Thursday, February 1, 2024

The Lost Weekend

We're getting down to the bitter dregs of reviews I wrote for the "old" web-site, so, appropriately, here's another one directed by Billy Wilder, that—cautionary tale that it is—still manages to hold up through force of writing and some astringent direction.

The Lost Weekend (Billy Wilder, 1945) Don Birnam (Ray Milland) is an aspiring writer, drunk and sober, caught in a self-defeating loop of dependence and neurosis. His dependence on, and devotion to, alcohol has put him into a tail-spin of false confidence and self-loathing where his dreams are only out of reach because he can't pick himself off the floor. His "rye" attitude drowns his dreams and feeds his nightmares and without it, he's brittle, paranoid and living in the future, waiting for the shot-glass aimed at his destruction.

Sounds like so much fun. Sounds like a "speech" or a lecture coming on. Sounds like one of those movies "for your own good." Sounds like I'd rather have a drink. Fortunately, Billy Wilder's in charge, and yes, it's preachy at times, but most of the time, it's tough as nails and doesn't hold back on what a louse Birnam is without alcohol, and how pathetic he is with it.
But, it's not "Pity-Party: The Movie." Wilder makes it clear that Birnam is his own worst enemy and the alcoholism is just a symptom. At the movie's start with Birnam barely through a week of sobriety and packing for a trip in the clean country upstate New York with his brother (Phillip Terry), it's all he can do to keep from eyeing the bottle he has hanging out his apartment window. Milland's performance is brittle, officious—like Cary Grant without the stick pulled out. But, once his brother and girlfriend (Jane Wyman, pathetically co-dependent) are out of the way, Milland's eyes go snaky looking for alcohol in his apartment's old familiar places. Then, once he's got a burn going on, Milland is in full glory as an actor—an amazing performance, eerily reminiscent of Gloria Swanson's Norma Desmond four years in the future (and also directed by Wilder).
There are joys aplenty in this film, not just from some cracker-jack writing, but also Wilder's direction—putting Milland in front of a subtly discombobulating projection-screen for his long "wild turkey" chase to find a liquor store open on a Jewish holiday, the nightmare sequence of the alky ward and the subsequent "screamin' meemie" sequence in his apartment. There are also great performances by
Howard Da Silva as a particularly wary bartender, and a wonderfully creepy performance by Frank Faylen, who is eerily complacent telling Birnam about the tortures of DT's.
Part tract, part horror film, but without the absurd homilies of Reefer Madness hysteria, The Lost Weekend lets you off with a warning this time.The Lost Weekend was a co-winner of the Grand Prix at the very first Cannes Film Festival (Ray Milland won Best Actor), and it went on to win Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Actor. Only two films in history have won both the Palme and the Best Picture Oscar.*

Premiere Magazine voted it one of it's "25 Most Dangerous Movies."
* This was written many years ago—see the addition below—but since that time, it's only happened one other time since, with the Korean film Parasite in 2019. It's still a pretty damn rare happenstance.

* Paramount was pressured by both the alcohol industry AND temperance societies not to release the film. It did so on a very limited basis to critical acclaim, encouraging the tee-totaling studio to take a chance and open it in more theaters. I originally ended the piece by saying  "All that, and it has yet to be chosen for the National Film Registry.(What are they? Drunk?)" . It was voted into the National Film Registry in 2011

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