The Lost Weekend (1945)

The Lost Weekend (1945) by Billy Wilder, and starring Ray Milland as writer Don Birnam, and starring alcohol as itself, perfectly in character as a marvellous and demonic fixe-fatale, is a low-key and visionary tale of alcoholic failure, and as such uniquely emotional and modern, for the 1940s.

The Lost Weekend is also a landmark in film noir and a high station in Hollywood history, being among other things the winner of  a Best Picture Oscar . . . in fact The Best Picture Oscar, in fact, and there may be little more significant when assessing the history of one style, genre or cinema

This Best Picture Oscar was a deserved win for many reasons, and that included morality which always plays a part in this decision, each year, no matter what the style of picture.

It was a deserved win for the modernity and humanity of The Lost Weekend, which is a film that does not dazzle so much as invite the viewer on a slow and focused ride to the bottom. There is no complexity other than in the acting, and even the script does not veer, even when it surprises with its hidden bottles of rye and constant feeling of domestic and internal desperation.

The Lost Weekend is still a film noir however. Even though there is no murder, there is above all else a psychological horror which in cinematic terms could only find its feet in film noir in the 1940s.

It's probably why The Lost Weekend has never been remade, because its delivery was probably pertinent to the moment it was made; there was not in fact a large amount of social reality offered on screen in the 1940s, and if it was, it would have almost always have had a left-leaning message even inadvertently encoded.

A look from Doris Dowling

This lack of a complex storyline or mystery is quite a marvellous achievement, for often films don't get far without them. Noir is a style which loves to complicate matters, by telling stories in flashback and within other frames, often from for example a prison cell.

Film noir is often usually a fantasy insofar as these techniques draw the magic of the moment to a finer set of points; the transgressions that are described are usually sever insofar as they draw us away from the safety and stability of a domestic life, into a nether world, often a criminal underworld.

Here weakened male leads in the form of heel, saps and suckers are drawn into deadly webs which are dreams in their kind. Don Birnam, the drunken writer whose decline forms the substance of The Lost Weekend, is not so much a sucker or a sap, and neither is he that bothered by sexuality, not even having the impetus within him to have an interest in any women at all; but the success of The Lost Weekend is mysteriously premised on the idea that all of these are replaced by alcohol.

Howard de Silva - - heard it all.

That is to say that alcohol is Don Birnam's evil nemesis, it's his femme fatale, just as it is his prison. For Don Birnam, alcohol is his fatal weakness, and it's the fateful psychological trap that turns him from moral living, to a desperate character.

Don Birnam's character then is as polished a film noir anti-hero as is ever needed anywhere. He doesn't have a prison cell, nor a harmful love interest; nor a criminal or military past, causing him to turn back to crime, or bring on PTSD; and neither does Don Birnam by accident become drawn into his fate, and neither does he live under any illusions that will harm his vitality and cause him to enter a spiral of ever increasing, or decreasing spirals, which lead him to the typical tragic ending, so thrilling and so familiar with film noir audiences.

So the genius of The Lost Weekend, is that it conflates all of those factors into one social ill, that of alcohol. There is no prison, and there is no fatal love interest, when you've got Rye.

The genius of The Lost Weekend is found in how new it was, and how shocking that novelty was. There are famous drinking scenes in many movies, such as Casablanca (1942); although problem drinking is rare, with a great recent exception being made in the Japanese noir Drunken Angel (1942) which equally does a sterling job of expressing what chronic drinking might be.

Addiction is a theme in the Drunken Angel and both Kurosawa and his actors handle alcoholism with sensitivity; wildness; vulnerability; the same is true in The Lost Weekend. The next great sympathetic manifestation of alcoholism at work in the movies might be in 1954, when James mason and Judy Garland made A Star is Born.

The magical choice in the production of The Lost Weekend, would have to be the introduction of the Theremin in the soundtrack. Immediately suggestive of something other-worldly, the Theremin became quickly associated with the science fiction and horror films of the era; but here in The Lost Weekend, the wobbling, high pitched notes are perfect for suggesting the wobbling mental state of drunken writer Don Birnam; its wacky and poisonous notes cannot be escaped, just as desperately as Don Birnam himself, in the grip of that supernatural and universally confining agent of his demise; the alcohol.

1945 was an early appearance for the Theremin, and was used here by Miklos Rozsa in Spellbound in 1945; and The Red House (1947); the former more of a psychological noir and the latter, veering towards what passed as horror cinema in the 1940s.

Other early appearances of the Theremin are similarly styled as movie frighterners, in which the psychological element is writ large; The Spiral Staircase (1946) would be a well-known example; before the spate of science fiction which bloomed as Hollywood left its Golden Age and began upon its Space Age: Rocketship X-M (1950); The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951); The Thing from Another World (1951); even in The Ten Commandments (1956).

Although it might have ultimately come to be associated with silver alien craft and beings of unknown origin, the Theremin cannot be beaten as the voice of choice, articulating Don Birnam in his daily assault from alcohol, and the otherworldly magic it invites. Danger and promise, in a simultaneously mystic brew.

There is something timeless about The Lost Weekend. It is not a film of its time, but a film of all time. Alcoholism takes Don Birnam out of time, so much so that he is never in the real space of the action when he's drinking. Instead he's Shakespeare, as he says . . . .and the street outside the bar is not Third Avenue, but The Nile. 

