18. The Lost Weekend (1946)

Title: The Lost Weekend

Release Date: 16 November, 1945

Oscar Ceremony: 7 March, 1946

Director: Billy Wilder

Starring: Ray Milland, Jane Wyman & Phillip Terry

When I ran a search for this movie on the library’s website, its subject line literally said “alcoholics–films.” I’d be lying if I said I didn’t ask myself a few questions. Now that I’ve watched it, I would call this tagline blunt and restrictive, but very accurate nonetheless.

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The movie opens with a camera pan of New York city. Slowly, the shot zooms to an apartment building window, and we notice that there’s a liquor bottle hanging from it on a string. It belongs to a man named Don Birman (Ray Milland), an alcoholic writer struggling to fight his addiction. His brother Wick (Phillip Terry) has organized a weekend getaway for the both of them as an attempt to distract him. Shortly before the brothers have to leave for their train, Don’s girlfriend Helen St. James (Jane Wyman) comes to say goodbye and mentions that she’s off to see a concert by herself. Don sees this as a window to conjure up a plan for him to be left alone in order to sneak a drink. He insists that Wick should accompany Helen so that she doesn’t have to go all by herself; they can always take the 6 o’clock train instead of the 3 o’clock one. Wick ends up accepting, despite Helen’s worrying. He reassures her that Don has no alcohol in the house (they found the bottle hanging from the window and emptied it in the sink) and that Don has NO money to go out and buy anything. Although he makes a good point, I still think that if a man is as desperate as Don, he will somehow find a way to get his hands on some alcohol. Nevertheless, Wick and Helen decide to give him the benefit of a doubt, which obviously turns out to be a very bad decision. Don finds some money that Wick has hidden to pay their maid, steals it, goes out to buy 2 bottles of whisky AND stops at a bar to get some shots. Naturally, he gets too drunk and he forgets to return to the apartment on time, thus missing his train. When he fails to show up, Wick declares that he has had enough and leaves without him. Helen, on the other hand, is concerned and does her best to go look for him and wait for him at his doorstep to make sure he’s okay.

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The rest of the movie follows Don as he sinks deeper and deeper into a state of extreme dependency and desperation. What’s even worse is that he is in complete denial of his state and refuses to come to terms with the consequences. He is ready to give up everything he has just for another drop of alcohol. If there is such a thing as rock bottom, Don has definitely hit it, and hit it hard. He begs strangers, deceives loved ones, wreaks havoc his apartment, goes into insurmountable debt, succumbs to disturbing hallucinations, and even ends up in a hospital drunk ward. If the scenes in that ward don’t convince you to give up alcohol, I don’t know what will. Then again, the fact that Don escapes the ward and then keeps drinking just goes to show how severe his problem is. Helen’s character brings up an interesting and very modern outlook on alcoholism when she remarks the following to Don’s brother:

He’s a sick person. It’s as though he had something wrong with his lungs or his heart. You wouldn’t walk out on him because he had an attack. He needs our help.

Alcoholism is not just a casual drinking problem; it’s a sickness. It’s real, and it’s dead serious. The terrifying portrayal of an alcoholic’s psyche, inner struggles and intense deterioration (both physical and psychological) completely shuts down the typical Hollywood stereotype that drunks are funny. In The Lost Weekend, Don is everything but funny. He is a danger to himself and a fright to those around him. While most people realize he has a problem, some have no idea how to treat his behaviour and end up enabling him instead. The last thing you do to a struggling alcoholic is offer him a drink.

The severity of Don’s condition is further accentuated by the movie’s distinct score. Pretend you’re in a state of terror brought on by your addiction problem. You are delusional. You don’t realize where you are or what’s going on; all you know is that you need to get alcohol and you need it now. You’re sweating, you’re dizzy, you’re nauseous, you’re dehydrated… now imagine that on top of all that, this is what’s playing in your head:

It’s hard to believe, but the movie initially had a very different score. Apparently, it was sort of jazzy and upbeat, which led early test audiences to interpret the movie as a comedy. Naturally, the director decided to go in a different direction and that clip you just listened to was the final result. You might think it sounds rather supernatural, and that’s a pretty good intuition. The music is accompanied by an instrument called a theremin, which is often used to portray eerie situations, especially in 1950’s sci-fi.

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The tension is palpable from the very first scene and it never really stops. As viewers, we grow increasingly addicted to it just like Don grows increasingly addicted to his alcohol. Years after the film’s release, the director discovered that the title of the novel that the film was based on was a typo; it was supposed to be The Last Weekend, not The Lost Weekend. This alternate title would have led viewers to wonder if the protagonist survives in the end, which would have made the tension even greater. My main complaint about the movie is my dissatisfaction with its ending, which I found too “easy.” That’s as far as I can go without delving into spoilers. However, don’t let that stop you from watching it. The Lost Weekend will immerse you in a surrealist viewing experience that, at its core, is also agonizingly real.

 

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