Directed by Billy Wilder
Written by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder
Based on the novel by Charles R. Jackson
Sometimes, an attempt to make a movie about a social issue can turn out laughably bad in the future, if not at the immediate point it’s released. Reefer Madness is still hilariously inept, and the many shorts on Mystery Science Theater and Rifftrax often have ridiculous morals. It’s ultimately rather shocking that The Lost Weekend handles its subject of alcoholism so smartly that, close to 70 years later, it’s still relevant.
Don Birnam (an Academy Award-winning Ray Milland) is an alcoholic whose brother Wick (Phillip Terry) and girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman) are trying to get him to go on a weekend retreat to the countryside. Don skips out, though, and ends up on a drinking binge that sees him constantly spiraling downwards.
What makes the story work so well is the simple fact that Don is the only one who can help himself. Everybody around him is trying to help him. Helen has stayed with him for 3 years trying to fix his alcoholism. A visit to an alcoholic ward in a hospital has a sardonic nurse doing his best to help Don, even with the many people around them who have been there since prohibition. Even Nat, the bartender at the bar Don frequents, has his small moments of trying to give Don just a little bit of help. But nobody can stop Don except Don. And he simply does not know how to stop, he only knows how to go to lower points. He goes to a fancier bar and ends up short on money, forced to try stealing from another patron. A writer, he desperately searches for an open pawn shop to sell his typewriter. He believes that there’s two Dons, the writer Don and the alcoholic Don, and the latter frequently threatens to eclipse the former.
The movie could easily threaten to turn into one note over and over again, but it keeps finding new ways to turn, new ways for Don to find himself lower than before. This is bolstered by expert camera work throughout. As Don searches for a bottle of rye he knows he bought, the light he hid it on is framed in the background. Don’s search through the city to find an open pawn shop is a series of cuts between closed doors, street signs that show how far he’s going, and Don’s own frantic persona. And even a cheesy special effect of an obviously fake bat can’t kill the effect of the violent scene that follows. At some point, nothing can slow this movie down, right to its ending, which stays suspenseful and, even with its Hays-Code-forced hope at the very end, still has touches of the real-life darkness that this movie exists on.
The Lost Weekend holds up really well, creating a movie that is suspenseful and shocking, losing none of the edge from its initial release when alcoholism wasn’t talked about in movies.