Dir. Billy Wilder. Starring Ray Milland, Howard Da Silva, Jane Wyman
The holy grail of movies about alcoholism, with apologies to My Name is Joe or Withnail and I or The Shining, remains Wake in Fright. Somewhere a little behind those masterpieces, which stare alcoholism in the face and lock your head in a vise so you can do likewise, is The Lost Weekend, which rather ruins itself in the last five minutes by aiming for redemption. (I don’t intend to see Wake in Fright ever again because it’s so brutal, but to its credit, it is not a movie which pretends that alcoholism can be put down with the right words from Jane Wyman.) Don Birnam (Milland) is the center of this movie like very few movies in the 1940s had; there’s something very modern in the way that Milland carries this movie with the force that David Thewlis carries Naked or Michael Fassbender runs Shame. Both of those titles would work just fine for The Lost Weekend, incidentally, which strips Birnam down to his barest and boldest motivations while forcing him to confront the indignity of his condition.
As the bender gets longer and his meager self-control disintegrates entirely, he stoops lower and lower, losing touch with what’s decent in him, becoming a five o’clock shadow of a human being. He lies to a cleaning lady about her pay, which he’s taken out of the sugar jar. He steals a purse to pay for a drink order. Then he cuts out the middleman and steals a quart of rye outright. He goes out to hock his typewriter, which his only connection to the authorial ambitions he used to cherish. Some of this is genuinely powerful stuff, and although Wilder’s scripts contain some of the finest jokers ever conceived, there’s no one here to do a spur-of-the-moment Chaplin impression or hold an inexplicable rose between his teeth. Birnam’s audience lies on a spectrum from pity (Wyman’s Helen) to necessity (Da Silva’s Nat the bartender). Somewhere in between are Don’s righteous brother, Wick (Philip Terry) and interested B-girl buddy Gloria (Doris Dowling, pre-rice fields). None of them have the heart to crack wise, and only Gloria has the stomach requisite to do so. There’s something of Arthur Miller in the story, in the sense that everything revolves around one person whose entire existence is like an open drain for others to fall into. The best of these characters is probably Nat, who is the only one who is really complicit in Don’s shame. Every drink that Nat pours for Don is income. There’s a sad, matter-of-fact quality to Nat that lets us in on the depth of Don’s problems, for he’s the one who sees each stage of Don the drunk with perspective that Wick and Helen lack.
One of the movie’s best scenes deals with the “DTs,” the delirium tremens which occur due to withdrawal and which are referred to, creepily, as a “disease of the night.” Even if the bat prop is not particularly convincing, the ultimate effect is remarkable. Having been told by a sardonic nurse named Bim (Frank Faylen) about the little animals who pop up in the dark, we’re prepared for the mouse chewing his way through the wall and the bat flying in; what we’re not prepared for is when the bat swoops down on the mouse and blood pours down his wall. It is an entirely unexpected moment, and it’s one of several that Wilder drops on us, hoping for horror. Often as not he hits his mark. The long schlep that Don makes to pawn his typewriter on Yom Kippur is exhausting more than frightening, and the screams of another man struggling with his own attack of the DTs is more pitchy than scary. But alone in his dark room, having consumed his quart of rye, the sight of blood on the wall—the most visceral body imagery of the entire movie—is enough to send Don into a new fit of screams. It’s strong medicine, as strong as a mid-’40s movie is capable of delivering.
What makes that scene particularly effective is the general absence of any such bloody-minded presentation earlier on in the film; previously, alcoholism had been presented as a pathway to an increasingly sad series of ignominies, in which every action is calculated either to save face or preempt the face-saving itself. In the beginning of the movie, Don pretends to have lost track of his typewriter and sends Wick to look for it. It turns out that he’s got a bottle hanging on a little rope a foot or so beneath the window, and he needs time to grab a swallow. Wick can’t find the typewriter too quickly, and Don has to lower the bottle out the window again. Wick speaks to him optimistically about the weekend in the country they’ll have together without any booze at all, but only hours later he has soured on his brother, perhaps for good. Having been sent to listen to a classical music program with Helen, he returns to the apartment to find no sign of his brother, who has been drinking at Nat’s the whole time with ten bucks he swiped from the sugar bowl. Don overhears the better part of a conversation in which Wick expresses how fed up he is with babysitting the brother he’s feeding and clothing, too. After six years, Wick spits out, “I’ve had my bellyful.” When we watch Wick, in flashback, try to cover for his brother’s sudden binge, going so far as to say he’s the family alcoholic, we begin to appreciate how much shame is mixed into every drink Don takes. The movie occasionally looks for motivation for why Don drinks—we find out that it’s because his promising beginnings as a writer never came to fruition—but it is far more successful when it puts us in situations to see Don misbehave for want of a drink.
The movie shows us a revolver, but it never fires; for a pair of established writers like Wilder and Charles Brackett, this is a fairly unorthodox move. The Lost Weekend would be much more successful if they’d been a little bit more conventional. I say this not as someone who is a glutton for punishment or who glories in suicide, but because the movie has left Don no other honest options. He steals Helen’s precious leopard jacket, swaps it for a revolver he’d pawned there years before, and is preparing to kill himself when Helen barges in, finds the hastily stowed gun, and takes possession of it. It’s a shame that Don lives, because his long weekend has built to a crescendo that cannot relent in this moment. He has been kicked out of a nightclub when he’s caught stealing from a woman’s purse—he has tried to sell his typewriter, the lone symbol of possibility in his life—he has escaped from the drunk ward in a hospital under the cover of screams—he has been vigorously pushed away from people like Nat and Gloria. Nothing about this weekend has given us the impression that he can ever live alone, or worse, with Helen or Wick. The movie has driven to the edge of a cliff over the course of ninety-five tense minutes, but it refuses to gun the engine one more time to take the plunge; if these two had been in charge of Romeo and Juliet, someone would have come along to explain the virtue of patience to the young Veronese. Here’s a sample of the dialogue at the end of the movie, which sounds less like the guys who wrote Ninotchka and Ball of Fire and Sunset Blvd and more like middle schoolers preparing for a school assembly about suicide prevention:
Don: I’m all right, I have enough strength left.
Helen: I know you have. I can see it. Don’t waste it on pulling a trigger, Don.
Don: No, let me get it over with! Or do you want me to give you another one of my promises that I never keep?
Helen: I don’t want you to give me your promise. I don’t want you to give your promise to anybody but Don Birnam.
Milland, who had been making one of the better performances of the ’40s, biting without becoming unsympathetic, clearly has no idea how to turn this dialogue into the meaty material he’s made real in the rest of the picture; Jane Wyman, who was playing moms within a decade of The Lost Weekend, sounds like one here. (“Don’t waste it on pulling a trigger, Don,” somehow sounds worse than it reads.) But it’s not as simple as the fact of the bad writing and the bad acting here; it’s the fact that we know that Don has taken a cure before. We know that Don has made hundreds of promises to improve. The movie sets up this latest promise (a cigarette dropped in a glass of rye) as somehow different from all the others, and maybe it is. It’s just a shame that the movie, which bares its fangs at such promises and salivates whenever Don humiliates himself for whiskey, decides to smile weakly at this suddenly maudlin pair because it can’t figure out how else it should end.