The Wet House provides a judgment-free atmosphere for drunks, but there was no such thing in the world of this ground-breaking movie that was made in 1945. Don Birnam is a part-time writer and a full time, 24-carat alcoholic. For someone like Don Birnam, the judgment was EVERYWHERE, his supporting brother, to a lesser extent from his girlfriend, and even from the Liquor Store and Nat the bartender. He could not even walk down the street without little old ladies whispering “That’s the nice man who drinks”. His self-esteem was shot, he was deeply paranoid, and he needed a drink to deal with his worldview, so give him Rye Whiskey please, the cheapest brand.
For 1945 this movie was totally unique and risky, an eye-opening film that exposed the horrible consequences of unbridled alcoholism. The opening scene seems innocuous enough, but then we see The Devil, The Bottle, suspended from a rope outside of a window of a high rise. Although no specifics are given, Don Birnam had apparently been through a doozy of a bender and his long-suffering brother Wick has had enough of his lies, deceptions and tricks and leaves in disgust after Don reneges on a trip to the countryside. Don had been sober for 10 days, but that was about to change. The hook was set. For the next harrowing hour or so, we witnessed Don’s nightmare and the free fall as he circled the drain and hit bottom.
Ray Milland was magnificent in his Oscar-winning performance. He was a promising writer, but he had an itch that he just could not scratch and crawled inside the bottle to numb the reality that he was just not the writer that he aspired to be. Notable supporting performances were Howard DaSilva as the bartender Nat, and Frank Faylen as the male nurse in the drunk ward; they were just great and really cared for Don in their own way. Oh, Jane Wyman shined as Helen St. James, especially in the last scene, but this harrowing film is all about the performance of Ray Milland.
No one has ever nailed the functional self-loathing like Milland, no one, and the musical score is just haunting and relentless. The two most disturbing scenes were the ones involving the DTs, scenes that no one who views this film will soon forget. There is also a surprising amount of humor and levity in the film as Don Birnam toggles between manic and depressive and it was all about his blood alcohol level.
The evolution of films about substance abuse was fascinating and in spite of its age, The Lost Weekend retains most of its punch, even after 75 years. Because of the tender era, it does not have the nudity and explicit sexual situations of Midnight Cowboy (1969) or the terrifying graphics of Requiem for a Dream (2000), but it still packed quite a wallop with its dark noir style. The Lost Weekend was a big risk and the great director Billy Wilder even stated that the Liquor Industry wanted to purchase the film to let it die on the shelf, unseen. The audiences loved it, however, and it remains to this day one of the great classic movies of the 40s.
One of the reasons that this movie was so amazing is that it is still gripping in spite of a number of obstacles. It’s obvious that the movie was seriously dated and Don Birnam had it pretty good if you ask me. He was well dressed and groomed, he had a more than adequate New York apartment at his disposal and his real-life demons that he faced seemed on the surface to be pretty trite and mundane. He was also well spoken, tall and nice looking, so what was the problem? I mean, how much of a life trauma was it for a 30-year-old professional to meet a woman’s parents, after all? Here’s where the superb work of Wilder, Bracket, Barris for the haunting and unforgettable musical score, and a tour de force of an acting job by Milland came into play.
Ray Milland immerses himself in the part and the audience is hooked. He was charming, he was adored by women, but he had another love in his life. He lied, he connived, he mused, he rationalized, he stole and begged, and he was so obviously desperate. Many scenes are painful, but the one in the restaurant still makes me wince with empathy for his pain and embarrassment. We also know where he hid that last bottle, but we will never tell. The ending? No, I didn’t buy this scenario for a second. If you haven’t seen this great film, I’m sorry but it does have a happy ending with Don not taking that drink, but instead dropping his cigarette into the glass. You have to think that Mr. Birnam will fall off the wagon again and again, in record time, once he is left to his own devices.
- The opera with La Traviata (The Drinking Song) and the dancing overcoats-inspired!
- Bellevue and the drunk ward- Simply terrifying and great use of light and sound
- DT’s at the apartment-Bats and Rats, hokey but still quite unsettling because of the musical score.
- Seeking a Pawn Shop on Yom Kippur- Great use of situational fate to throw obstacles at the desperate Don.
- One’s too many and a hundred is not enough. -Nat the bartender
- Most men lead lives of quiet desperation, I can’t take quiet desperation. -Don
- I’m not a drinker, I’m a Drunk -Don
- We’re both trying Don, you’re trying not to drink and I’m trying not to love you. -Helen
- Pour it, Nat! -Don
- It’s like the doctor was just telling me, delirium is a disease of the night…Good Night! -Bim the male nurse at Bellevue.
- Don’t you know that with you it’s like stepping off a roof and only expecting to fall one floor. -Wick Birnam