“The leper’s back. Hide your liquor!”
While traveling from Hollywood by train to New York in 1944, director Billy Wilder made fortuitous use of a stop in Chicago to purchase four books that he felt might be considered as the basis of future films. One was the novel “The Lost Weekend,” written by Charles Jackson. It was an uncompromising portrait of a weekend in the life of a drunk. Wilder was immediately drawn to its potential and persuaded Paramount to buy the screen rights. Despite its view that the novel was unsuitable fare for a film, the studio agreed and made the purchase for $50,000. Wilder completed the film for release in early 1945 and predicted that it would bring its leading actor an Academy Award.
Initially, preview audiences were lukewarm, but upon release, the film received widespread critical acclaim and public acceptance. It went on to win four Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Actor (Ray Milland), Best Director, and Best Screenplay (Wilder and Charles Brackett).
Universal Home Video has now released The Lost Weekend on DVD in a satisfactory, though uninspiring, package — given that the film was a well-deserving Best Picture of the year.
Aspiring writer Don Birnam and his brother, who share an apartment in New York City, are packing to leave for a weekend in the country. Don does not seem particularly anxious to go and proceeds to send his brother searching for essentially un-needed items or even trying to delay departure when it transpires that Don’s girlfriend has an unused ticket for the symphony. The reason is soon clear; he needs a drink and simply wants an opportunity for a quick pull at a bottle that he has hanging on a string outside the apartment window. Don, however, is caught in the act, and his brother, by now completely exasperated by what has been a lengthy, ongoing problem, washes his hands of the matter and leaves Don to his own devices. What follows is a graphic account of the grip that alcoholism has on Birnam and how it brings him to his lowest depths over the following weekend.
Fifty-six years have seen many advances in the level of realism portrayed on film, but it is safe to say that The Lost Weekend remains the benchmark against which all other films on alcoholism are measured. Its view is uncompromising yet it manages to present that view in a manner that does not require resorting to tasteless violence or nihilism to make its point (unlike, for example, a more recent film such as Leaving Las Vegas , well-acted as it may be). The film’s realism is enhanced by extensive location shooting in New York, somewhat of a rarity for the time.
In keeping with the traditional functional style that Billy Wilder’s films typically had, The Lost Weekend follows a fairly straight-ahead narrative approach. The exception is the use of flashbacks to recount Birnam’s first meeting with his girlfriend. Otherwise we see the weekend unfold linearly as Birnam does. There is nothing in the way of intricate camerawork or particularly ingenious composition. There are, however — as is often the case with Wilder’s films — several sequences in the film that are particularly memorable.
The first is Birnam’s initially optimistic but soon increasingly desperate trek along New York’s Third Avenue, clutching his typewriter to him as he searches fruitlessly for an open pawnshop in which to exchange it for the price of a few drinks. Like a thirsty man searching unsuccessfully for an oasis in the desert and finally prevailing on passing strangers to give him directions, he finally happens on two pawnshop owners on the sidewalk who inform him that all pawnshops are closed for Yom Kippur. Birnam still possesses enough awareness to ask why then the stores run by the Irish are also closed. The answer is simple. There’s an informal agreement that the Irish-owned pawnshops remain closed on Yom Kippur in return for the Jewish-owned ones doing likewise on St. Patrick’s Day. Defeated, the penniless Birnam must seek out his local bar and beg for the needed drink. The second sequence is the oft-cited scene in Birnam’s apartment when he suffers from the DTs. In today’s era of elaborate special effects, the sequence with the bat and the rat is at times crude, yet the bat’s sudden attack on the rat, the dribble of blood on the wall that results, and Birnam’s terrified yells are still chilling to behold and hear.
