Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The Lost Weekend: November 1945

Billy Wilder, arguably one of the greatest directors of all time and the author of three of the best noirs (Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, and Ace in the Hole), famously claimed that he made The Lost Weekend, which tells the story of an alcoholic writer on a binge, in order to explain Raymond Chandler to himself. How successful it was in that respect I don't know, but it's regarded as one of the best depictions of addition in film, an unflinchingly brutal portrayal of one man's descent into his own personal hell.

The protagonist, Don Birnam, played by Ray Milland (more famous for his role in Dial M for Murder), is a washed-up writer who, despite the best efforts of his long-suffering brother and girlfriend, plunges again and again into the gutter. The story takes place over the course of the titular weekend, following Birnam from the ebullience of his first drinks, down through an inferno of desperation and humiliation to the uttermost nadir, the horror and madness of delerium tremens.

His backstory is told in flashbacks, portraying him, not as a promising writer who fell prey to alcohol, but as a precocious hack who turned to it as a crutch for his inadequacies. Worst of all, he's honest with himself about who he is, roasting perpetually in shame and self-hatred.
Don't wipe it away, Nat. Let me have my little vicious circle. You know, the circle is the perfect geometric figure. No end, no beginning.
Playing the faithful girlfriend, Helen St. James, is Jane Wyman, who went on to become Ronald Reagan's first wife. (Did you remember that he was divorced?) Don treats her like dirt, of course, and her almost maniacally bright and hopeful face as she forcefully cares for him and forgives him again and again almost gives me the creeps. Am I just a cynic, or is this intentional? You almost want to take her by the shoulders and shout, "What are you thinking? Get out while you still can!"

More to my warped taste is Gloria, a barfly/escort who has a liking for Don. She's a relatively minor character, but I like the way she's drawn. The half-fascinated, half-disgusted bartender Nat is a good touch as well. The two actors (Doris Dowling and Howard Da Silva, respectively) also appeared together in The Blue Dahlia.

[Spoiler alert!]

The film ends on a hopeful note that I find quite jarring. Don's binge is portrayed as just the latest in a series, but it resolves itself with the promise of a new beginning. In fact, Don appears to have been "cured" by Helen (who never finds out about his dalliance with Gloria, fortunately). He plans triumphantly to tell his inspirational story in print and thus become a true writer at last. The thing is, I don't think it's ever as easy as that.

Maybe Wilder intends us to imagine this happy ending as just another false hope, the final act in a drama that repeats itself endlessly, and will replay in about two weeks, when Don is once again hiding bottles from his brother while promising that he's still on the wagon. That would certainly make The Lost Weekend the perfect noir. And yet I don't get the feeling that this is what Wilder intends. Which, alas, forces me to view The Lost Weekend as lying somewhere on the periphery of film noir.

* * *

I give The Lost Weekend a grade of B for bueno on the following scale:
  • A: awesome noir film, to be owned and watched a zillion times or until you have it memorized
  • B: good (bueno) noir film with excellent passages but significant flaws, to be watched on occasion
  • C: fairly commonplace noir film, to be watched once or twice
  • D: dud of a noir film, to be avoided if possible
Remember, I'm rating films as films noir, not as films. A great film may be a lousy noir. Despite being a gritty, realistic, psychologically grueling depiction of addiction, and an excellent movie in its own right, The Lost Weekend ends in a way that trivializes how hard it is to overcome addiction, and, more importantly for us, keeps it out of the dark, guilt-sodden heart of true film noir.

High points in The Lost Weekend include the dancing coats and the part where the bat attacks the mouse. Takeaway quote:

"Delirium is a disease of the night. Good night."

*** If you've enjoyed this review, maybe you'd enjoy my reviews of other noir films: IntroductionPhantom LadyDouble IndemnityMurder, My SweetDetourScarlet Street The Blue Dahlia ***

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