The Good: Decent character development, Good direction, Excellent acting
The Bad: Cops out at the end, Somewhat dated soundtrack
The Basics: A difficult film, The Lost Weekend realistically characterizes the struggle of a man with alcoholism goes through while trying to quit.
Ironically, for someone who watches as little television as I do, I love great television. I am a sucker for sprawling character arcs and acting which retains a high caliber over an extended amount of time. I like stories that do not rush the story and allow for a sense of realism in the way they unfold and serialized television does that exceptionally well. In fact, I had not realized just how much I appreciated some of the great moments of television in the last twenty years until I sat down and watched The Lost Weekend.
The Lost Weekend is a film, which ended up being the penultimate film for my Best Picture Project and it is a rather direct story of an alcoholic. Having seen many films or television shows featuring characters who were alcoholics, I’ve been aware of how that struggle may be depicted in the film medium. But I don’t think I ever appreciated the magnitude of Andy Sipowicz falling off the wagon in the third season of NYPD Blue until I watched Don Birnam pick up his shot of rye early in The Lost Weekend. The reason is simple: I cared about Sipowicz and when it comes up in The Lost Weekend, it is less surprising, less shocking and has far less of an emotional resonance than it did to watch my beloved television character fall from grace. The difference makes all the difference and The Lost Weekend is realistic and terrifying in its depiction of a drunk writer, but after an hour and a half of crushing the viewer, it lets up in a way that is disappointing. Even so, it’s a pretty remarkable film and one worth watching.
Don Birnam is ten days into recovery, if that, and his brother Wick and him are planning on getting out of New York City for a weekend to visit a farm and relax. When Don’s girlfriend Helen stops by, he uses the opportunity to postpone the trip, sending Wick and Helen off to the theater for a few hours, but not before Wick discovers Don’s last bottle hanging outside the window. Frustrated at the lack of alcohol and money in the apartment, Don is unwittingly rescued from his sobriety by the cleaning lady who has come to clean and get her weekly pay from Wick. Finding the money hidden for her, Don leaves the apartment, buys two bottles of rye and goes to his neighborhood bar to buy some more.
Finding the apartment empty, Wick leaves the City as planned and Helen begins her search for Don. Don, for his part, tries to work on his novel, but gets distracted by the booze. He makes a date with a local working girl, Gloria, and breaks it because of his drinking. And when leaving her apartment, he stumbles and ends up waking up in the drunk tank at the local hospital. Escaping, he looks desperately for his next fix, spiraling down into a drunken depression where he begins to truly realize the incurable nature of his disease.
The Lost Weekend is hardly a pleasant film to watch and it is intended to be difficult, so it succeeds admirably at that. As the film plods along with Don’s long relapse, the only question for the viewer becomes will Helen find him before he does some irreparable harm to himself or others? The Lost Weekend also establishes an interesting baseline for viewers exploring the times and how the U.S. was not always a “blame others before ourselves” litigious nation. To wit, at no point in the film is it even suggested that Nat the friendly local bartender might be culpable in any way for Don’s condition. Instead, Don is treated as an adult and Nat is just a local businessman trying to keep his customer. If the film were made today, Nat would be sued off his butt about halfway through the film, cutting Don off from the liquor.
Outside the soundtrack, which is an intrusive as some of the early Star Trek or Dark Shadows soundtracks for emotional telegraphing, the film actually does manage to be a fairly timeless piece depicting a very real human problem. The Lost Weekend follows Don very closely and as such, the viewer begins to care about him rather early on, despite the excruciating nature of his degeneration on screen. Birnam is, in many ways, a generic character, a writer who is so trapped in his alcoholism that he can no longer write. The film works beautifully to illustrate Helen, Wick and even Nat as enablers, but it never shies away from the idea that Don’s problem is deep within himself and it is something that he is wrestling with (unsuccessfully). The Lost Weekend is smart in illustrating the way the mild-mannered man succumbs to the vice and becomes so obsessed with the next drink that he ransacks his own apartment, hallucinates and even commits other crimes to try to get what he feels he needs.
The reason the film works, though, is because of the acting of lead Ray Milland and the storytelling of writer Charles Brackett and writer-director Billy Wilder. The writers are sure to avoid the clichés while still telling the essential story of an alcoholic and how the disease consumes the life of the alcoholic and the lives of those around him. They do an exceptional job of making the story agonizing without ever seeming over-the-top.
Add to the storytelling, the prime vessel of the story, Ray Milland as Don Birnam. Milland is wonderful in the role, not simply delivering lines, but embodying well a man whose actions he does not appear to be in control of. Don is empathetic because Milland’s eyes, hand motions and even the way he seems to be dragged along by some outside invisible force carries him along makes him seem out of control. The acting in The Lost Weekend from Milland is never over-the-top or hammy, instead, it is well-developed and smart, utilizing the full range of the actor’s vocal and physical performance abilities. It is a rare performance and a truly great one from Milland.
Unfortunately, even the greatness of Milland’s performance does not make this film any more entertaining. The Lost Weekend is a dark character study and one that is intended to be difficult for viewers. It is not intended for easy, light viewing, but works exceptionally well as an educational tool and a character study. As I viewed this on VHS, I’ve no ability to comment on any DVD bonus features, though there were previews for other old films on the VHS. Anyone who likes a strong character drama is likely to find something in The Lost Weekend they will enjoy.
[As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this film is part of W.L.'s Best Picture Project, which is available by clicking here! Please check it out!]
For other films focusing on addiction or strong character struggles, please check out my reviews of:
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© 2011, 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.