By Marc S. Sanders
Ever wonder why I write so many reviews? It’s because I yearn to be a successful playwright/screenwriter. I’ve directed three original plays that I’ve written over the years. I will be directing a fourth for the holiday season later this year. Had a few short plays I wrote performed locally as well. Still, I suffer from a terrible ordeal that often grinds me into bouts of depression and internal rage. Writer’s block!
My father always told me that he stayed away from gambling and casinos. He said it was because he could have an addictive personality and he was not confident he could stop if he started. I know what he means. I have an addiction. One that’s not commonly recognized, but I obsess over something every single day. Without fail, every damn day. It’s my weakness. Sorry. I must keep that to myself, though. Yet my pursuit of what preoccupies my mind taxes on my motivations to write and stretch the imagination needed for churning out one script after another. So, a remedy is to write about movies that speak to me in lieu of my next great play.
Billy Wilder’s Oscar winning drama The Lost Weekend demonstrates a writer’s inability to exercise his talent when an endless need for alcohol consumes his every waking moment. Ray Milland delivers an Oscar winning performance as Don Birnam, an alcoholic wannabe writer of the worst kind. When Wilder’s film opens, Don seems healthy and spry. He’s clean shaven, well dressed, and ready to pack a bag for a weekend getaway that his brother Wick (Phillip Terry) has arranged for him along with Don’s girlfriend Helen St. James (Jane Wyman). Wick implies to Don that this trip is just what his brother needs after what he’s recently been through, and he’ll have his typewriter with him to write in calming solitude. Eventually we get an idea of what Wick has been referring to as Don attempts to sneak a bottle of rye that is strung outside the window of his New York apartment. Wick catches Don in the act, pours the bottle down the drain and assures him that he won’t find another drop of liquor anywhere. He doesn’t even have money to go to the corner bar. So, Wick and Helen leave Don alone for a few hours before it’s time to depart. Don gets ahold of some cash though, and thus begins a spiral into a drunken binge over a four-day weekend.
I read that when this film was released, test audiences laughed at it. I guess in 1945 people were not attuned or prepared to witness an account of a very real disease like alcoholism. I’m not certain it was even diagnosed as a disease at that time. Surely, the addiction was an ailment though, and Billy Wilder uses some effective cinematic devices to demonstrate the journey into madness and desperation for even just a tiny shot glass of gin or rye.
A repetitive device is to show a tormented performance from Milland within the shadow of bars or fences. He’s trapped in his own need for swill. A telling moment occurs when Don is desperately trying to pawn off his typewriter just for some money to buy more alcohol. Every store in the city is gated and closed on this particular Saturday though. It’s the Jewish holiday of atonement for past sins, Yom Kippur. I found that little detail to be interesting. Surely, it’s a sin to harm yourself whether by alcohol or suicide, for example, and the holiday is a time for speaking to your inner self and Hashem (G-d) for your past transgressions. Yet, that is no matter to Don. He’s not ready or wanting to climb out of his dark hole.
Inanimate objects or props are also given much focus. Early on, Don is seen at the local bar and Billy Wilder brings an inventive visual to explain just how much this character has consumed in under two hours. The camera focuses on the wet rings on the bar top left by Don’s shot glass. First there are two rings, then four and soon, fifteen. Wilder also zooms his lens into the very bottom of the small glass filled with liquor to show how much the audience will drown in Don’s despair over the course of the film.
Other props also work towards Don’s paranoia such as a ceiling lamp bearing the shadow of a hidden bottle. Milk bottles left in front of his apartment are not collected from one day to the next showing the passage of time for this weekend, and how even the most basic chore is dismissed so Don can extend his stupor. A lady’s unguarded purse offers temptation. A tossed lamp shade seems to glare at Don like a hole that he’s in, as he gets weaker and weaker.
A magnificent scene, one that I can envision a skilled director doing today with quick cuts on digital film, occurs as Don recalls sitting in a crowded opera house watching the toasting scene of La Triviata; one of the most recognizable operas of all time. Don is one of many in the audience, and yet he’s the only one alone with the production’s props of various drinking glasses and champagne bottles being used on stage that are mere inches away. Very quickly into the scene, Billy Wilder skillfully draws focus from the opera singers and diverts towards the immense amount of liquor adorning the stage and the cast with quick cuts of Don salivating and perspiring alone in a chair of a crowded theater. Everyone else is watching the performance. Don is gazing at the alcohol. I wouldn’t be surprised if Martin Scorsese had much admiration for such a sequence.
Phillip Terry is very good in his performance. I’m surprised he’s not promoted as much as the other two stars of the picture. Wick cares for his brother, but he’s ready to give up on him after six years of this ordeal, with one more transgression played out. He’s exhausted from lying to cover for Don’s weakness. He represents the outsider of the dilemma who’s been affected by someone else’s ailment. Jane Wyman as Helen serves a nice purpose as well. The one last hope for Don. She’s the only one left who holds on to the faith that she can pull Don out of this nightmare. Wilder presents these characters as side effects in the Oscar winning script written by him and Charles Brackett.
Another haunting, but effective dimension comes when Don finds himself in the alcoholics’ ward at Bellevue Hospital, shot on location, and the first film to ever do so. With an eerie use of a theremin in the soundtrack from Miklós Rózsa, Don is surrounded by dark shadows and tormented victims suffering from drying out just like him. A nurse explains that he still has the DTs to experience like envisioning being surrounded by horrifying images like bugs crawling on him or something comparatively worse. I recall from childhood seeing this symptom used on an episode of M*A*S*H. Wilder invents his own kind of imagery and it’s pretty shocking in its grotesqueness.
I ask for forgiveness when I say that The Lost Weekend seems a little melodramatic. Maybe that’s because movies have built themselves into much more graphic and honest depictions of alcoholism since 1945. The ending seems to welcome a stringy violin to accompany Ray Milland’s final scene with Jane Wyman. However, I’m completely impressed with how pioneering this movie must have been for its time. Billy Wilder didn’t shy away from the dramatic side of drinking.
The Lost Weekend is certainly an effective and important piece on the study of alcoholism. I’d recommend it as a visual reference to what can happen to the one who suffers, as well as those around him, including the bartender who deals with the regulars he easily knows by name. While it’s certainly a movie of its time, the message remains the same. Though I’m no expert on the effects of alcohol, I’ve seen enough friends who deal with the problem to know that the message in Wilder’s film still rings true. An addiction to drink will dominate a life.
I always say that movies offer another valuable avenue to learn from. There’s much to learn from The Lost Weekend.