Wednesday 25 December 2013

The Lost Weekend (1945)

Forspildte Dage
There is something very sobering about watching ”The Lost Weekend” here during Christmas. This is a time of gorging and over-indulgence, a time where we allow ourselves to eat and drink a bit (or massively) more than we normally would. I should mention that a classic Danish Christmas lunch includes snaps and beer in massive amounts and is not complete without a few scandals and a stupendous hangover.

But what if it was like that all the time? Then going on a binge would not be a night of hilarity, but an ongoing nightmare.

That is essentially “The Lost Weekend”. It is a glimpse into the life of Don Birnam (Ray Milland), a failed writer and an alcoholic on a very steep path to his own grave. He is supposed to go on a nice quite weekend to the countryside to write and rest with his girlfriend, Helen (Jane Wyman), and brother, Wick (Phillip Terry), but manages to evade it and instead go on the binge of a lifetime. In the process we learn that this particular weekend is not news, but the culmination of a process that has been going on for years.

Don was a talented writer in college, full of expectations particularly from himself. The high standard set before him was too much and he started doubting himself. The doubt turned to self-loathing and the self-loathing to poor self-control. He looked for a way to escape himself and found it in the bottle. Don is very much aware of his own situation. He is even very eloquent about it, but being aware is not the same as being cured. Indeed his awareness of his affliction just makes him loath himself even more, which in turn lead him further into alcoholism.

Initially we are quite charmed by Don. His scam of deluding himself and everybody else that everything is fine (if he can just get a little drink) is actually working. Note the conflict between his self-awareness and his self-delusion.  He charms his girlfriend, Nat the bartender and Gloria, the bar hangout, but only for so long. His self-loathing and self-destructiveness takes on such proportions that except for his diehard girlfriend we all lose hope. This guy is going to kill himself and soon.

With every dip during this weekend he reaches a new level of degradation and surely is getting the wakeup call, but every time he loses strength and turn to the bottle again. Even getting hospitalized in the alcoholic ward does not seem to be enough. The natural end station is reached a few minutes before curtain call when he finally reaches the quite sensible conclusion to shoot himself. That ending however is not really good for the box office so a happy end was pasted on.

This is a very fatalistic film Billy Wilder has made here. It is supposed to be made for his friend Raymond Chandler in an attempt to explain Chandler’s alcoholism. I do not know if this worked for Chandler but it does seem quite effective. In Wilder’s view alcohol may at first seem a help against the psychological woes of a drinker, but it soon becomes the problem itself. The abuse of alcohol generates the psychological problems that engender more drinking, not to speak of the direct health effects of addiction and a ruined body and mind. Wilder describes it as a feedback loop that feeds on itself and drives the afflicted to an inevitable end. The very thing that is can help you get out of it, strength, self-control and dignity is under attack by the affliction and so the only possible rescue must come from the outside. Here is the problem however because the further Don sinks into his misery the more unlikable he gets. He lies, he cheats, steal, beg and shirks off all the people who might help him, except if they can supply him with money for drink.

At the conclusion I do not like him very much and it is a wonder anybody does. He is a lost case.

It is not a lot of fun watching a movie like “The Lost Weekend”. That was also a concern when the movie was released back in 1945. Who on Earth would want to see a film about a man bent on destroying himself? But depressing as the movie may be it is also very well made. It is compelling, primarily because Don is not a backyard bum but a rather charming and good looking fellow and the technical qualities are remarkable.

The filming and the sound, especially the novel use of the theremin, work brilliantly at letting us feel how it is to be Don. The misery is palpable. And apparently the Academy agreed. “The Lost Weekend” won four Oscars, including best picture, director and actor.

Since “The Lost Weekend” there have been countless substance abuse movies. Generally I try to avoid them. They are usually very depressive and had it not been on the List I would probably not have seen “The Lost Weekend”. But from time to time I guess one need to get reminded to take it easy with the drink and if it has to be, “The Lost Weekend” provides a very effective reminder.


  1. The scene where Don tries to hock his prized typewriter for a bottle is, for me, one of the most moving and depressing scenes of its decade. That's the whole movie for me--that scene shows just how far down the rabbit hole he has gone and how close he is to bottoming out.

    I love this one, in no small part because of how well Ray Milland sells that role.

    1. Yes, that is one of the notorious down dips. It is a scene that really hurts, along with the handbag incident.
      Ray Milland is one of the major reasons this film works despite its depressive theme.

  2. Ray Milland reaches a career peak in this one. I think Wilder nailed the addictive personality, too.

    Thanks for all your reviews. Hope you have a very merry Christmas and a fulfilling 2014.

    1. Thank you too. May 2014 be a good year.
      It is not easy making a substance abuse film watchable. Wilder and Millard are key to its succes.

  3. I think this is a very good film. It would have been a great film if they hadn't tacked on an unrealistic ending, but that's a product of the times it was made in.

    I agree with Steve that the killer scene in the film is when he's trying to pawn his typewriter.

  4. Yeah, I read in the Book that the end was possitive, but till a minute before end I had a hard time see it coming. And when it did it just felt so wrong. Not a conclusion at all.