Sunday 5 February 2012

1,001 Films: "The Lost Weekend" (1945)

The Lost Weekend is the odd-man-out in the Billy Wilder filmography: a boldly expressionist portrayal of alcoholism, apparently undertaken in a spirit of community service, which offered one of the first genuine depictions of alcoholism, its squalor and its remorselessness, in a medium that up until then had revelled in escapism, libertinism, the lush life. Essentially, it's ninety minutes of Ray Milland's writer Don Birnam slinking about and trying to conceal his condition - blowing off an appointment in the (presumably boozeless) countryside, secreting bottles of rye about the furniture, pouring lie out upon lie - as the film tries to explain it, with barstool flashbacks that contextualise the character's shadier impulses.

Around this central figure, characters divide perhaps a little easily into nags, facilitators (store clerks all too happy to take the protagonist's money, barmen who wonder why Don doesn't lay off the juice even as they pour him another slug) or outright mockers, like the crowd at Harry & Joe's ("where the best liquor flows"), who confront Don with a rendition of "Somebody's Stolen a Purse" at his very lowest ebb. The idea - after the Roaring Twenties, speakeasies, and the infinite cocktail hours of the Thin Man movies and The Philadelphia Story (which gets a surreptitous namecheck) - is that the hangover's gone on too long, and that the New America must take collective responsibility for it.

Having Wilder and Charles Brackett at the typewriter means Don turns out an unusually articulate, flowery drunk, one who first gets the idea for a tipple during a stifling performance of La Traviata. "I'm John Barrymore, before the movies got him by the throat... I'm Horowitz, playing the "Emperor Concerto"... I'm William Shakespeare!," he declares whilst in his cups, and it becomes increasingly clear this man drinks to get a book out of it, whether as a source of inspiration or as a crutch for some limping self-esteem. Yet there have surely been these kinds of drunks, too, and Don's respectability is the point: he has something to hide. Even before John F. Seitz's cinematography succumbs to the character's DTs, you catch it in the latent horror of Milland's performance: sweating and shaking, he's a man in the clammy grip of fear, attempting to drown his airs and graces, his better nature, one shot at a time. One probably wouldn't choose to watch it over Some Like It Hot, and the ending is what it is, but otherwise this is the film that - along with choice stretches of The Apartment - suggests Wilder was a far more serious-minded filmmaker than his studio employers ever gave him credit for.

The Lost Weekend is available on DVD through Universal.

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