The Lost Weekend

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I’m going to be a little frustrated writing this review because I’ve already written it. I reviewed The Lost Weekend back in 2012, but it was mysteriously deleted and never seen again. I have no idea how it happened, but this is appropriate considering the film we’re dealing with. The Lost Weekend is about alcoholism yes, but it is also about the frustrations of an unremarkable life, and, you guessed it, writing.

Don Birnam (Ray Milland) is a struggling writer with one hell of a drinking problem. The film begins with a promise of a weekend in the country for Don to recover from his latest bender with his brother Wick (Phillip Terry), but to no one’s surprise he outfoxes Wick and his own girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman) and heads to Nat’s (Howard Da Silva) bar. What unfolds is an examination into Don’s failures and inability to get past them, as he continues to find refuge in alcohol. He endures countless humiliations in his constant search for a drink, being caught stealing, locked in a sanitorium, and a suicide attempt.

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Though movies nowdays go a lot further in their portrayal of addiction, The Lost Weekend was one of the first movies to paint a sympathetic portrait of an alcoholic. The character of Don Birnam is fleshed out with good and bad points by screenwriters Wilder and Brackett, and brought to life vividly by Milland. Birnam talks with both the wisdom of someone who has suffered and the chessiness of a hack writer. He describes the feeling of being drunk vividly but is unable to write it down, the core of the character’s problem. He is motivated by the fear of failure, which comes across wonderfully in the film. He isn’t completely sympathetic, shown in how he treats those around him. His long suffering brother finally gives up on him, but the contrast is Helen, who never does. Perhaps most contemptible of all is how Don treats those he barely knows, stealing an unknown woman’s purse in a restaurant and standing up Gloria (Doris Dowling), a girl he barely knows.

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Wilder uses a number of clever techniques to get the audience into the mindset of alcoholism. In one shot, the camera seems to drown in a glass of whiskey, which is superimposed over itself to fill up the frame. When Don is at the opera, the performers’ glasses are obsessively concentrated on. The lighting contrast gets higher as the film progresses, particularly in the hospital scenes and the withdrawal scene in Don’s apartment immediately after. It mirrors his desperate situation and along with the score (which is a little overwrought at times) gives an eerie feeling to these scenes. Finally, the circles made on the bar by Don’s whiskey glass are a clear symbol of his sense of futility.

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The Lost Weekend was nominated for seven Oscars, and took home four of them. It won picture, director for Wilder, actor for Milland, and original screenplay for Wilder and Brackett, and it lost out on black and white cinematography, editing, and score. The Lost Weekend is just about the best movie I’ve seen from 1945 (the only picture that comes close is Hitchcock’s Spellbound, and it doesn’t really come that close), so I can’t really argue with it winning. More importantly is its game changing portrayal of alcoholism, which it brings to life with sensitivity and as much honesty as the time period allows.

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“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation. I can’t take quiet desperation!”

Long story short: 3.5/4 stars

For Further Reading:

The Best Picture Project review
The New York Times review

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