Monday, May 2, 2011

Reeling Backward: "The Lost Weekend" (1945)

For 1945, "The Lost Weekend" was an exceptionally brave film. It was an uncompromising look at alcoholism, at a time when addiction was considered a personal failing to be swept under the rug of polite society. It certainly wasn't the sort of subject matter a country just coming out of the horrors of World War II seemed eager for. In fact, most people in Hollywood thought it was box office poison.

So much for underestimating audiences. It went on to be a big commercial hit, and won the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Screenplay. It cemented the career of director Billy Wilder, proving that the previous year's "Double Indemnity" was no fluke. And it made a star out of Ray Milland, who hesitated taking the role after Cary Grant and Jose Ferrer turned it down.

It chronicles the four-day weekend of a struggling writer who reaches the absolute bottom of his drinking nightmare. It's based on an autobiographical account by author Charles R. Jackson, whose novel was adapted for the screen by Charles Brackett and Wilder. Wilder supposedly became interested in the subject of a brilliant writer haunted by booze after working with Raymond Chandler on "Double Indemnity."

The question people always ask is how somebody as smart and talented as Don Birnam (Milland) could allow himself to become a slave to whiskey. The film adroitly shows how even a brilliant mind can become soured by bending its entire power toward finding the next drink. "The Lost Weekend" doesn't pull any punches or engage in any Hollywood puffery -- Don's soul-wrenching misery is displayed with harsh candor.

Perhaps the most cringe-inducing scene is when Don finds himself in a stupor in a busy nightclub and realizes he doesn't have enough money to cover his tab. He swipes the clutch bag of the woman sitting next to him and ducks into the men's room, intending to remove the money and return the purse unnoticed. But a crowd has gathered to find the culprit, and he's humiliated and thrown out onto the street.

Less convincing is a bit where Don is hallucinating in his apartment and imagines a bat flying around the room. I realize it was 1945, but special effects were still more advanced than a bad-looking puppet on a string. But it's only a brief interruption of the dark mood Wilder and company create.

What's really impressive is that Milland isn't afraid to show off the character's terrible self-loathing. He puts on the veneer of the charming writer/drunkard, evoking Shakespeare and Hemingway as he describes the world around him in the dulcet tones of barroom poetry. Later, though, we glimpse the scared little man who's so obsessed with his own failure that he can't even appreciate the love of Helen St. James (Jane Wyman), the woman who's spent the last three years dealing with his binges.

In an era of John Wayne Westerns and heroic war pictures, depicting a man so cowardly was downright radical.

There's a couple of strong supporting performances I really enjoyed. Howard Da Silva plays Nat, the owner/proprietor of Don's favorite watering hole. Nat is his blue-collar confessor, dispensing cheap rye whiskey and grim advice. Nat -- who pronounces Don's last name "Boin-um" -- cheerfully warns Don that if he keeps drinking, he'll end up jumping off a building or throwing himself in front of a subway. Nat cares about his best customer, but knows to keep him at arm's length.

Doris Dowling is quite a presence as Gloria, a prostitute who works out of Nat's and has been carrying on a low-level flirtation with Don. I love how she strokes the nape of his neck with her finger whenever she walks by him -- safe from the Production Code, but highly sensual. With her slightly asymmetrical face and cool screen presence, she would go on from "The Lost Weekend," her first credited role, to a long career in film and television.

3.5 stars out of four

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