The Lost Weekend
Director: Billy Wilder / Script: BW & Charles Brackett (from a novel by Charles Jackson) / Editing: Doane Harrison / DoP: John F. Seitz / Music: Miklós Rózsa
Cast: Ray Milland / Jane Wyman / Phillip Terry / Howard Da Silva / Doris Dowling / Frank Faylen
We’re all addicted to something…
Hello. My name’s Mister Gee and I’m addicted… To the films of Billy Wilder.
I recently got a chance to watch Wilder’s masterpiece The Lost Weekend and at last, I understand just why this lauded movie has endured. On the face of things, the tale’s simple enough. A failed writer (and successful alcoholic) Don Birnam (Ray Milland) lives with kindly, long-suffering brother Wick (Phillip Terry), in Wick’s modest, top-floor apartment. New York’s given Don so much in the way of indulgent potential, yet what is he giving back? Nothing, but a string of empty bottles and self-pitying invective aimed at anyone unfortunate to have fallen into his orbit. That even includes himself, but we’ll save that for later. Right now, let’s consider the opening scene.
Wilder pans the camera away from the thrusting, commercial heart of the city – its skyscrapers – and zooms-in to the open window of the apartment, where Don’s packing a small suitcase. But what’s that dangling eighteen inches from the window latch? Why, it’s a bottle of rye whisky… Bearing in mind that we’re not shown anything here by accident, we discover Wick’s in another room, along with Helen, Don’s girlfriend (played by Jane Wyman), who’s turned up with concert tickets for that night. Don now realises he can persuade Wick to accompany Helen in his place, giving him the evening alone with that bottle. However, Wick’s been here before and knows all his brother’s tricks: the bottle is found, opened and drained down the sink, much to Don’s evident agony. As if to spite Don (look what you’re missing!), Wick is free to go off to the concert, believing there to be no more booze in the place: unfortunately for Don, he’s right, as a panicked search of all his usual stashes proves.
It’s this scene which tipped the film into a higher gear for me. Watching Ray Milland (no less than a British ex-soldier-turned-character-actor) turn the place upside-down, with increasingly frenzied urgency, is to see a hungry Reef Shark get the scent of blood… Except there is no blood: just a $10 bill that he conveys to his local bar with all the reverence of Charlie Bucket on finding his Golden Ticket. Milland’s a revelation in the part; he’s committed and believable to the point where you can’t imagine anyone else in the role: a bigger star would only have crashed and burned. Then again, I can’t imagine ANY big name taking the part in the first place: for some, this material probably read more like autobiography…
Now we get the first of a series of confessionals to Nat, the barman (Walter Da Silva). Talking about two bottles of cheap rye purchased en-route to the bar: ‘I may never touch it while I’m there [home]. Not a drop. I’ve got to know it’s around, so I can have it if I need it.’ Don’s bargaining with himself; justifying and scheming. He explains how drink makes him feel; how it validates his own inner creativity and how he can’t function without it.
Don returns to an empty apartment and, with an alkie’s nous, hides one bottle and leaves the other in plain sight, reckoning that if one is discovered, the other won’t be searched for. He then returns to the bar for a bender (jeez: ten dollars could really stretch back in ‘45). It’s here that he meets resident ‘good-time-girl’ Gloria (Doris Dowling, in a sultry turn and no wonder: she was Wilder’s mistress at the time). Further ramblings take us into the first flashback; Wilder’s trick to flesh-out Don’s story and show us how he got from there to here.
Don’s at the opera, watching the cast of La Traviata toast each other with champagne: a vision that drives him out to the cloakroom, where a bottle awaits inside his coat. Unfortunately for him, the cloakroom attendant produces a lady’s fur coat in exchange for his ticket. Now Don has to wait, like a caged animal, for its owner to redeem her ticket, thus reveal his coat and its liquid refreshment. This’ll be Helen, then, in a typically clockwork ‘meet-cute’ from Wilder. As Don opens up to her, it’s only now we learn he’s a writer; of course: could he be anything else? Oh, and the bottle falls out of its pocket and smashes on the sidewalk, so he accepts her invitation to join her at a cocktail party. The fun times never cease, it seems.
Then a second flashback: the day Helen discovers his ‘secret’. It begins when, about to meet her parents for the first time, Don hears them disparaging his lack of achievement as a writer: an opinion that sends him scuttling for home and the bottle – a crutch that never condemns or chides. Wick finds him: ‘Won’t you learn that, for you, it’s like stepping off a roof and expecting to fall just one floor?’ Helen then visits and Wilder’s quick to show Wick’s brotherly love, by having him pretend to be the problem child, while Don listens-in from another room. Wilder even has Wick perform some delicate footwork with an empty bottle that wants to be seen, yet Don’s conscience gets the better of him and he emerges from the shadows to confess, in a self-pitying primal urge to earn sympathy: ‘I’m not a drinker. I’m a drunk.’
Now at the end of his bender (or money?), Don returns home, buoyed-up with optimism that he’ll begin his great novel about the alcoholic writer: The Bottle. We know what’s coming of course: the curse of the blank, empty page once you get beyond the title. Don’s answer? The bottle stashed away earlier (in the lampshade, should you need an idea for later-on).
