Directed by Billy Wilder (1945)
by Shane Collis
"At night this stuff's a drink, in the morning it's medicine." - Don Birnam
From the first strains of Miklós Rózsa's score, it is obvious that the film we are about to see is no comedy. Directed by the great Billy Wilder, following his archetypal film noir masterpiece Double Indemnity. Based on the novel by Charles Jackson, The Lost Weekend offers little in the way of comic relief as it charts a debauched four days in the life of aspiring New York writer Don Birnam (a superb Ray Milland).
Released in November of 1945, Wilder's film was arguably unlike anything onscreen at the time. Dealing with the difficult subject of addiction with an unvarnished and unprecedented level of realism. With it's dark themes and brooding central character, this gritty melodrama could easily be mistaken for a noir, complete with a bottle of whiskey standing in for the femme fatale. Despite it's unusually frank treatment of a still controversial subject, the film version of Jackson's novel dispenses with any references to Birnam's hidden homosexuality. Which, if included, paint a very different picture of Birnam's inner demons, and his struggle with "The Other Don.”
Birnam's first appearance is with a creatively hidden whiskey bottle in the foreground. Dangling on a rope outside his apartment window, his mind very clearly on nothing else. His well meaning brother Wick, played with timid righteousness by Phillip Terry, (then amidst the throes of a tumultuous marriage to Joan Crawford, which ironically should have given him reason enough to take to the bottle) has planned an intervention in the form of a dry weekend in the country. Upon Wick's discovery of the hidden bounty, it is promptly disposed of down the sink, the look on Birnam's face mirroring the draining of the bottle. Dodging an early departure, Birnam suggests Wick accompany his long suffering girlfriend Helen (the eternally wonderful Jane Wyman) to the symphony before the men leave on a later train. They reluctantly agree and Helen leaves him with, "We're both trying Don: you're trying not to drink, and I'm trying not to love you.” Yet the unwavering devotion of this "high class dame" is little more than another obstacle to his first love: the bottle. Which also happens to be the title of his prospective novel, of which he has yet to pen the first page.
From the outset Birnam is a man besieged by the inescapable urge to wet his whistle. Even going to the length of stealing ten dollars intended for the landlady. He immediately spends the money on two bottles of rye whiskey. Carrying them in a paper bag topped with apples and proceeding down the street, his eyes darting around as if he were in the commission of a crime. He passes two women and politely tips his hat, one of the women remarks to the other: "That's the nice young man who drinks.” Upon his arrival at Nat's (his favorite watering hole) we learn more of Birnam's character. Speaking in soliloquies and bemoaning the use of "loathsome abbreviations" by local chippie Gloria (Wilder's then-mistress Doris Dowling in her first credited role). Gloria is an example of another kind of desperate creature: one who entertains endless streams of men in the hopes of finding Mr Right. She is presumably beset by a gnawing sex addiction that cannot be quenched, making her something of Birnam's counterpart. Losing himself in the ecstasy of his drinking, Birnam is startled to learn of the lateness of the hour. He rushes back to his apartment, ducking Helen to spend the evening wet and alone.
The next day, Birnam returns to Nat's and again encounters Gloria. He mockingly makes a date, and proceeds to hold court and relate the story of his first meeting with Helen. At the opera, during a performance of Verdi's La Traviata. Birnam can focus on nothing more than the wine being so gayly consumed by the characters onstage. An inventive hallucinatory sequence informs us of the presence of a bottle in the pocket of his coat that is languishing in the check room. He abruptly attempts to retrieve his coat, only to find he has the wrong ticket and receives a woman's fur coat instead. Waiting out the remainder of the performance in the lobby, until a puzzled Helen appears holding Birnam's coat and hat. He treats her no differently than the coat-check clerk, just another obstacle in his path to consuming the liquid demon. Despite Birnam's curt manner, Helen is somewhat charmed and invites him to a cocktail party.
A foggy flashback returns us to Nat's as Birnam describes his attempt at sober courtship. Culminating in the meeting of Helen's parents in a hotel lobby, where Birnam overhears his prospective in-laws discussing their interest in meeting the man their daughter has told them so much about. The nervous anxiety of being barraged by questions and having his character under scrutiny drives him to feign absence and opt for the bottle instead. Birnam is later found by Wick, bombed out of his gourd in his apartment. Wick's brother covers for him when Helen arrives, going as far as pretending he himself is the drunk when a bottle is discovered. Don interrupts and reveals to Helen for the first time the grim reality of his true self. As he tells of his days as a young writer in college, ironically likening himself to Ernest Hemingway (a drunk who shot himself). Detailing the first appearance of the "Other Don," the Don that makes him drink. All the while refusing the support of his brother and aligning himself with the reality of his impossible future as a writer unable to break free of his monotonous vice.
