Director: Billy Wilder
Screenplay: Charles Brackett & Billy Wilder
Based on a novel by: Charles R. Jackson
Starring: Ray Milland, Jane Wyman, Phillip Terry, Howard Da Silva, Doris Dowling, Frank Faylen
Producer: Charles Brackett
Running Time: 102 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
From the four Billy Wilder films I’d seen previously to The Lost Weekend (I know I need to see more), two of them (The Apartment and Some Like it Hot) are up in my top 20 or so films of all time and the other two aren’t far behind. So my expectations for any Wilder films are of course ludicrously high. This should probably be something to bear in mind when reading my slightly disappointed opinion of The Lost Weekend, which is widely considered to be among the upper echelon of the writer/director’s work.
Thought to be one of the earliest full-on cinematic depictions of addiction, the film examines four days in the life of alcoholic Don Birnam (Ray Milland) as he plunges into a spiral of drink-induced self-destruction. He’s a wannabe writer that can’t sit down at his typewriter long enough without getting a drink or selling the machine to buy cheap hooch. His brother Wick (Phillip Terry) and long-suffering girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman) try their best to keep him on the wagon, but get nowhere fast.
I don’t want my opening paragraph to sound like I disliked the film. There is plenty to enjoy and appreciate on screen. You’ve got to admire a Hollywood film from the mid-40’s that is so grim and open about such subject matter. The central performance by Milland is a pleasure to watch too. He can be rather over the top at times, but it’s hard to take your eyes from him as he throws himself into the role. Of course, being written by Billy Wilder, the film is littered with snappy dialogue, with his great wit shining through as always. Some of the acidic remarks by Don on his bender pave the way for these as well as his banter with a local call girl (Doris Dowling).
Bizarrely, it’s this wit and crackle that is partly responsible for why I didn’t totally get into the film though. My issue was that as a straight up drama the film has dated quite badly. This is largely due to the over-baked mix of the preachy, wooden co-stars Terry and Wyman, the impressive but overly bombastic score by Miklos Rozsa and some clunkily blunt moralising. The sharp script adds to this list by stripping away any of the naturalism that the film could have benefitted from. It’s hard to feel sympathy for a guy that’s shooting off carefully crafted quips left, right and centre. I understand that this was pretty much the first film to tackle such themes and in those days you weren’t going to get the meandering subtleties of Half Nelson or similar, but some films date better than others and for me, this fell into the latter category.
The Lost Weekend did start to win me over in the final third though as Don becomes ever more desperate, with an attempted purse snatch giving a memorable turning point to the film. The most impressive scene is when he finally hits rock bottom and ends up in a hospital’s drunk tank. Frank Faylen steals the show here in a brief role as ‘Bim’, a male nurse that on the surface seems sadistic, but is merely telling it like it is to try and shock his patients into recovery. Following this is a terrifying moment when night falls and one of Don’s fellow ‘inmates’ suffers from intense DT’s. This idea is repeated soon after when Don himself is subjected to a disturbing hallucination featuring a bat and a mouse trapped in his wall.
So there were plenty of elements I admired and moments that remain powerful 67 years on, but on the whole I felt like the presentation was outdated and at times was as hard to swallow as the cheap booze gulped down by its protagonist.
The Lost Weekend is out on now on Blu-Ray (as well as a swanky steelbook edition) as part of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series. Picture and sound are as strong as expected from the label although the darker scenes occasionally suffered from a bit of flicker.
For the special features we get a new video introduction by director Alex Cox who talks largely about the strong performances, in particular Frank Faylen, who plays the minor (in terms of screen time at least) character ‘Bim’. Added to this is the 1946 ‘Screen Guild Theatre’ radio adaptation of The Lost Weekend starring Ray Milland, Jane Wyman and Frankie Faylen. And the pièce de résistance of the set is a three-part 1992 BBC Arena programme Billy, How Did You Do It?, featuring Volker Schlöndorff in conversation with Billy Wilder. This comes to a grand total of 3 hours of viewing, which makes for an impressive, if patience testing, addition.
Of course there’s the usual excellent booklet included in the set which fills in the behind the scenes and theoretical gaps.