manlly Wilder | 101 mins | Blu-ray | 1.37:1 | USA / English | PG
Directed by the inestimable Billy Wilder, winner of the Grand Prix (forerunner to the Palme d’Or) at the first Cannes, winner of the Best Picture Oscar in 1946, and also Best Actor, Director, and Screenplay, it’s a wonder that The Lost Weekend isn’t better known. I don’t think I’d even heard of it until Masters of Cinema announced their Blu-ray release back in January 2012, and comments I’ve seen around the internet express a similar experience of prior unawareness. Thank goodness for MoC, then, because this isn’t a film that deserves to be forgotten.
Adapted from the novel by Charles R. Jackson, the entire film takes place across one particularly eventful weekend (well, that plus flashbacks), in which should-be-recovering alcoholic Don Birnam (Ray Milland) tries desperately to fall back off the wagon.
The plot may smack of a worthy social drama (perhaps why it’s been forgotten), but most every sequence is loaded with more tension than a thriller. This is Wilder’s skill as both co-writer and director: he gets us on Birnam’s side early on, so that we follow him through the almost-self-induced hell that follows; and he keeps us on the edge of our seat, as desperate for it to work out as Birnam himself is. But, right from the very first scene, hardly a one of his plans does work out; all of them thwarted at the last possible moment, when victory seems assured. The film isn’t preachy, but if it does teach us a lesson then this is how it does it.
Wilder’s direction is excellent throughout, with innumerable striking compositions, perfectly paced scenes, and the aforementioned tension ratcheted up to maximum. There are other very good directors who would’ve made a hash of a film like this — made one that screams “meaningful movie about An Issue” — but the way Wilder handles affairs means it’s more than that. It explores its issue, it exposes us to the facets of it so that we might learn something, but it does so under the auspices of a drama about a man we come to care about. It’s not an “alcohol is bad” sermon, it’s a “can this man survive it?” thriller.
Equally, the flashback structure could scupper the film, but instead it raises it, with two of the best sequences coming here. There’s the exceptional La Traviata scene — it’s very obviously a bit of Good Direction, but while you could call it showy, it works — and the scene where Wick tries to cover for his brother to his new girl, which lends weight and backstory to the opening scene where he seems ready to (and, indeed, does) callously abandon him.
Milland is astounding. The film rides on him and he really carries it. It’s easy to play a comic drunk, but Milland doesn’t sink to that. Indeed he doesn’t do one type of drunk at all, swaying back and forth across various levels of inebriation as required. I often find films of this era contain performances we assess as great, but if you put them in a film today no one would buy it; they’d find it stagey and fake. Milland’s transcends that — it fits the era, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find it would play just as potently today. I think it’s fair to say that Milland is not widely known today, but with every film of his I become more convinced that history has been unkind.
Also worthy of praise is Frank Faylen as Bim. In his featurette on the MoC release, Alex Cox says he’s the second best character in the film, and he’s probably right. Cox notes that at least one review at the time really laid in to Bim, painting him as an evil sadist. Today, I don’t think we have that perspective at all. Bim tells Birnam the truth, painting his illness like it really is. Whereas his other friends and relations all try to do their best for him, but wind up enabling his addiction to continue, Bim’s experience and detachedness means he can be blunt and truthful. Birnam may not realise the good it’s done him, but good it does ultimately do.
There’s also able support from Howard Da Silva as barman Nat and Doris Dowling as Gloria (is she a whore of some kind? Just an escort? A bar-crawler? Did I miss something?), whose slang is oddly infectious. No offence to Jane Wyman, but her lovelorn-but-strong girlfriend character only seems to really come alive in the closing minutes, when she considers abandoning Birnam to his fate.
The Oscar-nominated score by Miklós Rózsa at first seems highly unusual, a warbling horror movie score, but it quickly comes to fit very well, and not just the nightmarish daydream sequence near the film’s climax. The movie was also nominated for John F. Seitz’s cinematography and Doane Harrison’s editing. They lost to The Picture of Dorian Gray and National Velvet respectively, neither of which I’ve seen, but they must have something special to outclass the work on show here.
I think the same can be said of the whole film. Issue-focused movies from the past are often badly dated, even if we can still admire the filmmaking techniques involved. That’s not their fault — it’s the cultural climate of the time, or the shifts in understanding that have come since. I’ll admit I know next to nothing about alcoholism so can’t comment definitively on the film’s enduring accuracy, but from what I do know of other conditions of addiction and mental health, this feels as if it’s still thoroughly relevant.
Even if you don’t care about The Issue, there’s an engrossing, thrilling drama for everyone to enjoy. If The Lost Weekend is indeed forgotten, then it merits widespread rediscovery.
That concludes my reviews from 2012.