Demon Drinking: Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945) – Blu-ray review

June 26, 2012 by Simon Kinnear in Retro with 0 Comments

Some like it hot; others prefer it straight from the bottle. The usually wry Wilder’s acid diary of alcoholism is too-rye-ay.

The Lost Weekend 1945 Billy Wilder Ray Milland

The Lost Weekend
(Billy Wilder, 1945)

Double Indemnity made a star out of Billy Wilder but it was always too coarse and savage for the Hollywood mainstream.  A year later, though, he pulled off a multi-Oscar hog (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and a Best Actor for Ray Milland) with The Lost Weekend, the study of an alcoholic that set the standard for award-friendly redemptive addiction stories.

At least, that’s the story in retrospect. At the time, The Lost Weekend must have looked liked one hell of a kick in the teeth.  A serious drama about the damage of alcohol, made only a decade and a bit after the repeal of Prohibition? A relentless downer of a movie the same year that America and allies won the war?  A film noir in which the femme fatale is a bottle of rye?

Wilder has it both ways, chiefly by zoning in on the crux of the issue and never wavering from it.  Milland’s Don Birnam is a lush and a prima donna, a failed writer living off his brother’s charity and his girlfriend’s tolerance, a mix of false repentance and self-pity with one eye on his next shot.  Having defined duplicity in Double Indemnity, Wilder is in no mood to sweeten this pill – Birnam’s reasons for drinking (changed from repressed homosexuality in the source novel to writer’s block in the film) are so ludicrous as to be worthless.

As we see it on screen, he just likes a drink, and the device of a weekend on his own forces him into increasingly shaming situations, from a botched theft to a stint on the alkie ward, where he gets tough love from Franky Fhalen’s nurse (the film’s stand-out performance, praised by Alex Cox in an extra that feels like a toast to the memory of Moviedrome).

In contrast, the friends who indulge Don (like Nat the barman, slagging off his client’s habit even as he tops up his glass) are weak-willed hypocrites, and maybe that includes us, too, for watching Birnam’s descent into a personal hell.  Wilder’s cruel streak is most apparent in a sequence where Don goes to hock his typewriter but can’t find a pawn shop because it’s Yom Kippur.  We don’t want him to sell the means of his redemption – but we’re suddenly anxious on his behalf, our morality pulled from under us by a director playing with our emotions.

Interestingly, it’s exactly the same stunt Wilder pulled in Double Indemnity, with a murder getaway temporarily waylaid by a car that won’t start, and proof that he’s not a million miles away from Hitchcock. [While we’re on the subject, compare the opening sequence of The Lost Weekend to the one in Psycho, and notice how tart Wilder is by zeroing in on that bottle, dangling from a window ledge that every guilty secret you’ve ever had.]

So this is a halfway house between sobriety and abandon, between social realism and hysterical melodrama.  Except that Miklos Roza’s otherworldly, Theremin-laden score and John Seitz’s shadowly, horror-infused cinematography tip things into the latter category even before the infamous DTs sequence, where Don hallucinates a predatory bat whose mix of prop-on-a-string and bloody imagery makes it the missing link between Ed Wood and David Lynch.

But it’s Milland who somehow provides the counterweight. At times, he’s hamming it mercilessly, eyes shifting from left to right like a demonic puppet, shrieking and snarling as his writes the rulebook on ‘how to win an Oscar.’ Yet Milland also has, for want of a better phrase, moments of clarity where he looks genuinely sad and soulful, his sheer white-collar ordinariness selling the specifics of Don’s flawed character as well as the universality of his condition.

The ending has been criticised for its half-hearted, unlikely optimism… which suggests that people haven’t been watching Milland’s performance properly.  Birnam spends half the film giving himself rallying speeches with faux-bravado, only to slump back into bad habits, and Milland is no different in the dying minutes.  As Birnam says, contemplating the marks left by shot glasses on the bar, a circle has no beginning and no end  One more for the road?.

The Lost Weekend is out on Blu-ray this week from Masters of Cinema, alongside fellow 1940s Billy Wilder classic Double Indemnity. This disc benefits from possibly the best extra of any Wilder film – a three-hour documentary called Billy, How Did You Do It? in which the director talkes Volker Schlöndorff through his career one film at a time. Wow.

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