Little in Ray Milland’s résumé suggested he had the acting capability needed for the role of Don Birnam. Essentially a light-comedy actor, Milland was Paramount’s choice as the company felt a matinee-idol type was needed to sell the picture given its content. Wilder acquiesced once it was clear there was no chance his choice of José Ferrer would be accepted. Milland himself had doubts, not just about the film’s subject matter, but also about his own ability to be able to do the part justice. With some trepidation, but with the urging of his wife, he accepted the role. His preparation included spending one night in the psychiatric ward at New York’s Bellevue Hospital as well as going on a diet so as to accentuate the look of a drinker who habitually forgets to eat. Milland’s performance is astonishingly good. As Milland grew older, he increasingly had a hint of desperation in his demeanor and this worked to good effect in playing Don Birnam. Milland allows that slight hint to gradually blossom in Birnam during the course of the film until it completely overpowers him in the DTs sequence. With the exception of one or two brief lapses, there is none of the stereotypical Hollywood-drunk behaviour about Milland’s portrayal. His Don Birnam is a man deeply troubled and deeply in trouble, and we are left in no doubt whatsoever about his problems.
Nor does the list of supporting actors and actresses promise, on the surface, anything particularly special. Yet the fact that it draws from that seemingly inexhaustible supply of character performers from Hollywood’s Golden Age should be enough to tell you that they will be uniformly excellent. And so they are — from a young yet experienced Jane Wyman as Birnam’s girlfriend, to Howard da Silva as the bartender, to Frank Faylen as Bim the male-nurse with the slight suggestion of gayness, to Phillip Terry as Birnam’s long-suffering brother. Even newcomer Doris Dowling as the woman in the bar who is interested in Birnam delivers a memorable performance with her wisecracking exchanges with him.
[Possible Spoiler Alert!!!] The ending of The Lost Weekend has been criticized as being too pat — that it suggests that Birnam can stop drinking almost on a whim. Yet I see no such suggestion in the ending. All we have is one more Birnam declaration that he won’t take that next drink. But dropping a cigarette into his glass doesn’t prove anything. He’s just one more stressful moment away from another drink, and there’s nothing that happens at the film’s end to suggest that anything has yet really changed in that sense. Being resolute for five minutes doesn’t cure alcoholism. If the film is hinting that a positive ending is possible, well what’s wrong with that? We all want a positive outcome for Birnam, but that doesn’t alter the fact that a great deal of work and will-power on his part and care and work on his girlfriend’s part are going to be needed in order to change anything.
It would be nice to report that Universal has gone the extra mile to treat a Best Picture of the year with the same care and attention to supplementary material that it (and so many of the other studios) lavish on current film schlock of the month. But sadly that’s not the case. Maybe it’s because The Lost Weekend is not a Universal production, but a Paramount picture whose video rights Universal controls. Or maybe Universal just doesn’t care one way or the other.
Universal’s DVD has been released full-frame in accord with the original aspect ratio, utilizing 18 scene selections and opening with the credits windowboxed. The black and white image is pretty good for most of the film. It’s crisp and clear with good contrast. Some of the night sequences in the second half of the film are rather grainy and there is substantial loss of shadow detail during them. Occasional speckles and scratches are present, but they cause little distraction. Certainly not the best black and white DVD transfer I’ve seen, but quite workable and with the exception of the short grainy sequences mentioned above, there’s nothing to detract from immersing oneself in the narrative. The sound is Dolby Digital two-channel mono and is clear and distortion-free. It does the job fine for this dialogue-driven film. English, Spanish and French subtitles are included.
Supplementary materials on the DVD are meager. There’s a theatrical trailer, a few on-screen production notes, and brief bios of the actors and the director. No making-of documentary or audio commentary for one of the top films of the 1940s? Shame on you, Universal.
Despite my displeasure over Universal’s lack of attention to treating The Lost Weekend with the consideration it deserves, this is a must-have disc. The film itself is a knock-out with an excellent script, several memorable sequences, and top-notch acting all round. The DVD transfer at least presents the film pleasingly enough to not detract from the content and it is a slight improvement over the soft-looking laserdisc version. Recommended.