Austrian émigré Billy Wilder, who is best known today as a director, may have been even more accomplished as a screenwriter. He won two Oscars for his screenplays, and was nominated for ten more. It’s a remarkable record, all the more so because, in Hollywood, Wilder was not working in his native language. Unsure of his mastery of English, he preferred to work with a writing partner. For Double Indemnity (1945), that partner was the American mystery writer Raymond Chandler, a recovering alcoholic who relapsed while working with Wilder. That was unfortunate for Chandler, but fortunate for filmgoers, because Wilder’s attempts to understand Chandler’s problem led him to Charles R. Jackson’s 1944 novel The Lost Weekend, based in part on Jackson’s own experiences with alcoholism. Wilder’s film version of The Lost Weekend (1945) was a resounding success, being nominated for seven Oscars and winning four, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay (by Wilder and Charles Brackett). It also won the Grand Prix at the 1946 Cannes Film Festival.
The Lost Weekend takes place over five days in the life of alcoholic writer Don Birnam (Ray Milland). When we first meet Don, he’s packing to spend a weekend in the country with his straight arrow brother Wick (Philip Terry). But even before we see Don, we see his stash—a bottle of whiskey hanging from the windowsill by a rope—and soon learn that Wick and Don’s girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman) are both on to him, although Helen has a few more shards of patience left than does Wick. To Wilder’s credit, The Lost Weekend is not sentimental about Don, nor does it try to make him charming or sympathetic—instead, he’s shown from the first as a pure addict who will do anything, including stealing from his brother’s cleaning woman, to get his next hit of booze.
Things only go downhill from there. Left to his own devices, Don alternates between his alcoholic highs, when he imagines himself a great writer and man-about-town, and moments of desperation that lead to, among other things, him trying to steal from a woman’s purse and to pawn his typewriter (the latter attempt fails because the pawn shops are closed for Yom Kippur). By Sunday he’s in the alcoholic ward of a local hospital, where he continues to refuse help, because to do so would require admitting that he has a problem. Throughout it all, Helen remains loyal, which is a bit hard to take considering she’s a self-possessed woman with a good job and loving parents, not to mention what a jerk he’s always been to her. But that’s the 1940s for you—it’s every woman’s job to provide the pure and unselfish love to break the curse hanging over whatever Flying Dutchman should happen into her path.
The Lost Weekend does end on a relatively upbeat note, but even more than that, it’s saved by Wilder and Brackett’s wicked sense of humor, which fills the screenplay with quotable lines and scenes simultaneously cringeworthy and hilarious. One of my favorites occurs about 30 minutes in, during a flashback, while Don tells his favorite bartender, Nat (Howard Da Silva) about how he and Helen met cute. Don, attending a performance of La Traviata, becomes almost hypnotized by the theatrical on-stage champagne during the aria “Libiamo!” (“Let us drink!”) and mentally transforms the singers into visions of his overcoat, complete with a bottle in the pocket. As the checkroom has mixed up his coat with someone else’s, which most inconveniently doesn’t have a bottle in the pocket, he has no choice but to wait until the someone else shows up—who happens to be Helen.
John F. Seitz’ black and white cinematography is impeccable, and the film includes scenes shot in New York City alongside those shot at the Paramount studio. Miklós Rozsa’s score was among the first in Hollywood to incorporate the theremin, an electronic instrument often featured in science fiction soundtracks, to signify Don’s mental confusion as the alcohol overtakes him. Finally, while all the cast members are good, it’s Ray Milland’s performance as the self-loathing Don that really makes the film work. It’s a pity that, due to the Motion Picture code, any references to Don’s closeted homosexuality are omitted, but once again, that’s the 1940s for you. | Sarah Boslaugh
The Lost Weekend is distributed on Blu-Ray by Kino Lorber in a new 4K Master. Extras on the disc include an audio commentary by film historian Joseph McBride, a “Trailers from Hell” episode with Mark Pellington, the 1946 radio adaptation of The Lost Weekend starring Ray Milland, Jane Wyman, and Frank Faylen, and trailers for this and several other films.