Today: April 15, 2024

Lost Weekend, The

If you were to launch a collection of artistic pieces into space in the hope that intelligent life finds it you would include works by such maestros as Bach,MozartMonetda VinciShakespeareWilde and countless others.  But who would you include from a cinematic output.  Who has inspired, influenced and on so many occasions set a standard for which all films should be measured against.  It’s undoubtedly a debate-sparking question but you could do plenty worse than consider the late, great Billy Wilder.  Wilder was a writer director who dared to be different, dared to try his hand at countless different genres without ever losing his unique brand of memorable dialogue and compelling, yet often flawed, protagonists.  The Lost Weekend is one of Wilder’s more overlooked classics, surprisingly as it won him best screenplay and best direction Oscars.  An early and keystone film in the subgenre of ‘Addiction’ films which dared to challenge the affliction of alcoholism long before the likes of Nic Cage left Las Vegas and Liz Taylor and Richard Burton got afraid of Virginia Wolfe.

Don Birnam (Ray Milland) is supposed to be going away for the weekend with his brother Wick (Phillip Terry).  He’s all packed and ready to go but his desperate need for a drink is sneaking up on him.  Sensing an opportunity to avoid the prying eyes of his brother and girlfriend Helen St. James (Jane Wyman) he sends them off to a concert together.  With his minders gone Don heads to the local bar. Hours later, when he misses his train for the weekend getaway, Don slips into a melancholic nightmare of reminiscing about hisalcoholism as he delves further and deeper into a drunken oblivion.

As with all Wilder films story and concept come second, character is paramount and in Don we have one of his most fascinating.  Up there with Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) from Sunset Boulevard and C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemon) from The Apartment, Don is a flawed mess, but tragically, he knows it.  Wilder’s style never agreed with the school of Hitchcock’s wandering and flashy shots, instead he wanted his characters to take centre stage, the audience be wowed by them rather than taken out of a moment by a clever piece of photography.

And what characters.  They don’t make them like this anymore.  The guys have smarts, the girls have sass and everyone has an agenda.  Beneath it all though, Wilder infuses a sense of whimsy, a tragic sense of humour, whichleads you down a path only for Wilder to defy convention and have something you weren’t expecting crop up.  It’s a master class in breaking with filmic trends, back then and even now.

Despite the wonderful characters this is probably Wilder’s most brutally honest and gritty film.  Don’s alcoholism isn’t funny, it’s deadly.  He’s from the lie steal repeat school of drinking.  At one point he stoops as low as to pinch his cleaning ladies money, in another he takes a woman’s purse in a bar to buy himself just one more drink.  And then he runs out of rye, the nightmares start, the sweat drips and his tetchy temper grows ever more cruel.  “Let me have my vicious little circle” Don cries, only he knows the true nature of the beast inside and no matter what he does it’s going to keep happening.  But this times it’s worse.  Wilder choosing to plummet Don, and us with him, to depths previously unheard of in cinema.  Long before Ewan McGregor cowered in terror at the troll baby crawling on his bedroom ceiling, in Trainspotting, Wilder was presenting the nightmare of the drunk tank.  It’s a harrowing moment in cinema and one that will put you off drink faster than any hangover ever could.

In the lead role Ray Milland is a wonderfully broken man.  Channeling something of a Jimmy Stewart look and mumbled tone he’s both loveable and loathing all at once.  When craving a drink he’s all wide-eyed and frantic and then the booze calms him down, turning him into a smooth, if slurring, operator.

Disturbing and atmospheric, The Lost Weekend is a brilliant one man decent into his own personal hell.  In some hands it would be a dour, depressing and bleak affair, in Wilder’s it’s an immersive, haunting, sometimes funny, always poignant morality tale.  And to think all this fuss about a frustrated writer from one of the greatest screenwriters to ever shine his brilliance on the silver screen.

Alex Moss Editor

Alex Moss’ obsession with film began the moment he witnessed the Alien burst forth from John Hurt’s stomach. It was perhaps ill-advised to witness this aged 6 but much like the beast within Hurt, he became infected by a parasite called ‘Movies’. Rarely away from his computer or a big screen, as he muses on Cinematic Deities, Alex is “more machine now than man. His mind is twisted and evil”. Email: alex.moss@filmjuice.com

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