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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Lost Weekend (1945)

The Lost Weekend is Billy Wilder’s Academy Award winning glimpse into the desperate life of an alcoholic. Don Birnam (Ray Milland) is a writer gone to seed, living on the diminishing charity of his older brother Wick. As the movie begins, Don and his brother are packing for a long weekend at the family farm out of town. Wick believes this will be good for his brother who is ten days sober. The discovery of a hidden bottle of rye tied on a string outside the window sets off a chain of events leading to Wick abandoning his brother and advising his girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman) to leave Don for her own good.

Despite being broke and jobless, Don displays a desperate resourcefulness when seeking ways to get drunk. As the weekend goes on, these deceptions will increase in intensity, throwing the state of Don’s humanity into question.

As one of, if not the first, serious looks at alcoholism on screen, there are a lot of speeches by Milland, explaining his need to drink, the overwhelming power alcohol holds over him. Wilder, who co-wrote the film (adapting it from a novel by Charles R. Jackson) does a fantastic job breaking down the “comic drunk” stereotype so prevalent in films from this era and still in use today. Don Birnam is no bumbling wit, he’s a dark, desperate man. There are some moving and powerful scenes detailing the length to which he will go. A scene where Don abandons a barely begun novel, and instead attempts to pawn his typewriter to get some drinking money contains perhaps the darkest joke ever told in a Hollywood movie.

There are also a lot of scenes exploring the lives of alcoholics in general. Even to this day there is a kind of hushed secrecy about alcoholics. Everyone knows some people who drink too much, but no one ever says anything about it. In The Lost Weekend we see how Don’s brother and girlfriend have both been enablers, however unwittingly. There are also the “seen everything” bartenders who know they shouldn’t serve Don but can’t seem to muster up the temerity to turn down his money. A scene set in the “alcoholic ward” of Bellevue Hospital is just as terrifying today as it must have been in 1945. It’s portrayal of the DTs would make anyone think twice about having “just one more.”

The film becomes extremely suspenseful as the audience starts to question whether Don will even make it to the end of the weekend. The ending can be debated but whatever way you take it The Lost Weekend remains a compelling documentation of a personal tragedy and a stunning exploration of an issue that will always hang over society.

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