The Lost Weekend – 1945
Director – Billy Wilder
Starring – Ray Milland, Jane Wyman, and Phillip Terry
With the The Lost Weekend, Billy Wilder has successfully created and commit to celluloid, a fully realized nightmare. In particular, we are watching a man’s life disintegrate right before our very eyes. Where in other films, we would get only hints and suggestions of the depths of this nightmare, Billy Wilder shows it all with a tone that is so matter of fact it is lots of times awkward to watch.
For the uninitiated, Milland stars as Don Birnum, a writer who’s going through a bit of a rough patch. Don is an alcoholic, a fact that he’s been unsuccessfully trying to hide from his girlfriend Helen (played by Wyman). The story is fractured into three segments told out-of-order, the first is when he meets Helen at the opera. Consumed by the thought of getting a drink, he runs to the coat check to get his flask only to find that he has the wrong claim ticket. After waiting for the show to let out, he meets Helen, who unintentionally claimed his coat. The second segment is slightly further down the line when their relationship is in full swing, Don is waiting to meet Helen’s parents and suddenly gets cold feet. He retreats into drink, destroying the brief period of sobriety that he had enjoyed throughout his relationship thus far. And finally, the third section deals with his alcoholism while it’s in full swing. Delusions, hallucinations, incarceration, and a cold hard look at what his life has become, provided me with some of the most squirm worthy moments in the movie.
Visually, The Lost Weekend starts off just like a typical movie from this era, straight forward camera positioning, a standard assortment of cuts and fades to get from scene to scene, but it slowly morphs into a much more fluid surreal monster. The camera follows Don on his decline, giving us shots from a worms eye view, harsh shadows, tricks of light, and unnerving close-ups or our main character sweating and suffering. The change is subtle, but effective, and the difference between these scenes and when the couple first meets is like night and day. Wilder is never afraid to show the flaws of his characters actions, but in the Lost Weekend, we see it represented visually in how Don is constantly sweating, the dark circles under his eyes, and the stumble in his step.
In terms of acting, the real standout of the performances is delivered (no surprise) by Ray Milland. And while the supporting performances are decent enough, they never amount to the impact of the Millands. To be fair though, they were never written or intended to be center stage like the character of Don Birnum was. The depths that Birnum visits make the possibility that he may never get better, and be continually relapsing a very real possibility, and causes us to doubt any sort of outcome that the film presents for us. The acting and subject matter was so effective that both sides of the liquor industry (those in the industry afraid it would hurt sales as well as numerous temperance groups afraid it would glamorize drinking) attacked the movie, in an attempt to prevent it’s release. Reluctantly the studio gave the film a limited release at Wilder’s insistence and immediately had critics falling all over themselves in praise of the film, Wilder and their lead actor Milland. Ultimately, this movie that was to be the “career killer” for Ray Milland, turned out to bring him an Oscar win.
Billy Wilder’s unique vision paints America in both a loving, and disgusted light. He sees this place, bourne of freedoms and rights, as a prison, purgatory, shelter, and safe house. It is both safe and dangerous, cancer and cure. In many ways Wilder’s film is the same, it is both frightening and captivating, great and awful, and regardless of which side you come down on, it is completely worth seeing.