Despite his demon's, Helen pledges her love and allegiance to Don and condemns the bottle as her rival and promises to fight it. The scene then dissolves into the familiar haze of an alcoholic memory, to Nat's three years later. Don, amazed at the devotion of this good-hearted woman, storms out, determined to write the novel which has plagued his cloudy imagination. At last settling at his typewriter to begin The Bottle, a novel by Don Birnam. Dedicating his efforts "To Helen with all my love.” He gets no further, his concentration shattered and drive diminished. Birnam frantically searches the apartment for a drop of the good stuff. All the while his previously hidden loot hangs in the heavens, resting in the light-shade above his head. Defeated, Birnam arrests himself in a chair. Looking despairingly at an empty bottle on the side-table. Catching his eye is a matchbook from a cocktail lounge: "Harry & Joe's, where good liquor flows.” Giving him a destination to end his suffering and providing us with the setting of his humiliation. Unable to pay the check, he resorts to swiping a lady's purse and heading to the washroom. He pockets the cash and by way of apology, replaces it with a carnation supplied by the attendant, only to be thrown out when his crime is exposed.
Birnam returns to his apartment and upon discovering the bottle he had hidden in the light-shade, he immediately downs it, plastering himself yet again. He is awakened by Helen calling on the telephone, the ringing simulating his pounding head. Birnam is yet again filled with the urge to drown his despair. He resorts to selling his soul, which happens to take the form of his typewriter. Birnam sets out on an arduous trek across Manhattan in search of a pawnbroker, only to find them all closed due to the Jewish holiday, Yom Kippur. Hours later, Birnam returns to his local saloon to beg a drink from Nat. Finally stumbling to the door of Gloria, Birnam finds her somewhat sore from being stood up, though still weak to his kiss, which costs her five dollars. Leaving the building, Birnam tumbles down the stairs and lands cold. Waking up in the "Alcoholic Ward" to the presence of a male nurse by the name of Bim. Bim warns him of the "DTs," or fits; another patient undergoing a bout of DT’s allows Birnam to escape. Disguised with an overcoat, he ambles into the dawn. Making his way on foot back to Manhattan.
Helen meanwhile has spent the night on the stairs in front of Birnam's apartment. Discovered by the landlady who spews tales of Birnam's past exploits, Helen snaps: "Stop talking about him as if he were dead!" The landlady replies: "Best thing for you if he was.” Birnam, now at a familiar low ebb, resorts to holding up a liquor store for a quart of rye, armed with nothing but sheer nerve. After consuming his ill-gotten bounty, Birnam begins to experience the hallucinations Bim warned him of. Imagining a small mouse appearing through a hole in the wall. Followed by the spectre of a bat flying in through the window and pouncing on the mouse causing a stream of blood to flow down the wall. Birnam screams in horror, overheard by the landlady who telephones Helen. She opens the door to find Birnam collapsed against it, turning on the light and casting a pained eye upon the scene of his horror. Which Birnam realises to be a product of his booze-hungry imagination.
The next morning, Birnam awakes to find Helen has spent the night, and grabs her fur coat to hock. Helen pursues him to the pawn shop and discovers Don has pawned the coat in exchange for the gun he had previously used in a suicide attempt. She rushes back to the apartment and tempts Birnam with a drink, "I'd rather have you drunk than dead," she proclaims in a desperate attempt to deter him from death. They are interrupted by the little miracle Helen prayed for: the delivery of Don's typewriter (again subbing for his soul). Delivered by none other than Nat the bartender, who previously had only supplied him with the poison haunting his consciousness. Helen declares, "I didn't ask for a big miracle," and convinces Don to proceed with his novel and to put his demons down on paper. "Get rid of it that way.” Helen continues: "You couldn't find the beginning, because you didn't know the ending.” As Birnam drops his cigarette into what is presumably his last glass of whiskey, he preaches to Helen his plans for his novel. Detailing his entire "Lost Weekend" and dedicating it to all the others who have and will plunge toward the deep end of the forsaken life of an addict.