Billy Wilder’s “The Lost Weekend” could very well serve as a public service film in some support groups akin to Alcoholics Anonymous! I mean rarely have I come across a film that that is solely dedicated to chronicling an alcoholic’s drinking binge over a trying weekend, as he recalls the period of time during which alcohol got the better of him.
We are introduced to Don (Ray Milland), a down on his luck writer in New York struggling with his alcoholism. Apparently he is attempting to recover from it and has weaned from the stuff for ten days, which is when he and his brother Wick (Phillip Terry) are planning to take a vacation over the weekend as a further attempt to take Don’s mind off alcohol. Don conveniently evades this outing plan by sending his brother with his girl Helen (Jane Wyman) to a concert and agreeing to take the later train. Ensuring that there is no bottle hidden away in one of Don’s many “secret places”, Wick reluctantly agrees.
A penniless Don frantically seeks out alcohol when opportunity knocks in the form of the cleaning lady, who he successfully manages to con out of her wages, all for whiskey! And thus unfolds Don’s disturbing story of alcohol addiction, told partly in flashback as he pours his heart out to Nat (Howard Da Silva) of Nat’s Bar, Don’s favourite hangout and partly in the present as the weekend turns deadlier by the minute as Don’s alcohol craving gets desperate…
The above summary may seem wafer-thin but you will be surprised at how much material Billy Wilder packs in this 100 mins film that just drifts by…! Ray Milland, in his Oscar winning portrayal of Don, the alcoholic, delivers a scintillating performance. Practically the whole film rides on this masterful performance, for if the performance hadn’t been as effective, the film wouldn’t be as effective! As Don guzzles down shots of Rye Whiskey, we come to know of his past, his involvement with Helen, his embarrassment at being a writer who isn’t able to get a breakthrough and his increasing belief that he is inspired to write only when drunk!
Wilder paints a very frightening picture of what happens when one clings on to the bottle.
I, personally, am a whisky lover too, but I would hate to be in Don’s position. For Don, alcohol becomes the one and only solace. It becomes a way of his miserable life! It becomes the sole goal and drinking appears to be the magical cure for everything! Wilder shows it all…the desperation, the depression, the helplessness at not finding a bottle, the penury that drives Don to even try and pawn his livelihood…his typewriter! And then there’s the hallucinations! On one hand Wilder shows some superbly surreal scenes depicting Don’s thirst for alcohol. Check out that wonderful scene at a stage show, when, while watching a song depicting drinking, Don develops a strong desire to drink and all the performers on stage appear to be a row of raincoats to him, ‘cause his raincoat which he has checked in before entering the auditorium, contains a bottle of rye! And then there are the hallucinations which result from alcoholism going overboard…as a character in the film, Bim (Frank Faylen) says “alcoholics usually imagine seeing small animals rather than pink elephants”!
It is sufficient to say that as far as the deadliness of alcoholism are concerned, Wilder makes sure he covers all the grim effects it would have on a person. A significant part of the film plays out with perfection. The crisp editing and super smooth narrative of the engaging screenplay are some of the winning aspects of “The Lost Weekend”.
It is only towards the end that Wilder decides to go “Hollywood” with his ending!
Why, a film that builds up to such great promise, has to end with a whimper is beyond me. I mean it could’ve been the ultimate picture of inevitable doom and destruction suddenly does an about face and closes with a proverbial “where there’s a will there’s a way” ending full of hope that simply did not fit in the scheme of things in the major portion of “The Lost Weekend”. It would still be convincing if there was a gradual buildup to that ending, but so is not the case. There is a sudden reversal from an obvious point of no return, and that becomes one of the major flaws of “The Lost Weekend”. One only wishes Wilder had revised the ending.
While not a masterpiece like Wilder’s “Sunset Blvd” is, “The Lost Weekend” is most definitely worth taking a look at.