(Directed by Billy Wilder) (1945)
An early Wilder classic; one of the first great Drunk Films, and one that has hardly dated in its universal relevance.
A middle-aged drunk can recover an awful lot of esteem by calling himself “a writer” (as this reviewer knows). In The Lost Weekend, Don Birman (Ray Milland) is a ‘drunk-called-writer’, who gives his brother Wick (Philip Terry) and his girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman) the slip, so he can carve-out a few days to write that novel about his battle with the bottle. But since Don always struggles with paperwork, he decides to just hit the bottle instead, at home and in visits to his local watering hole, run by Nat (Howard Da Silva).
Weekends are short, but this one is too long: Don’s out of cash half-way in, resorting to petty larceny, and he’s hopeless at that as well. He can’t even hock his typewriter because the pawnshops are closed for Yom Kippur. (Oy! How to atone or repent without a little drinkie?) Don gets a charity tipple from Nat and then a loan from an old flame, but he crashes and burns, waking up in the Alco-Ward. There he spurns the tough love on offer and flees “Hangover Plaza” for more liquid pastures. He’s getting better at larceny; pilfering a whisky, weaving down the lazy avenues, he slinks back to his apartment and settles in: but then the walls start crawling and the bats start swirling as the DTs hit. We leave Don (in the care of Helen, returned to collect compensation for the pawn of her coat), hovering between hope and oblivion – courtesy of the Hays Office we’ll assume a positive outcome, but we have our doubts.
Beautifully scripted and structured, the movie combines stark and brutal reality with the surrealism of alcoholism (its joys and terrors), and a deep, wise compassion that somehow never lurches into classroom moralising. Dark, hip and witty, the overarching strength of the piece comes from Ray Milland’s astounding performance. From the bon vivant charm one got used to from his previous films as a “light romantic second lead,” to the snarling, desperate, crafty soak after the booze beckons, his is a Jekyll-and-Hyde characterisation both utterly credible and utterly compelling. (“I’m not a drinker, I’m a drunk!”)