The Lost Weekend (1945, Billy Wilder)
Something in Charles Jackson’s novel The Lost Weekend sparked the great director Billy Wilder’s interest; picking it up for a quick read during a train ride, he’d decided to persuade Paramount to let him adapt it by the time he got home. All these years later, it’s difficult to say what it was. If I had to guess, I’d say maybe the structure of it — based around a four-day drinking binge, with intricate territories of New York mapped out and a continual revisit to the welcoming and cruel specter of The Apartment — might have intrigued him, with good reason. It’s a metaphorically and dramatically powerful plotline, of self-imposed imprisonment, smallness, and repetition. But Wilder would want me to listen to the cynic in me, and that cynic is telling me loud and clear that Wilder probably liked the idea of releasing a prestige picture about alcoholism sure to gain box office attention and Academy recognition, in other words to launch Wilder further into the top tier of Hollywood directors. The subject matter here has all the hallmarks of empty melodrama meant to be taken all too seriously; even the title sequence is drab, and wino Ray Milland opens the film by referring to water and juice as “very dull liquids.” The hand couldn’t be heavier.
The film sets itself up with a need to win the modern audience over; it never quite does so. From our standpoint, there’s relatively little difference between it and your typical afterschool specials or B-exploitation movies, outside of the cracking dialogue and some interesting visual touches. We’ll come back to all that, but in terms of its story and general outlook, the movie has aged rather poorly despite its slick, supposedly uncompromising vision. The Lost Weekend attempts to get by on its potency, and over half a century later that’s just not enough; we’ve caught up and lapped this sort of thing, and it’s now the stuff of trash culture, choir-directed preaching about addiction and mental illness that’s finally just empty and impossibly, insultingly reductive.
That dialogue, though — by Wilder and Charles Brackett, cowriter of Ninotchka and the director’s frequent collaborator in the ’40s — counts for something. It’s snappy and intelligent, and occasionally charming beyond belief in all its attempts at streetwise slang (“Don’t be ridic,” chides call girl Gloria). Wilder was coming on this project directly from the unstoppable Double Indemnity, so there was little chance of this film not at least sounding like it’s full of spark. The script in general is basically good, at least up to a point. Surprisingly honest, perceptive, sophisticated, it shows a welcome level of empathy for its protagonist and is a fine example of subjective cinema. The viewer who’s never taken alcohol or been hooked to any drug will find him- or herself actually relating to the drama of the increasingly miserable existence of a drunkard. That connection’s priceless, something truly special, but the movie severs it by talking too many dramatic shortcuts.
Most of these come from the poor characterization of the lead. It respects him, is humane to him, but defines and illustrates him inefficiently. We’re told that Don Birnham (Ray Milland) was once a promising writer, and one heavily repeated touchstone in the film, a reason given for his slide into the abyss, is his disappointment at his own inadequacy and the dead end his career has hit. But when this supposedly gifted wordsmith sits down at a typewriter for the first and only time in the movie, the “process” consists of him — in a very Hollywood moment — pacing around his apartment for a few minutes, writing the title page, and wandering off to find alcohol. Oh, and trying to sell his typewriter, because that’s a thing. The Lost Weekend fails to get inside Don’s head, to use him as anything but a mouthpiece. Wilder and Brackett deserve credit for writing a script that doesn’t moralize — it doesn’t shake its head and tsk-tsk at Don’s wanderings around the city in search of a drop of booze, it simply illustrates his desperation. But we respond only to the emotion; the character himself is, alas, an empty vessel.
And if this was an audience-insertion tactic, it belabors its point for far too long; much of the second half of the rather long picture is simply a repeated sequence of blows to the dead horse. That sadly undermines its aspiration toward realism; the more time you spend with Milland’s character, the more the hollow and uncomprehending writing of his “drunkenness” dawns on you — if Brackett and Wilder had any deep knowledge of this world, they don’t really show you. They might not be “judging,” but they’re still observing from the outside. The great scenes here and there, and the considerable tension they mount (the pawn shop montage, the nail-biting purse snatch sequence), could’ve worked with any subject matter, and seem indebted to the thriller theatrics of Double Indemnity more than anything.
