Ah, The Lost Weekend. A film that I wrongfully underrated and threw on the back burner for so long. A film that, when I finally got around to watching it a few months ago, made me almost kick myself for neglecting it. A film that holds a firm place in the classic movie canon, and rightfully so.
Based on a 1944 novel by Charles R. Jackson, The Lost Weekend was one of the first films to depict alcohol addiction in a frank, serious, and disturbing light. Up until then, alcoholism was used mostly as a humorous device in Hollywood films, often found in secondary roles played by character actors. Silent film actors such as Charlie Chaplin and W.C. Fields built their whole careers on the “hilarity” of the alcoholic. It wasn’t until the release of The Lost Weekend that audiences finally watched a film that dealt wholly and seriously with the subject.
The Lost Weekend centers around Don Birnam (Ray Milland), a young, handsome, struggling New York writer who is very, very much on the wagon. His older brother, Wick (Phillip Terry) plans to take him away on a four day weekend to help him forget the allure of the bottle. However, Don outwits Wick and his long-suffering girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman) by deliberately missing his train. He then proceeds to go on a bender of epic proportions, lasting the entire weekend. Don quickly degenerates, doing everything from stealing bottles of whiskey, snatching a woman’s purse at a club, getting lost in the streets, falling down a flight of stairs, and getting locked up in an alcoholics’ ward in a sanitarium. The bender culminates in an exceedingly eerie and disturbing hallucination and a suicide attempt.
To the 1945 audience, The Lost Weekend was nothing short of revolutionary. A critical and commercial success, the film went on to sweep four important Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay. Director and screenwriter Billy Wilder claimed that he chose to dramatize Jackson’s novel because it paralleled his experience working with hard-boiled detective novelist Raymond Chandler on the script for Double Indemnity (Chandler was an alcoholic writer).
Dark, moody, and melodramatic, the film made great use of film noir imagery and lighting techniques. At the time it was released (the close of World War II), audiences were beginning to tire of the lavish, fluffy, escapist pictures of the 1930s, and instead sought out heavier, gritty films that dealt with difficult subject matter and social issues, hence the rise of film noir. Many scenes in The Lost Weekend were done in the noir tradition, with high contrast lighting and clever shadow-play. The film was also one of the first to use electronic music in the form of the theremin, an instrument resembling a radio that was used to create the wailing, ghostly sounds heard in the background as Don’s sanity crumbles.
For a film that made zero references to the war (highly unusual for that time!) The Lost Weekend deeply resonated with many GIs, most of whom were coming home and, suffering from severe PTSD and an inability to readjust to civilian life, turned to alcohol. It is also interesting to note the differences between the novel and the film. In the novel, Don is tormented by confusion over his sexuality, and ultimately it does not end happily. In the film, the homosexual overtones were replaced by severe writer’s block, and, probably because of the Hays Code, the film ends happily, with Helen converting Don to sobriety through her love and patience.
The Lost Weekend is a stirring drama, a must-see for every classic film fan, and wholly deserving of its place in movie history.