Before 1945, characters who had “had a few” on film were portrayed as nothing more than a cheap laugh. The words “alcoholic” or “drunk” were taboo and not very much discussed. But when Billy Wilder made alcoholism his main character, in all of its lonely and gritty qualities, he broke new ground with The Lost Weekend.
What makes Billy Wilder a powerful storyteller is that he was a writer first. He knew how to conceive a good story, how to write dialogue and how to write dimensional characters. In my opinion, you can direct a good film but it’s the writing that really makes it sing. Before this film, audiences were already beginning to see his range. As a writer, he had written the comedies Ninotchka and Ball of Fire, his directorial debut was another comedy The Major and the Minor and his third effort in the director’s chair was the dark film noir landmark, Double Indemnity. The Lost Weekend would be another dark picture starring another actor playing against type. In Double Indemnity, you had Fred MacMurray, in The Lost Weekend, Ray Milland gives the performance of a lifetime as tortured alcoholic Don Birnam.
The film follows a four day weekend in Birnam’s life. He is writer desperately trying to finish a novel with his crippling addiction. The Lost Weekend gives an uncompromising look at the effects of alcoholism. From the first frame, you see a bottle hanging from Birnam’s apartment. That bottle of liquor once gave him so much comfort and solace has now taken his soul.
The black and white cinematography emphasizes the horror of this disease. One of my favorite techniques used in the film are shots of Birnam that are seen through liquor bottles. They show that alcohol has the upper hand in Birnam’s life. Birnam is lonely and helpless, the bottle makes him feel whole.
To reduce this film to a “message picture” diminishes it as art. One of the most innovative scenes in the film happens when Birnam is confined to a hospital. He has a disturbing hallucination involving a bat and a mouse. I won’t spoil it but it’s a climactic moment for the character. It’s horrifying and mesmerizing at the same time. Remember this is 1945! It’s shocking for sure and while it may be tame compared to addiction centered pictures of contemporary cinema (think Leaving Las Vegas and Requiem for a Dream), it’s a scene that will stay with you after the film is over.
Wilder doesn’t just show the physical ramifications of addiction, the film is psychological journey. The bottle has so much control over Birnam, we see him hide bottles throughout his New York apartment because he is so desperate to quench his thirst. It’s a desperation that turns into a loss of his own self respect as he tries to pawn off his typewriter to get money for booze, he steals for booze, this once promising writer is now doing anything he can for booze. The disease also affects his relationship with his love Helen. Not only does he lie and sneak, he’s willing to give up something that symbolizes their love. Helen and writing, the two most important things in his life are a back seat to the bottle.
Another innovation to come from The Lost Weekend is Miklos Rozsa’s haunting score. This is the first film to feature electronic music. A theremin provided an almost sci-fi like sound to the music to distort Birnam’s perception of reality during his hallucinations. It may sound out of place but it works perfectly. The sounds create a suspenseful, noirish atmosphere that pushes the story further.
The Lost Weekend was a huge risk for everyone involved. Reportedly, the liquor industry offered Paramount $5 million to not release the film. The film came out during a perfect time to address this difficult subject. WWII had ended and servicemen were coming home to lives they no longer knew. As we know now, many succumbed to alcoholism, a harsh side effect to the war’s horrors. This film is a cautionary tale that is uncomfortable and disturbing but nevertheless powerful.
The film’s risks paid off. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won four including Best Picture, Best Actor for Milland, and Best Adapted Screenplay. The Academy agrees with me, Billy Wilder sure knew how to tell a story.