Still, the biggest obstacle to dismissing The Lost Weekend comes with what Wilder actually did with the screenplay once he took it away to his handsomely photographed, gritty New York. Never remembered as a primarily visual director, Wilder deserves greater recognition in this regard. His shadowy, expressionistic treatment of Milland’s world, of the large and scary NYC he inhabits, would feel like some cast-off leftover back of tricks from some noir thriller if not for the repeated concentration on the inner world of the bottle-dependent. A telling early shot places Milland amongst bottles of liquor, framed as if they’re bars imprisoning him — the “bigness” of these tropes recurs, and there’s a hint of Polanski’s forthcoming “apartment” films to boot as Don’s home base becomes more and more sinister and imposing, as the shadows threaten to swallow him up — and as, even in daytime, the city provides no respite with its looming fears and reminders of the night before. The compositions are outstanding, the striking image set generally the stuff of nightmares. In this regard at least, The Lost Weekend deserves its reputation as a gritty, scary film.
Having developed these ideas so efficiently and written a serviceable script, Wilder then dropped the ball on casting, a rarity for him. The leads are both clunkers, and to this day Ray Milland’s bizarre (and bizarrely Oscar-winning) turn as Don remains the source of many widespread reservations about the film. Seldom a convincing leading man, he’s difficult to buy as a suffering alcoholic. He neither looks, sounds, nor feels like the character he’s supposed to be playing; more like someone who walked into a Dickens adaptation and got lost, the long “drunk” ramblings he rattles off sending him off into Sean O’Casey land. This is partially the screenwriters’ fault, as they seem to have spent too little time around extreme drunkards to notice that they are seldom so cocky, articulate, or jovial as Milland here. But while actors are typically supposed to enjoy playing drunk and a better one might have done something with all this, he’s about as believable as a Schlesinger cartoon character. He even screams like one, and when he does so it’s a stark contrast to the actually harrowing desperation you see in something like Days of Wine and Roses, wherein Jack Lemmon appears to be very seriously on the verge of losing his mind.
Equally weak, as ever, is Jane Wyman, a mousy figure unsuited for roles this important and hefty (Don’s long-suffering girlfriend Helen), even if in the context of Milland’s hamminess she comes across as a slight relief. Her character is more than a little strange on the page as well — one can’t help but wonder what reason Helen could possibly have for staying in the life of the leading man for so long — but the worthwhile excuse there is that she’s the portrait of a classic enabler. As the film and Wyman would have it, though, that translates to someone not merely tolerant and accepting of Don’s excesses but seemingly completely willing take them in stride, undaunted by any of the abuses hurled at her. She’s not a positive figure or a complex motivator, she’s a prototypical MPDG. Some of the support players here are fine, however; although Phillip Terry is a bland presence as Don’s brother, Howard Da Silva and Frank Faylen are believable as quiet critics to Don’s self-destruction, and the picture is virtually stolen by Doris Dowling as neighborhood paid companion Gloria, in a turn so nuanced and sympathetic you can’t help wishing she’d been the love interest — or the lead. When Don at one point breaks down on her shoulder after asking for money, it’s she whose emotions fire at you strongly: the compassion in her face, the utter love for him, the need to help him.
As if one’s feelings toward The Lost Weekend weren’t inevitably conflicted enough, along comes Miklos Rosza to lay down one of the worst music scores this writer has ever heard in a major motion picture. The theremin-laced This Island Earth – Reefer Madness pastiche is obscenely unsuited to the material, even more so than the composer’s concurrent work on Hitchcock’s Spellbound. The slightly goofy overtones provided by Milland’s atrocious read of most of his lines are pushed over the edge into pure kitsch by Rosza’s contribution; the supreme injustice here is that both men won Oscars this year (though Rosza’s was for Spellbound).
By the time you have Ray Milland screaming his head off because of a papier-mache hallucinated mouse-eating bat flying around his apartment, it’s not hard to write this off as a slightly ridiculous if occasionally harrowing film, but its most curious element of all is still to come. Its ending doesn’t feel like a complete and finished scene — not in the sense that Don’s future is left up in the air, which is obvious enough, but in the sense that it’s completely off rhythm and features no new information, conclusion or evidence of a change in the character. This makes the story look overwrought and uneconomical; the ending that it finally arrives at could easily have been reached an hour beforehand, a la:
– act I: I am moping around my apartment, depressed. I want to go to the park, but I’m too lazy to leave the house.
– act II: I mope some more.
– act III: I almost walk out the door to go to the park, then I decide against it.
– act IV: a bunch of stuff happens.
– act V: hey, I’ll go to the park after all! the end.
When Milland speaks his last words, the final shot and fade out seem strangely toned. The story isn’t finished and never will be; perhaps that was the point.
[Revision and expansion (largely because I liked the film much more upon a revisit) of a review I posted in 2005.]