Ever get worried that you’re too happy? That life is too good? That your future is too bright? If you ever think your mood needs to be taken down a notch and that a quick injection of depression is required, The Lost Weekend is the movie for you. If you really want to get crazy with the bring downs, make it a double feature with Days of Wine and Roses. Bugger it, go all the way, triple bill those two bring downs with Leaving Las Vegas, then get ready for a night of cold sweats and deep regrets, even if you’ve never touched a drop.
Yep, The Lost Weekend is another delightful romp into the world of alcoholism. And not the fun kind of alcoholism like Burt Reynold’s character hiding booze in a lamp shade in Smokey and the Bandit II. But the full blown, balls to the wall, depressing kind of alcoholism, like Ray Millan’s character hiding booze in a lamp shade in The Lost Weekend. Strap yourself in, because while this is a pretty amazing movie, it’s not pretty.
One thing that really stood out to me about The Lost Weekend is that it’s not a story about a man’s descent into alcoholism. Ray Millan’s Don Birnam has already hit rock bottom before the opening scene is set. His brother and girlfriend are helping him pack for a weekend of drying out in the country. Even as the shot ripples and fades into a flashback, the movie still resists telling the origins of his problem. Instead, it tells the origin of his relationship with his girlfriend Helen St James, played by Jane Wyman. When they meet, he’s already well and truly in the bottle.
Directed by Billy Wilder, The Lost Weekend was his first big Academy Awards success, bagging four Oscars. Before this, Wilder had made Double Indemnity and would go on to make classics like Sunset Boulevard, Some Like it Hot and The Apartment. And while they all have their own feeling of darkness (Some Like it Hot accepted), The Lost Weekend really did stand out to me as one of his most intimately dark stories. Rarely widening the story beyond central character Don Birnam, his girlfriend and his brother, Wilder somehow creates a grand, high stakes feeling out of a really small story.
Set in New York, with all exteriors shot there, this is a great look at the city, and life in general, almost seventy years ago. It also leads to one of the very few off notes in The Lost Weekend. A struggling writer, Millan attempts to pawn his typewriter for booze money. In a conversation with a Jewish dude, it’s revealed every pawn shop in New York is owned by Jews or Irishmen. I don’t know if this is accurate to the period or a lazy stereotype on the part of Wilder and co-writer Charles Brackett, but watching it in 2013, the exchange really jumped out at me in a not so good way.
The other minor problem I have with The Lost Weekend is the overly tidy, convenient ending. After seeing Millan go through so much and sink so low, the conclusion comes a little too suddenly. And while it doesn’t necessarily give away what his future holds, I thought it made it a little too definite. With a character as complex as Don Birnam, I could have done with just a bit more grey area in his final minutes.