Sunday, 30 March 2014

The Lost Weekend

Billy Wilder’s multi award winning The Lost Weekend was one of the first movies to tackle the pull of alcohol head on. The fantastic script details four days in the life of long time alcoholic Don Birnam (Ray Milland) who despite his best intentions to stay sober, ends up down an ever spiralling path of addiction. The winner of four Oscars and nominated for three more on top, The Lost Weekend was one of Wilder’s most lauded films and has lost little of its potency in the near seventy years since its release. Opening in the apartment which Birnam shares with his long suffering and devoted bother, Wick Birnam (Phillip Terry) is attempting to get his brother out of the city and away from the temptation of liquor for a few days. He hopes that the cold turkey approach will aid in his brother’s recovery and allow him the time and clear head to write – a career which Don attributes to himself with little evidence of success.

This first scene displays Don’s dependency through the use of the first of several hidden bottles of rye. Whilst packing, Don tries to slip into his case a bottle which he has attached to a rope swinging outside his window. This, unlike many other bottles is soon discovered but Don still manages to wriggle out of the booze free break and instead settles in for a weekend of petty criminality and hard drinking. Don’s first act of cruelty in the pursuit of his fix is to steal the $10 which his brother has left for the housekeeper. He lies to her that the money (her wage) isn’t waiting for her and purchases two bottles before heading to the bar for a drink. The look on Don’s face when he is presented with the short glass of light brown liquid tells us all we need to know about his addition. He’s like a child of Christmas Day, eager, excited, unable to wait. The first drink is downed and swiftly followed by several more.

The film struck me for its brutal and honest depiction of addiction and its no nonsense approach to story-telling. Except where necessary for censorship, the picture tells it as it is. It shows the desperation and the thought process behind the character’s need for a drink. The central character is a sympathetic one but he’s shown to carry out illicit, unsavoury and illegal deeds. The purse stealing scene for instance shows the character’s duplicity perhaps more than any other. He knows what he’s doing is wrong but he can’t help himself. To him, the drink is as oxygen to the rest of us. He has to have it. The flower which he slips into the bag as a payment or perhaps an apology sums up the idea that the real Don, the sober Don is somewhere inside, battling to reach the surface.

Throughout the movie several people attempt to come to the aid of the alcoholic lead character. His brother, exacerbated at the effort leaves for the weekend but is replaced by Don’s girl Helen St. James (Jane Wyman). Helen is sensitive and attentive but spends vast swathes of the film being walked over, on the back foot against Don’s addiction. Nat (Howard Da Silva) of Nat’s Bar is a man used to Don’s habits who tries gently to say no but realises that the man will drink somewhere so it might as well be in his bar. It’s Nat who’s responsible for the film’s best line, a defining statement of alcoholism, “One’s too many and a hundred’s not enough”. Nurse Bim (Frank Faylen) is a man who once cared for his patients but lost that ability long ago. He’s seen men come and go and then come again and has little respect for the men under his care.

Perhaps the most intriguing character of all is that of Gloria (Doris Dowling). Although quite obviously a prostitute, her profession is never stated in order to avoid falling foul of the Motion Picture Code. Like Don she is lost, paddling against the tide of acceptability. It’s unsurprising then that she connects with the principle character, a bond which he uses to his advantage but rarely reciprocates. Personally I’d have liked to have seen more from Gloria in order to understand more about her. She’s an enigma who floats in and out of the story. Her use of language is highly entertaining and perhaps ahead of its time. Gloria uses what Don refers to as “ghastly abbreviations” but her “natch” (naturally) and “ridic” (ridiculous) give her a sense of realism which is captured in much of the surrounding film though the writing and cinematography.

While not an out and out noir like Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard or Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend exhibits many of the tropes you come to associate with the genre. As well as a film about addiction, it is also about deceit while the lighting typifies what one would expect from a film noir. Although lacking venetian blinds and heavy shadows, it’s lit in such away as to express pretence, anguish and wanton disregard for those around you. On top of this, the film popularised the ‘character walking towards the camera as neon signs pass by’ camera effect. This occurs during a brilliant scene which at the same time feels both neo-realist and expressionistic. Don follows the camera down Third Avenue, desperate to hock his typewriter. The further he walks, the more dishevelled and wearisome he becomes. He’s like a man appearing from a desert, in need of water only his desert is poverty and his water is 40% alcohol.

The movie features a score which while unusual, worked perfectly. It’s an early example of a movie score featuring a Theremin. The instrument, more commonly associated with Science Fiction of the 1950s is like a Siren’s call, the whiskey literally calling out to its victim, urging him on to join it on the rocks. The score can be a little obvious at times but this is rarely an issue. In conjunction with the visuals and plot, it creates a real urgency to Don’s actions.      

The acting on the whole is exemplary. Ray Milland won an Oscar for his efforts although in later life, Writer/Director Billy Wilder attributed his victory to the character rather than acting. Either way, Milland plays the perfect drunk. He’s lucid and confident to a point before falling over the edge into drunkenness. His despondency is well acted and I thoroughly bought into his role. Likewise Doris Dowling and Howard Da Silva are believable and highly watchable. Unfortunately Helen St. James comes off as a little needy and unrealistic although I think this has a lot to do with the character and little to do with the actress.

The Lost Weekend is a film which I can highly recommend. It doesn’t show its age and remains fresh in its depiction of addiction. It’s themes resonate through the decades and it not only features a terrific script packed full of trademark Billy Wilder dialogue but it looks and sounds fantastic too. It draws you in like the drink does to its central character but spits you out with an understanding of the addiction and a desire to avoid it yourself. The film was rightly named Best Picture at the 18th Academy Awards and in doing so became the first film to win both that award and The Grand Prix at Cannes.

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