1940s, 4/4, Best Picture Winner, Billy Wilder, Drama, Review

The Lost Weekend: A Second Look

It still amazes me how well Billy Wilder‘s The Lost Weekend works because it is first and foremost a teetotalling film, a dramatic deconstruction of a man consumed by his need and addiction to alcohol where the alcoholism is the center of every single scene. However, buoyed by Charles Brackett’s and Billy Wilder’s expertly written screenplay, based on the source novel by Charles R. Jackson, it becomes about more. It becomes about a man’s self-destructive course that no one can stop but himself, and he doesn’t want to stop.

Ray Milland isn’t well known for being the most charismatic of actors. He’s largely functional and probably would have settled in very easily as a character actor his whole career, but the movie gods decided that he could lead a film. He managed it for years, in fact, and out of the handful of his performances I’ve seen from him, it’s his performance as Don Birnam that is the most dynamic that really stands out. His drunken boorishness as he works to find a way to another drink, or boasts to his bartender about how he’s outsmarted his brother, using his hands and wild expressions on his face to convey the ideas.

The story is of his descent into his worst moments, a four-day weekend where he stays at home while his brother and girl go away, having expected to take him, and he steals and begs to get just the next drop. He tears his brother’s apartment apart because he hid a bottle and can’t remember where it is. When he runs out, he can’t get anyone to give him any money, so he tries to hock his typewriter. However, all of the pawn shops are closed. He’s in withdrawals in the worst way when his girl shows up, and he’s completely giving up on everything.

What makes all of this journey work is the depth of Don’s character. We get a series of flashbacks and small speeches from Don about who he was in the years past. His early promise as a writer dissipated quickly, and he increasingly relied on alcohol to get him through the struggles and pain. He hid it as best he could, hiding it successfully from his girl for a few years, even, but it just took over completely to that weekend.

That dramatic and character-based series of actions is what drives the film, and it’s what gives what could have been just a message movie real dramatic weight and emotional power. The plight of Don Birnam is a terrible one, and it’s drawn in exacting detail and as, practically, a horror movie. Using a score by Miklos Rozsa that heavily relies on a theremin to give it an otherworldly air in his lowest moments, the film really embraces this descent in every way it can, and it works remarkably well.

Milland is the centerpiece of the whole thing, but there’s a small, dedicated, and very effective supporting cast that does just as well including Jane Wyman as the girl, Phillip Terry as Don’s brother, and Howard de Silva as the bartender.

I was kind of surprised that the film worked as well the second time as it did on the first, probably because I had regressed into thinking that it was just a thinly veiled polemic against alcohol, but Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett were simply too good of a writing team to descend into polemic. They embraced the challenge and broke forward with every ounce of their writing talents, and Wilder than went and got great performances from his actors while filming inventively and clearly at the same time.

Really, this was a joy to return to.

Rating: 4/4


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