What’s it about?
Billy Wilder’s award-winning picture, The Lost Weekend, features a superb central performance from Ray Milland. His character, Don Birnam, is on a path to self-destruction and he won’t abide anybody getting in his way. One of the startling elements of this film is very much how low Birnam goes in his quest to get soused. It feels stark and unusual for a Hollywood studio release because this is genuinely dark material. Of course it has dated somewhat and the film’s stucture doesn’t grip as much as Milland’s commanding turn. In one scene, a character packs cartons of cigarettes into Don’s suitcase but he isn’t allowed any booze. So you can smoke yourself to death but not drink yourself to death?! How the times have changed.
The moral judgements, too, are delivered in unfancy style. The male nurse in the hospital tells Don exactly what alcohol addiction will do to him. This realistic stance is matched with a film noir-style visual aesthetic. The majority of The Lost Weekend takes place in apartments, bars, stairwells and a hospital. Don’s world is insular and consists of key places. He just wants a drink and when he doesn’t want a drink he needs the bottle close by in case he does plunge into a fresh round.
Don’s misery could stem from his failure’s as a writer. He wants to write a novel he’s got cooking in his brain, but cannot get started. The film was apparently inspired by Wilder’s working with Raymond Chandler on Double Indemnity. Chandler, a famous boozehound, was in recovery when working with Wilder on that landmark picture.
Not everything works. The episodic narrative could have been handled better from a master such as Wilder. What remains interesting is Milland. He goes from what appears to be a nice guy down on his luck to a man hell-bent on destroying himself. He is at the very end of his rope. Overall, The Lost Weekend might be minor Wilder but Ray Milland was never better playing Don and bagged an Oscar (Wilder won, too, for Direction).
In one scene he steals a woman’s purse and gets booted out of a bar drunkenly informing the clientele not to think the worst of him. Don, by the third act, has wrecked his brother’s apartment, alienated just about everybody, fallen down a set of stairs, suffered a terrible bout of DTs and plans on blowing his brains out. Only the love of a good woman might save him, which seems a cop out. Jane Wyman, in a largely thankless role, just doesn’t cut it. She seems too bland and prim to convince she’d do anything for Don. Gloria, another character who hangs around in Nat’s bar, seems more attuned to Don’s problems. But she might be viewed as the risque option. What does she actually do for a living? Is she a call girl? If so it remains coy on the matter.
How’s the picture and sound?
The film is delivered in a new HD transfer and features a track for hearing-impaired along with subtitle options. These things are, quite obviously, good and should be an industry standard. The Lost Weekend’s photography looks moody and borders on film noir with its chiarascuro lighting. The Lost Weekend looks great and still retains its aged quality, which is always the best way to do transfers of old titles.
As standard with Masters of Cinema releases there is an accompanying booklet. This one features an essay by David Cairns, extracts from Charles Jackson’s source novel, production stills, screenplay extracts and notes on viewing. The best extra feature here is the three-part documentary on Billy Wilder made in the 1980s by director Volker Schlondorff and shown as part of BBC’s Arena broadcasts. Also included is a theatrical trailer and a rather shambolic Alex Cox introduction. Is he hammered as well? Rounding things up is a radio adaptation featuring the film’s stars Ray Milland and Jane Wyman. The Volker Schlondorff documentary wins.
The Long Weekend remains a rather striking picture for its near-honest portrayal of alcoholism and Ray Milland’s barnstorming performance. Only a forced happy ending upsets the effect. Milland’s portrayal of an alchie is far too destructive for that last scene. Although a forgotten actor these days, the Welsh-born thesp is on fire as poor Don Birnam. Wilder’s inventive direction, too, also shows us how this filmmaker was really starting to get into his groove. He had a pretty good run did Wilder. Well done to the director for giving the Dream Factory a dose of reality.
Extra Features Rating:
When’s it out?
Monday 25th June along with Double Indemnity