Don Birnham’s (Ray Milland) life can be likened to The Bottle that defines his life: at first he could sustain himself with a couple of drinks down the bottleneck, but then he couldn’t control himself as he cascaded down to the comfortable middle, where he swirled around until that one bender, that one weekend that pushed him all the way to the bottom, when enough was enough and he wouldn’t have a drop more. That was his lost weekend, four days down the rabbit hole of desperation and desolation until he could finally see the light on the other side.
The Lost Weekend is the kind of film that you would expect as a counterbalance to a society plagued by the Prohibition and then World War II one after the other, we know that alcohol and depression don’t mix well together. Throw in a couple of gangsters and a femme fatale and you’ve got yourself a noir. Its plot is extremely minimalistic, almost like a flow chart, as it follows Birnham through each step down into the drunken abyss, the reverse of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. The people that surround Birnham are either strangers to him, or they know him too well, like his brother Wick (Phillip Terry) and his favorite bartender Nat (Howard Da Silva). Or they believe in a side of him that he doesn’t believe exists anymore, like his girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman). It’s a setting that reeks of the odor of the cheapest rye (the only kind that Birnham will have, both out of necessity and because he’s not an alcohol connoisseur, he’s a drunk bum), the world of the alcoholic, a world of shattered dreams and no self-esteem.
This is one of the first films to accurately depict the life of an alcoholic because its based on author Charles Jackson’s real-life lost weekend. Notice that Birnham only drinks booze in the film (even in the flashbacks), nothing else, nor does he ever eat anything. The pain that we feel for him stems from the familiarity of it all, the vicious circle that he goes through again and again, unable to find a way out, his life defined by that addictive high. Is he even aware of the things that he does to get some more booze? Even if he did, does it matter when the bottle, his one true savior that whisks him away from harsh reality puts him back in Paradise, as encapsulated by the scene where he discovers his spare reserve lying in his ceiling light, the light projecting the bottle as an otherworldly being, a savior that really leads him to his doom? The doom that we see him go through brings the film closer to horror than to drama (see: phantasmagoria).
Although the film doesn’t get preachy, we all know it’s anti-alcohol; the alcohol industry reportedly offered Paramount Pictures $5 million to not release the film. This tone is reflected in the ending, where Birnham finally comes to his senses and decides to give up drinking. The idea of such an ending is logical: had Birnham gone through the weekend and remained an alcoholic, it would have been much too bleak, but the few events that get him to that point don’t provide enough of an impact considering how far he had already fallen. Nonetheless, it’s a minor gripe.
The core conflict that feeds Birnham’s need for alcohol is his writer’s block, but what’s interesting is that in the book it stems from his troubled bisexuality. On hindsight, the latter is the more powerful conflict, but not the one that is easier to resolve. It also feeds into the whole stereotype of the troubled writer that takes to alcoholism, or is it the stereotype that makes the backstory more plausible?
Ultimately, this is a brave and unflinching film for its time and it brings to mind similar films of varying degrees of addiction, specifically Leaving Las Vegas. And it totally deserves the praise it got back in the day.
Film: The Lost Weekend
Year it won: 1946 (Grand Prix du Festival International du Film)
Director: Billy Wilder