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The Lost Weekend

Ring a Ding Ding

The Lost Weekend (1945)

     Alcohol was ever-present in old movies as were people going on the occasional bender and the familiar drunk character. Never before, however, have I seen a classic film tackle the subject of alcoholism, let alone use that term. The Lost Weekend depicts the dark existence of a man addicted to alcohol and the four-day weekend that seems to turn things around.

    The film never supposes that the events occurring within are in any way more extreme than what Don Birnam (Ray Milland) has played out over the past six years of his addiction, yet at the film’s close we are left thinking this will be the time he breaks free. Birnam is a failed writer who turned to alcohol after promising early career prospects marked the peak in a since-dwindling talent. He lives by the good graces of his brother, Wick, played by Phillip Terry. The film opens with a great moving shot of New York City that pulls us toward a particular brick building, zooming in on a window from which a bottle of rye hangs by a rope. Inside Don and Wick are packing for a four-day or more weekend at “the farm,” where Don can recover from “what he’s been through”. The man is supposedly back on the wagon and intends to take his typewriter with him to work on a novel, but while his brother digs in a closet for the device, Don tries unsuccessfully to detach the rye from its rope.

     Don’s girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman) arrives to wish them well, but Don persuades his brother that they can take a later train so that Helen has a parter with which to attend the symphony. That partner is not Don, however; it’s Wick. Assuring the pair that he will remain in the apartment and stay off the stuff, Don instead hits the liquor store and his favorite bar after tracking down $10 in the apartment meant for the cleaning lady. Although he asks the bartender to remind him to leave by a certain time to meet his brother for the train, Don is long past drunk by the time he is late and his brother goes to the farm without him. Helen waits but Don sneaks past her into the apartment where he finishes one of the two bottles.

     A number of events ensue over the next several days. When his money runs out Don goes to pawn his typewriter, but being Yom Kippur, no hock shop is open. He visits a bar regular at her apartment (after having stood her up for a date) and begs for money. On his way out he falls down some stairs and wakes up in the alcoholic ward of the hospital. There he learns about the delusions his peers suffer. After escaping from the hospital he returns home with a new bottle, discovers the imaginary “tiny animals” himself and begins screaming. Helen comes to the rescue and tries to clean up her man. Instead, he takes off with her leopard coat and pawns it in exchange for his old gun.

     The Lost Weekend is brimming with one impactful event after another. Director Billy Wilder adapted the tale from the novel by Charles R. Jackson. Wilder had picked up the book when stopping in Chicago in the midst of a Hollywood-to-New York train trip. By the time he reached the Big Apple, he was calling studios about acquiring the film rights. Wilder knew the movie would bring the lead actor an Oscar, which it did, but he might not have guessed that it would win Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay. Miland truly deserves his award. With his facial expressions alone the man shares paranoia, fear, relief, hatred and anguish with the audience. It is difficult to know what an alcoholic experiences without being one, but Miland truly does make the viewer understand how it might feel. A grand picture all around.

  • The Lost Weekend is set for noon ET Jan. 30 and 10 a.m. ET Feb. 28 on TCM.
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