Further to this excitement is the fact that the baseline of film noir is always on the dark side of whatever side that is, and so it is fair to say that there are not many film noirs that have one the Oscar for Best Picture at the annual Academy Awards.

These might be:

Rebecca (1940)

The Lost Weekend (1945)

On The Waterfront (1954)

Not all of these might be typical straight-down-the-middle film noir; but film noir does describe a multiplicity of movie symptoms, and we can't always agree what all of these may be. All About Eve, for example, will fall somewhere between film noir and melodrama, while On The Waterfront is a social drama, and a crime drama, but does have film noir elements in its characterisation, and in the overall at times fateful tone.

The win for The Lost Weekend was surely based on the timeless quality of the characterisation of alcohol. It's the booze that is villain, femme fatale, supernatural hand and fateful force that drives a tragic decline. That's the curse of noir, most especially when imposed upon the heel of a hero; fate grabs him by the scruff of his soiled collar, and calls him a vulgar name.

As if he were in thrall to a dangerous love, drunken Don Birnam is a slave to the bottle (The Bottle also being the title of his never-written novel), a tie so strong that it appears at times that there are in fact merely but two characters in The Lost Weekend, the first being Don, the second being the Demon Rye.

And it is a special treat indeed that we meet head-on the insecurities that fuel Don's demon desires, as exemplified by his overhearing a conversation about himself when meeting his girlfriend's parents, forcing open his can of self-doubt. The Theremin starts up in fact on the soundtrack and his drunken fate is sealed.

It is only in fact dream-magic that can activate this drunk; a timeless expression of the disordered and addictive personality. Film noir was also the primary locus for this expressionistic magic in the cinema of the 1940s, whether it be the drugged whirlies of The Big Sleep or the more modest ripples and rings of rye in The Lost Weekend, the effect of the alcohol are almost like something from science fiction.

It's what Ray Milland's saturated writer anti-hero calls 'the other Don Birnam'. Often it looks like, the writer is made to suffer the greatest lack of faith in their abilities; a trope no less indicating the overall shame that a man's man may well suffer in that profession. As with real-life drunks, there is often the matter of other people's patience. The writer's own desperation is the comedy of his own inability to perform, something that seems to have interested Billy Wilder, and which became a regular type of its own, certainly in Hollywood.

The sensitivity is special because in destroying himself, drunken Don Birnam is destroying art; by selling his typewriter for booze, he is making the worst decision possible, even though the world will never miss his novel. There was in the mid-century, a good deal of romantic battles between alcohol and writers, both in real life and in fiction too, as here. 

It is a brutal and unforgiving trip to take an audience on, and the final focus on the drunk and nothing but the drunk, seems to have hit home in a way that was new to audiences. The alcoholics' ward of the hospital is a nasty, noisy nightmare; and Don's cunning escape from the hospital of his nightmares is motion for motion, one of the most tense and exciting scenes. Finding himself in pyjamas and a robe on the streets of New York, he has unlike other escapes, only made his situation worse. It is very likely the realties of alcoholism that give The Long Weekend its undating and unfailing appeal.

Birnam on the streets is in fact not unlike any of several desperate characters on the run in film noir; the twist is that the stakes are as massive as ever, although all Don is running from and hiding from is himself. The effect is only dissipated by the attack of a most unrealistic bat, which bloodily kills a mouse on Don Birnam's wall, causing him to scream with fear and pain in a fearsome attack of the DTs.

There is instead, in this Academy Award Winning Best Picture of 1945, little in the way of story. It's a relatively small cast, with Ray Milland as Don Birnam and alcohol as itself, being the main players; a supporting cast of Howard Da Silva, the drunk's favoured barman, although an occasional part; Doris Dowling as a regular barfly Gloria, who seems enamoured of the hopeless drunk, who may be erudite and funny when he's drunk; with Philip Terry as Wick Birnam, Don's supportive brother; and Jane Wyman as the woman who ultimately fails to make a difference.

It was perhaps this lack of difference that placed The Lost Weekend on its collision course with greatness. The story is a slow slide to Don's end, and as such raises the morality of drink and addiction to a dramatic place that Hollywood had not quite seen before, certainly with such earnest and entertaining effect.

It's what Don himself calls 'moral anaemia'. And what can save us? Love as an action, here from Jane Wyman in her devoted and concerned American wife mode; or art, as represented by the typewriter?

The Lost Weekend stops where it starts, in the concrete jungle and wondering how many people out there are crippled in the same way, by an addiction to the bottle? Almost even going so far as to suggest it is the jungle itself that is to blame.

Look out for it . . . vacuum cleaners in film noir

The ending of The Lost Weekend may not therefore be remarkable, perhaps because recovery from addiction is not remarkable, it is normal; and because it is perhaps not normal for people like Don Birnam to recover; and maybe never know if he does recover or not.

For where can we read the desired and required note of positivity, which would suggest that this ending for Don Birnam is real, and not the more habitual false dawn, known to the friends and families and sufferers themselves of such addiction?

Don himself wonders aloud who is out there, like himself, struggling blindly towards another binge, another bender, another spree?

The Lost Weekend all over Wikipedia

"The benefits of drinking . . .  "

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