick and Helen, and disappoints all that offer aid. His unsupervised weekend turns into a massive bender. Don commits more petty crimes. Nat the bartender (Howard Da Silva) tries to help and the bar girl Gloria (Doris Dowling) is sympathetic as well. Desperate and alone on a hot day, Don walks for miles looking for an open pawnshop to cash in his only valuable, his typewriter. But it’s Yom Kippur and the shops are closed. An accident then lands Don in the Bellevue Drunk Ward, where he’s tormented by Bim, a sadistic nurse (Frank Faylen). ↓ He manages an escape and sneaks home, only to be stricken by a harrowing attack of Delirium Tremens.
Billy Wilder once carried a critical rap for being cold and cynical, which I think was more of a reaction to his abrasive personality than a fair assessment of his movies. His work does have a sharp edge, as he doesn’t allow compassion for his characters to soften his work. By 1945 standards The Lost Weekend has extreme content — the sight of alky Douglas Spencer’s screaming fit in the Drunk Tank, the Dali-like nightmare of the mouse and the bat, and Don’s shrieking at the sight of blood running down the wall. The bottom-of-the-bottle horror vision is magnified by Miklos Rosza’s theremin-charged horror music. Both the DTs seen here and the deleted ‘Tijuana cockroach’ that Wilder wrote for Hold Back the Dawn now seem like material for surrealist Luis Buñuel.
The film’s most impressive achievement is the psychological veracity of Don Birnham’s self-destructive behavior. Despite his faux-positive chatter Don sees no future; when inebriated he doesn’t care about anything. Don is handsome and charming and witty, which only makes it more painful to watch him alienate his relatives and friends. Even worse are his terrible actions in public. Repeatedly caught stealing, he endures situations so shameful that one would want to die. Don claims that the book he’s writing about his experience will end in suicide. He keeps a gun stashed away, ‘just in case he needs it.’ Suicide attempts would crop up in several of Billy Wilder’s movies, until the subject became a throwaway joke. In The Apartment C.C. Baxter also tells us that he was once so romantically depressed that he bought a gun.
Don Birnham’s rocky descent can still make viewers squirm. Wick is fed up with Don’s flawed character and threatens to abandon him to his fate. Helen subscribes to the sickness theory and won’t give him up. Lost in the delirium of promises and lies, Don taxes their patience beyond any reason. He uses his charm as a weapon, especially on Gloria, the habitué of Nat’s bar who finds him attractive. We’re surprised that Wilder can present Gloria as an unambiguous, no-excuses call girl. When Don finally lands in Bellevue, it turns out to be a circle of Hell, with the minor demon Bim there to administer a dose of tough love abuse. The contrast with Frank Faylen’s Ernie the cabdriver is staggering.
The worldview of The Lost Weekend is 100% anti-Capracorn. Don’s petty lies and deceptions are directed at the very people that care for him. Families with substance abuse problems know this all too well. Don is bent on damning himself, eroding the trust of those who love him. The disappointment, the regret, the shame of it all — the twisted psychology shows him answering loving concern with bitter resentment. Don tries to compensate for his crushed ego and anxiety with braggadocio and flights of literary oratory. If written on paper, his deep ideas would be hideously trite. Lets hope that his writing improves when he’s sober.
Wilder and Ray Milland take Don Birnam’s sordid extremes as far as they can. It’s not an easy role to play even if it gives Milland an abundance of grandstanding acting moments. Unlike Fred MacMurray, Milland didn’t fear a character that could conceivably have been a career-ender if things hadn’t gone well. Eight years later he’d play a consummate cultured villain for Alfred Hitchcock.
Was Milland’s performance an inspiration for later ‘stunt’ showcase star vehicles, aimed at Academy Award recognition? Actor Tyrone Power was actively searching for similar attention-getting acting vehicles, the edgier the better: The Razor’s Edge, Nightmare Alley.
By this time Jane Wyman ( ↓ ) had spent fifteen years in the acting trenches, and received real billing for only eight of them. She’d been a utility comedy player in everything Warners could throw at her. From here forward she was clearly determined to nail big roles or die trying. We’re told that this solid dramatic part was the springboard — three years later she’d be set up with the same kind of showcase vehicle that paid off for Ray Milland, Johnny Belinda.
If Wilder is not noted as a visual stylist, it’s because his work is so slick — his movies abound with technical/visual felicities that go unmentioned. In Lost Weekend he lays on numerous overt effect shots that externalize Don’s mania: the DT material, of course, but also the strange image of a line of dancing coats, each with a bottle in its pocket. It’s the kind of psychological hallucination that shows up in Powell & Pressburger movies. When the Archers created their own thirst-delirium montage for their excellent The Small Back Room they went a little overboard with the deranged psych-out imagery.
The Lost Weekend is at its best when evoking Don Birnham as a lost soul in a city indifferent to his suffering. He seems to carry his typewriter forever down that avenue ( ↓ ). More modern-seeming are the views that hover outside Don’s apartment window — not just the ones showing the bottle suspended from the window sill, but the ones visually divided between the window and the cityscape beyond. Don and his problems are just one story in a city filled with human drama.
Brackett & Wilder’s movie isn’t going to shock the way it once did, not after seventy years of far rougher film content. The quasi-upbeat finale is still welcome, even if it sees Wilder straining at the realism he’s so well established. After sharing Birnam’s suffering for a hundred minutes, we’ll take any hopeful sign we can get. Good old Nat comes through for Don, with a constructive gesture that raises his spirits. The image of Don sitting down to ‘write the plain truth’ seems a much-wanted reprieve, even if such scenes became a major cliché.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The Lost Weekend is a fine new 4K scan of a movie that everybody respects, even if it isn’t a title we reach for to relax and have a good time. Billy Wilder had just distilled the core expression of (what became known as) film noir, and here he hit the Oscar jackpot with what would become the ‘social issue’ wave of the late ’40s. His run of great entertainments would continue for almost two decades, with several massive successes. Wilder had his share of box office disappointments, but almost all of those are hugely entertaining too.
Kino gives us a trailer, a ‘Trailers from Hell’ trailer, and a radio adaptation. Their commentator of late for Billy Wilder has been critic Joseph McBride, who interviewed the director several times and knows his work inside & out. McBride dearly loves Wilder’s Irma La Douce and has an interesting take on that overdone, over-long movie. McBride doesn’t hide the fact that he has no great admiration for The Lost Weekend. But he comes through with a great interpretation, comparing the movie to the book and discussing its controversies in depth.
What’s left of Billy Wilder features not yet viewable on remastered Blu-ray? As a credited writer there are several MIA Wilder titles: Emil and the Detectives, Midnight and Ball of Fire are the ones I’d most like to see. Of the Wilder-directed movies the hold-outs are Mauvaise Graine, The Emperor Waltz, The Spirit of St. Louis and Buddy Buddy. That makes for an incredible shelf of Billy Wilder entertainment — there’s always something I’m ready to see on a moment’s notice.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Lost Weekend
Supplements: Audio commentary with Joseph McBride, radio adaptation, Trailer, Trailers from Hell hosted by Mark Pellington.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: December 20, 2020
Text © Copyright 2020 Glenn Erickson