Toronto Film Society presented The Lost Weekend on Friday, May 11, 2012 as part of Season 65 May Festival: The Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid Weekend.
The filming by Paramount of “The Lost Weekend” marks a particularly outstanding achievement in the Hollywood setting. The psychiatric study of an alcoholic, it is an unusual picture. It is intense, morbid—and thrilling. Here is an intelligent dissection of one of society’s most rampant evils. Ray Milland and Jane Wyman are the stars. It is smash boxoffice.
“Weekend” hasn’t any laughs. Or gams. Or crackling, smart dialog. It is startling in its manic-depression. It required courage for Paramount to violate cardinal boxoffice principles to film it. Yet, here is a pic that should snowball b.o. interest on the basis of word-of-mouth and intelligent, conservative exploitation. That is, if the original novel by Charles R. Jackson hasn’t already developed that interest.
“Weekend” is the specific story of a quondam writer who has yet to put down his first novel on paper. He talks about it continuously but something always seems to send him awry just when he has a mind to work. Booze. Two quarts at a time. He goes on drunks for days. And his typewriter invariably winds up in the pawnshop. To get dough for you-know-what.
Involved in his struggle to fight alcoholism are a brother, upon whom he’s dependent for subsistence, and the drunk’s sweetheart. They plan cures for him, but it’s no use. Depriving him of funds, or appropriating hidden bottles are out of the question. His twisted mind always seems to determine a way to get the stuff.
Of course, there’s the inevitable barkeep, a philosophical sort of guy named Nat who’s pretty mad at himself for being a barkeep when he has to sell liquor to guys like this Don Birnam. Nat, next to the sot, is the story’s most trenchantly written character.
“Weekend” isn’t a pretty story for more than one reason. Its moral, of course, crusades against alcoholism, but to casual readers of the book and patrons of the picture there may well be a wholesale condemnation of the suppliers of spirits. Laymen aren’t apt to be so perceptive as to determine for themselves that here is a film that doesn’t condemn drinking, as such, but only seeks to illustrate the evils of over-imbibing.
“Weekend,” filmed entirely in New York, is frequently terrifying in its realism. It atom-bombs in depicting a Bellevue hospital alcoholic ward. A d.t., for instance, who must be straight-jacketed and given a “treatment”; he “sees” beetles swarming all over him. And there’s Birnam lurching from pawnshop to pawnshop—only to find them all closed because of a holiday. He wanted to hock his typewriter and satisfy a maddening craving. And he’s sunk low enough, too, to accept money from a prostitute to buy booze. And there’s a particularly pathetic scene wherein he suddenly finds a bottle—one whose hiding place he had forgotten, in a drunken stupor. And, finally, where he himself becomes deeteed. He imagines a mouse trying to squeeze through a crack in the wall, only to have a nondescript bird swoop down on it. His warped brain is terrified (and so is the audience) as he imagines the rodent’s blood streaming down the wall.
Ray Milland has certainly given no better performance in his career. His portrayal will have to be reckoned with when filmdom makes its annual awards. Drunks may frequently excite laughter, but at no time can there be even a suggestion of levity to the part Milland plays. Only at the film’s end is the character out of focus, but that is the fault of the script. The suggestion of rehabilitation should have been more carefully developed.
Jane Wyman is the girl. Philip Terry the brother. They help make the story overshadow the characters. The entire cast, in fact, contributes notably. And that goes especially for Howard da Silva as the bartender.
Billy Wilder’s direction is always certain, always conscious that the characters were never to over-state the situations. Throughout it is manifest that here is a story whose prime asset is in the telling rather than in the people who portray it. Which stands the test of any fine yarn. Charles Brackett produced, and he and Wilder teamed on the screenplay. They have teamed well. Suspiciously well.
VARIETY, Kahn., August 10, 1945
THE LOST WEEKEND, screen play by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder; from the novel by Charles R. Jackson; directed by Mr. Wilder; produced by Mr. Brackett for Paramount. At the Rivoli.
The stark and terrifying study of a dipsomaniac which Charles R. Jackson wrote so vividly and truly in his novel, “The Lost Weekend,” has been brought to the screen with great fidelity in every respect but one: the reason for the “dipso’s” gnawing mania is not fully and convincingly explained. In the novel, the basic frustration which drove the pitiable “hero” to drink was an unconscious indecision in his own masculine libido. In the film, which bears the same title and which came to the Rivoli on Saturday, the only cause given for his “illness” is the fact that he has writer’s cramp. That is, he can’t make himself accomplish a burning ambition to write.
However, this single shortcoming is a minor detraction, at worst, from a shatteringly realistic and morbidly fascinating film. For Paramount’s ace brace of craftsmen, Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, have done such a job with their pens and their cameras as puts all recent “horror” films to shame. They have also achieved in the process an illustration of a drunkard’s misery that ranks with the best and most disturbing character studies ever put on the screen. “The Lost Weekend” is truly a chef d’oeuvre of motion-picture art.
In imaging the gruesome details of five days in the life of a chronic flush”—five days during which this poor unfortunate is on one of his Periodic “bats”—the Messrs. Brackett and Wilder have been as graphic and candid in their report as was Mr. Jackson in his novel—and that was almost too candid to bear. They have picked up their man at that moment when he is thirsting desperately for another go at his bottle, have indexed the dogged stratagems by which he evades his watchful brother and his sweetheart in getting at some booze, and then they have followed his debauch through a series of episodes which scarcely have a parallel as reflections of mortifying shame. These include his unblushing importunities of a bartender, begging for drinks; a horribly humiliating encounter when he is caught stealing money from a woman’s purse, a racking walk along New York’s Third Avenue, trying to pawn a typewriter for some cash, and a staggeringly ugly experience in the Bellevue alcoholic ward. A bout of delirium tremens is also made blood-chillingly real—in a sharp, photographic comprehension, not with the usual phantasmagoric tricks.
Most impressive throughout the picture is the honesty with which it has been made. It seems a case history documentation in its narrative and photographic styles. Mr. Wilder, who helped write and directed it, brought his camera and leading player to New York for those scenes which convey the grim relation of the individual to the vast, unknowing mass. And he kept a sharp tone of actuality in all of his studio work. The film’s most commendable distinction is that it is a straight objective report, unvarnished with editorial comment or temperance morality.
And yet the ill of alcoholism and the pathos of its sufferers are most forcefully exposed and deeply pitied, thanks also to the playing of Ray Milland. Mr. Milland, in a splendid performance, catches all the ugly nature of a “drunk,” yet reveals the inner torment and degradation of a respectable man who knows his weakness and his shame. Jane Wyman assumes with quiet authority the difficult role of the loyal girl who loves and assists the central character—and finally helps regenerate him. (This climactic touch is somewhat off key—like the “cute” way in which the two meet—but it has the advantage of relieving an intolerable emotional strain.) Howard da Silva is tough and ironic as a disapproving bartender, Frank Faylen is glib as a sadistic male nurse and Philip Terry plays the brother meekly and well.
We would not recommend this picture for a gay evening on the town. But it is certainly an overwhelming drama which every adult movie-goer should see.
NEW YORK TIMES, by Bosley Crowther, December 3, 1945
Notes compiled by Caren Feldman