Classic Cinema: The Lost Weekend (1945) - Reviewed

Alcoholism in film, like the addiction itself, is omnipresent and unlikely to fade away with time.  From the inception of the medium itself to the present, alcohol and its effects on the human body continue to be an urgent topic of cinematic discourse.  For then-recently emigrated German writer-director Billy Wilder, who was only three pictures into his new Hollywood directing gig, the battle with alcohol became personal when he was working with recovering alcoholic Raymond Chandler on the screenplay for Double Indemnity.  The stress of the production drove Chandler to drinking again, meanwhile Wilder happened upon novelist Charles R. Jackson’s debut novel The Lost Weekend, a semi-autobiographical tale of the author’s own personal battles with alcoholism.  Thus Billy Wilder pursued the project in an effort to try and hold up a cinematic mirror to his collaborator Chandler.

Going on to win the 1945 Academy Award for Best Picture as well as the Grand Prix at Cannes, The Lost Weekend is a searing odyssey into blackout drunk intoxication.  Starring Ray Milland as New York author Don Birnam, the film opens on the man packing up for a weekend vacation with his brother Wick (Phillip Terry), the goal being taking a good cleansing break from boozing.  But when Don’s girlfriend Helen shows up to take his brother to a concert, he seizes the opportunity to jump ship on the weekend trip plans to instead dive headfirst into a three day alcoholic binge, sauntering his way from bar to bar as he becomes increasingly self-destructive and delirious.  Soon he begins pawning off his personal belongings and even resorts to stealing to try and buy another drink.
A film of stark realism which introduced new cinematic techniques at the time such as the montage of a character walking towards the camera disoriented as time passes by, The Lost Weekend became a critical and commercial hit.  Against a low budget of $1.25 million, it went on to take in $11 million theatrically and continues to generate business as an enduring classic to this day.  Seen now, the film is remarkably plausible with how it captures the aimless vulgar stupor of being drunk, thanks to a gifted performance from Ray Milland who previously starred in Wilder’s first picture The Major and the Minor but went on to win an Academy Award for his role in The Lost Weekend
Visually the film is extraordinary with ornate, distant cinematography by frequent Wilder collaborator John Francis Seitz who was nominated four times for his work with Wilder over the years.  Wilder and Seitz reportedly mounted their cameras in hidden areas to capture Milland stumbling through the streets of New York amid real passerby unaware of the film being made, arguably predating the Italian Neorealist movement by years.  Then there’s the evocative score by Ben-Hur composer Miklós Rózsa.  One who would amass 17 Academy Award nominations over the course of his film composing career, his score captures the gross despair and wallowing of the protagonist and serves to accentuate the power of Milland’s devastating performance.

A film which has lost none of its power to time or production codes (save for an implication in the novel the protagonist might be homosexual), The Lost Weekend is a timeless classic which seen now possesses an urgent immediacy concerning how it regards what alcoholism does to friends and family as well as to the alcoholic themselves.  Taking home a total of four Oscars amid seven nominations, The Lost Weekend also was eventually added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.  While there have been numerous films over the subsequent decades which debatably pushed the envelope further with regard to depicting the horrors of alcoholism (Wake in Fright among the most horrific), The Lost Weekend remains the quintessential example of how people can lose time, themselves, their livelihood and even their lives to boozing.

--Andrew Kotwicki