Next day dawns with a devastating realisation: now, there really is no more booze. Don hates himself so much, that he decides to pawn his beloved typewriter. Ever the comedian however, Wilder makes the day the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur, so all their pawnbrokers are shut, along with the Irish ones – turns out the Jews repay their respect by closing on St. Patrick’s day…
Enter Gloria. She’s already let one potential trick go-by, for a chance to get to know Don-the-Dish and it’s obvious they share a mutual attraction, so at his last ebb, at the point when it seems he can’t stoop any lower, Don visits her seedy digs and cadges more money, except before he has a chance to spend it, he takes a tumble down her staircase and ends up in a part-drying-out clinic, part-jail-cell in an anonymous hospital. It’s here that we’re introduced to the film’s last major character: a male nurse called Bim (Frank Faylen). Bim’s unfazed by the goings-on around the place. Rather, he takes an almost sadistic pleasure in describing what Don will witness as the DT’s begin. So it goes, as Wilder puts on a floor show of chaotic madness for an increasingly terrified Don, as Rozsa’s score builds to a strident crescendo.
Don has other plans. Ever resourceful, he escapes into a bleak dawn. His first port of call? A liquor store, just opening up. There’s Don, still wearing his hospital pyjamas, clutching a bottle from the shelf and scowling so hard, the shopkeeper can’t even bring himself to ask for payment: it’s as though he’s used a Jedi mind-trick some thirty years before Lucas even thought of it…
This is a man who’s nearing the end. Up is down. Black is white. Left is right. No more tricks and games; no more bargains to be struck. Once home, now his own terrors come to visit: a mouse, from a crack in the wall. Then a bat, that swoops in and eats the mouse. It’s all too much. Helen arrives, to find him gibbering. Don grabs her coat and sets out to pawn it. She follows, assuming he’s after money, as-per. But not this time. Oh, no. Tired of how the chips have fallen in his life, Don’s swapped the coat for something he’d already hocked: a revolver. But Helen catches-up with him before he can use it and now she’s the schemer. The negotiator. She’d apparently prefer him drunk to dead… The basis of any steady relationship, wouldn’t you agree?
In the nick of time, barman Nat returns the typewriter. Now enthused by a sudden rush of the usual optimism, Don’s pulling himself out of his death-dive. He has purpose again, if only for the next few hours / weeks / months (delete as appropriate). And there we leave him, without even a coda, leaving open that very doubt – and Bim’s certainty – of a relapse.
Since watching the film, one thought above all occurs to me: that Helen’s the real victim here, not Don, who’s just wrapped-up in his own bubble: he’ll never change. As for Helen, he’d rather lead her down his own path to oblivion, rather than let her go: it’s the mindset of the selfish drinker. At least Wick finally saw the light and left town without him; his disillusioned absence all the stronger, when contrast with the solidarity & support shown to Don during the flashbacks. Nope: Helen’s a doormat and can’t help being walked-on.
Oh, and Bim: did you get it? His name’s a contraction of ‘Birnam’ – Don’s surname. He’s a mirage; a projection of Don’s sub-conscience. How do we know this? The clues are there and not just in his name. Consider how his presence is unremarked, or unacknowledged by everyone but Don himself. How he accurately predicts what mirage Don will suffer later-on, or hints at how one might escape the drunk-tank: no ordinary nurse would do that. At first, I thought Bim’s character was jaded from ‘compassion fatigue’, but there’s a reason why his calm assurance of the terrors-to-come hit so hard: he’s Don’s and – by extension – OUR sub-conscience. Our inner voice of reason, if you will.
There are so many amazing things going on in the film; so many layers of context and meaning, and it’s all in an elegant and economical screenplay that Wilder filmed line-for-line, believing that his cast should respect the work – and love – already poured in to it. It was an approach that paid-off in the shoot as well; Wilder gave his cast the freedom to block things out before camera positions were set; not an insignificant concession when one considers the size of cameras back then and how much room a set needed, in order to accommodate their movement. Little wonder, that among his peers, Wilder was largely considered a consummate ‘actor’s director’ in the vein of Tarantino or Clint Eastwood and it’s no surprise that he won his first Oscar (alongside Charles Brackett) for Best Adapted Screenplay: it’s a perfect transition from page to screen, if the natural, seamless rhythm is any guide. I came away feeling no desire to read the source, lest it detract from the film: the total opposite of the usual scenario.
Lastly, I want to talk about how unflinching this film is. A brave look at the disease of alcoholism and its effects on the sufferer’s circle, it’s unsurprising to learn that the U.S. liquor industry offered the studio a bribe not to release the picture (Wilder himself, joked that if he’d been offered the money instead, he might not have stuck so hard to his principles). Remember: the age of Prohibition had only ended a dozen years earlier, in 1933 and memories – and livers – were still raw.
To watch Lost Weekend, or something like Mike Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas, is to live vicariously. Perhaps we’re sipping a wine or chugging at a beer, as we think ‘there but for the Grace’. Then we shudder at the thought and keep-on drinking, safe in the knowledge that we’re the one’s in control.
But then, we’re not the one’s stepping off that roof. Are we?
Let me have one, Nat. I’m dying. Just one.
Triple Word / Score: Relevant / Blistering / Compelling / Nine