#8 in my Ranking of Billy Wilder movies.
Structure is a very important part of storytelling. I love the example from The Simpsons‘ third Treehouse of Horror special where Homer tries to tell a scary story but he reveals all of the information out of order (like the wife being dead and the husband playing golf all the time) so that the big reveals don’t make a lot of sense. Anyway, I bring it up at the beginning of my review of The Lost Weekend because the film has an unusual structure that I resisted for the longest time. It felt formless, but as the movie came to its final denouement, the connection between subject and structure became very clear.
The Lost Weekend is the story of a drunk going on a four day long bender. He’s an unemployed writer who hasn’t written anything of even small significance in more than ten years. Living off the beneficence of his older brother, he’s developed a relationship with an attractive young employee of the Time magazine. Her mere presence was enough to get him to not drink for the first six weeks of their relationship, but he eventually backslid and entered his trips on and off the wagon.
The film begins after one more bender. The three are planning a nice long weekend to the country upstate, but as the two brothers pack their final things, Don keeps trying to get to a bottle of cheap rye hanging by a thread outside their apartment window. Wick finds it, but Don insists that it was a leftover from his last bender and not something he remembered. What follows is Don lying, pleading, and stealing his way to his next drink. Nothing matters more than his next drink, and he’s willing to cast off everything dear to him just to get there.
The movie follows Don through this long weekend of binge drinking, taking ten dollars from the sugar cup meant for the cleaning lady, buying two bottles of rye, hiding them in the apartment, getting drunk in the bar and telling the story of how he and Helen St. James first met and his falling off the wagon at the prospect of meeting her parents. He goes back to the apartment, having infuriated his brother and girl so much that they leave for different reasons (he to go to the country and her to go out looking for Don), and he searches for the bottle he hid and cannot remember where he hid. He eventually ends up at Bellevue Hospital where he is confronted with the harsh reality of his condition.
Ray Milland, who plays Don, wasn’t known for his great acting talent when Billy Wilder hired him to play Don, but Milland is great showing Don’s desperation. He’s consumed by his need for alcohol, and when he reaches his deepest depths (selling his typewriter and even his commitment to suicide), he sells it completely. I’d also like to give props to Frank Faylen as Bim, the male nurse in Bellevue, who gives a marvelously sardonic performance overpowering the weakened Don.
This might be the only “important” movie that Billy Wilder ever made. Not to say that the others are important, but this was the only one where he seems to have set out to make something socially conscious and “important”. The terrors of alcoholism! The key for the film’s success is the fact that Don is such a great character, he’s so well played, and the writing around him is just as good. Wilder elevated the simple socially conscious narrative into something approaching cinema and art. It’s a very good film, perhaps even a great one, that could use a bit less overt moralizing.
And, to top it all off, the meandering storytelling fits perfectly with the character, matching his journey in just the right way. It’s different from the normal structure we usually get from Hollywood, but once you fall into the movie’s groove, its charm should win an audience over.
Netflix Rating: 5/5
Quality Rating: 4/4