It might be a futile exercise but at least for a brief moment, I will attempt to get back into the headspace from when I first came upon Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend. I was younger then. Bright-eyed and a budding cinephile. It is the film that defined Ray Milland’s entire filmography for me as I had never seen another one of his pictures (although Dial M for Murder followed soon thereafter).
Now I understand the crucial context. To say Ray Milland is defined by The Lost Weekend is analogous to attributing Anthony Perkins’s entire persona to Norman Bates and Psycho. You wouldn’t be wrong but in order to understand this inference, you have to understand how the viewing public viewed them in the moment. They were matinee idols and boys-next-door. They fit in comedies and as youthful love interests.
It takes a subversive and inventive mind like a Wilder or a Hitchcock to take the inherent expectations provided by an actor only to toy with the audience. Milland, in his early years, could be defined by the likes of Easy Living or The Major and The Minor. Even noir like Ministry of Fear and The Big Clock, though clouded by menace, rely on the inherent likeability of our hero thrown into trauma though he maybe.
The Lost Weekend was an unequivocal gamble for Milland, in particular, and history has proven to be on his side. He gamely throws himself wholeheartedly into the drama, and it pays heavy dividends.
Don Birnam (Milland) is a struggling novelist with a persistent drinking habit. He’s playing at being reformed, about to go on a trip to the country with his pragmatic brother, but just out of sight and out of reach is a bottle. He’s still beholden to the stuff. It’s a hidden cache of security just in case he needs a nip.
His concerned girlfriend (Jane Wyman) has the cutest way of remedying their height disparity when it comes to kissing (bend down). Even as I’ve gained a more full-bodied impression of Ray Milland, I would like to believe I’ve also reappraised the stardom of Wyman with newfound respect.
She’s not merely an ironic Sirkian pawn in melodrama. During the bulk of the 1940s, she more than asserted herself as a quality performer. In retrograde, the likes of The Yearling and Johnny Belinda show an extraordinary range, redefining how I perceive her for the better. The Lost Weekend exhibits her at her most likable while still being bolstered with personal resolve.
This is evident even as her boyfriend so quickly falls into outrage as if the people who love him most are turning against him. It all plays as a symptom of the real problem. He feels hemmed in or could it be the withdrawals from the alcohol crying out?
Regardless, the theremin has never used as effectively to denote menace in such a different context than the ubiquitous Sci-Fi trope it would soon become. Because one bottle is snatched away and yet it’s simply indicative of a far more pervasive problem. Don has stashed alcohol all over his apartment in the most ingenious hiding places though his brother is equally adept at hide and seek.The premises are really and truly dry. That is until the cleaning woman unwittingly tips him off to $10 he can splurge on. He’s up for a perilous road ahead.
John Seitz photographs the drama like a brooding noir, and it is as if alcohol — the siren on the shelf — is the deadly fatale entrapping Ray Milland in its web. His girlfriend even goes so far as to label the “other woman” and confidently intimates she’s not going to go down without a fight; she’ll help him beat it and keep Birnham for her own.
Eventually, he succumbs to a bender of a weekend, caught as he is within his own self-exile. What becomes so very evident is how isolating addiction becomes. His only confidante is the local bartender (Howard da Silva in an uncharacteristically sympathetic part).
As Don spirals back into his destructive habit, he recounts how he managed to meet a girl like Helen even in the throes of his alcoholism. There he was sitting in the theater like a fine thespian and yet he couldn’t get it out of his mind. Even the play reminds him of the bottle he has in his jacket pocket, currently stashed out in the coat check. It proved a fortuitous evening as his petulant first impression gave way to charms that won his girl over.
However, it is a portent of all his recurring troubles. The want of liquor leads him into distancing himself from the community just so he can get alone with his bottle. Companionship seems so much more vital and yet we tell ourselves backward lies to rationalize our decisions.
He is a man who suffers from the age-old affliction of Jekyll and Hyde syndrome. He even admits there are two sides to his persona. The man about town with a charming public persona, and then the other Don Birnam. The drunk who remains a tortured writer.
He hits the pits of despair, wandering the streets, desperately looking to hock his belongings for one last satiating drink — even a handout if he can get it. But that’s the lie, isn’t it? Just one more time and we’ll reform. Just one more and never again. We gather together the willpower for an hour, a day, a week, a month, until it comes back with a vengeance.
Birnham’s life is indicative of a whole caste of society. The silent and the forgotten in dark rooms and lonely bouts of aggravation. His brother has turned his back, and he won’t respond to his girlfriend. It quite literally feels like a little slice of hell.
The film makes one harrowing detour to an archaic-looking drunk ward where a sardonic Frank Faylen takes care of the jittery new arrival inside the booze tank. He’s confident Birnham will be a regular customer soon enough. It feels like a harsh and unfeeling extension of the world.
For some, The Lost Weekend might be a tempered now antiquated exploration of alcoholism firmly planted in the past. However, I would like to push against this preconception slightly.
Wilder purportedly penned the piece with his writer partner, Charles Brackett, as a way to explore his relationship with Raymond Chandler and how alcoholism affected their art — the processes of a writer being derailed by drink. So in this regard, it too is personal and yet about as universal as a picture can be. There is this obvious duality of art and alcohol where one impacts the other in highly detrimental ways.
Wilder’s not always known as a technical director but, if nothing else, he surrounds himself with competent people. A couple names that come to mind in this picture, in particular, are cinematographer John Seitz and then his editor Doane Harrison.
One is reminded of the shots of the overturned lamp repeatedly reflecting the shambles of Birnham’s current life, derailed by drunkenness as it is. In another, it’s Milland’s eyeball spinning psychotically inside its socket. He’s more alive than Marion Crane on the bathroom floor, but we can hardly deign to call this life.
Each of these elements, even the more blatant evocations of his delusions, illustrates the torment of human beings stricken by addiction. It saps our creativity and our energy. It can take away a want for relationships and, in some cases, our desire to live.
The Lost Weekend is a reminder sometimes we need to enter into the storm of our struggles so we might come out on the other side. When you’ve hit rock bottom, the tap is dry, and your body is shaking, the only place to go is up.
However, sometimes we’re not strong enough to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Grit, determination, and resolve only get us so far. We have nothing left. We’re broken, alone, destitute. Utterly defeated. It’s in this place of helplessness when we are forced to look outside of ourselves…to something or someone else. To reclaim all that is lost and be found again.