Billy Wilder’s classic noir “Double Indemnity” was nominated in seven categories at the 17th Academy Awards in 1945, but didn’t win in any of them. Indeed, Wilder claims to have mischievously stuck out a foot to deliberately trip up Leo McCarey, the man who beat him in the best director category, as he bounded up to the stage to receive his Oscar for the now little remembered Bing Crosby musical “Going My Way”. The following year though, Wilder’s follow-up, “The Lost Weekend”, helped correct this typically perverse (but not uncommon) oversight by the Academy membership; its four major category wins (best picture, best director, best actor and best screenplay) were perhaps all the more appropriate given that the film also saw Wilder collaborating with “Double Indemnity’s” brilliant cinematographer John F. Seitz to equally flawless effect, as well as composer Miklós Rózsa (although Seitz lost out once again, this time to Harry Stradling, and Rózsa’s theremin-tinged score was beaten by that which belonged to Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” – which was probably not quite such a blow to the Hungarian-born composer, since he had written both of them) whose atmospheric music charts newcomer-to-hard-drama Ray Milland’s portrayal of a would-be writer’s struggle with alcoholism across one booze and whisky-soaked binge-weekend in New York city as it takes him to the very edge of the abyss.
Today, few people would probably think of “The Lost Weekend” as existing alongside “Double Indemnity” as an example of Film Noir, although it is interesting to note that Nino Frank, the French film critic who first coined the term after the war, included it as one of five films he grouped together as being indicative of the category. Only later did Film Noir become more strongly associated with the hard boiled thriller tropes that almost exclusively define the term today. But Wilder’s adaptation of Charles R. Jackson’s autobiographical novel -- which saw him collaborating once again with his screenwriting partner Charles Brackett (who’d refused to have anything to do with “Double Indemnity”, as he considered it beneath his talents) -- shares another connection with his previous dark and cynical crime thriller: Wilder adapted Charles M. Cain’s serialised novella with the help of crime writer Raymond Chandler, but the collaboration was not an easy one (despite its artistic success) and Chandler’s relationship with alcohol was a major spur in Wilder’s deciding to take up “The Lost Weekend” as his next project, since he wanted, as Wilder put it ‘to explain Chandler to himself’.
Structured brilliantly as an in-depth character study, the film takes an unsparingly unflattering view of its main subject -- university dropout and failed writer Don Birnam (Milland), chronicling his increasingly desperate need for alcohol and the feelings of inadequacy behind it, as well as the cunningness and the manipulativeness that are born of such chronic addiction, as Birnam goes about attempting to further his quest to obtain his next drink, despite the well-meaning interventions in his journey of self-destruction by his brother (Phillip Terry) and high class girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman), who has devoted herself to trying to straighten him out for the last three years. Wilder and Bracket’s screenplay spirals and circles in on itself like one of the circular rings left by the whisky glasses that stain the varnished bar-top of Birnam’s favourite drinking hole; like them the film has ‘no beginning and no end’ and the passing of time spent by Birnam in an alcoholic fuzz is denoted by their multiplication through frequent lap-dissolves, the film concluding with a sequence that sees the narrative itself coming full circle to end as it began -- with a reverse shot of the film’s opening, which pans along the Manhattan skyline before nosing into Birnam’s Upper East Side apartment. The apparently inescapable spiral into oblivion experienced by the alcoholic, inspires a metaphor which recalls the ‘trolley car’ speech from “Double Indemnity” as a drunken but garrulous Birnam regales the barman with his alkie’s manifesto: ‘you’re on that merry-go-round and you gotta ride it all the way. Round and round till the blasted music wears itself out, and the thing dies down and grinds to a stop.’
Immediately we are presented with a sequence that perfectly encapsulates the relationship between the three leads: Birnam’s brother and Helen are planning a weekend in the country, their latest optimistic idea for helping Don recover after the ‘ordeal’ of being on the wagon for the last ten days; but Don’s mind is all the while fixed on the concealed whisky bottle that’s hanging outside his window by a piece of thin cord. As the sequence goes on, Don attempts to persuade the two that they should make use of the free theatre ticket Helen has been given by the magazine she works for, assuring them that he is completely cured and willing to put back the train trip to the country by a few hours just to accommodate them. His carers know him all too well though; they become suspicious of his motives and his brother discovers the bottle by chance while flicking his cigarette from the upper window. He empties what turns out to have been the last of Don’s concealed bottles down the sink (all the others have previously been discovered and removed from heating grills and from behind couches etc.), leaving Don frustrated and alone at the apartment with no money to pursue his desired course of action, which is to get plastered.
A chance discovery of ten dollars in the sugar bowl, intended to pay the cleaner later in the week, is enough to precipitate the ensuing sojourn among Third Avenue’s rows of saloons, holdout drinking dens and liquor stores, where we discover that Don’s brother has attempted to persuade all of the local salesmen (who know Don on sight) to refuse Birnam’s custom, and the proprietor of his favourite Bar, Nats (Howard Da Silva), to try to convince him to go home should he materialise. But Birnam is equally crafty -- even topping up his paper bag, containing the two bottles of rye whisky he’s managed to procure, with some apples, in a futile attempt to prevent passers-by informing on him to Helen and his brother. He misses the train he was meant to catch, and sneaks back to his rooms through a back door while Helen paces out front waiting for him. He then hides one of the bottles in the lamp shade under the light fitting; but after finishing off the other bottle in one sitting (the camera signals the ensuing blackout by appearing to actually descend into the shot glass as the image dissolves amid the jet black liquor) and another jaunt to Nat’s bar, he forgets where he actually put it!
Ray Milland’s striking central performance dominates proceedings but is rendered all the more effective by its being framed through the prism of John F. Seitz’s earthy photographic portrait of 1940s New York, which takes a photo-realist montage approach to the city’s depiction -- Wilder even resorting to the use of hidden cameras (one of the first instances of such a device in mainstream film) to shoot Milland stumbling around the streets of Manhattan from a bakery van, while real members of the public hurry past all around -- although the use of back projection during some sequences only just survives dating the film thanks to its ability to be viewed as an visualisation of the drunkard’s dissociative state. This material makes the movie seem as compelling a social document as it is drama: such a grim and gritty approach, with unvarnished real-life store fronts and sundry New York Streets vying with authentic-looking drinking establishments for our attention, effectively contextualises Don Birnam’s descent into an increasingly nightmarish delirium, marked by its frequent recourse to chronic self-deception (he tries to persuade himself that he only needs a bottle with him in order to provide himself with reassurance, rather than for it to be consumed) and, eventually, the beginnings of moral degeneracy. After drinking away the money he stole from his brother, he first attempts to pawn his own typewriter after writers’ block yet again curtails his efforts to start on his much vaunted novel (a ‘confessions of a booze addict-style’ fictional memoir entitled ‘The Bottle’); so wracked by withdrawal symptoms is he that he can barely walk upright, yet, in one of the film’s several painfully effective depictions of addiction withdrawal, he manages to stumble through town to a succession of pawn shops only to find each of them shuttered and closed. Fearing it might be a Sunday (for so disorientated is he that he no longer knows for sure what the day is) he eventually learns that they are all shut for Yom Kippur – even the non-Jewish ones -- because of an informal agreement between the various chains to observe each-others’ religious holidays.
One of the most skilfully realised sequences sees Birnam gate-crashing a sophisticated cocktail bar and being discovered attempting to lift the handbag of the woman seated next to him. Eventually he manages to appeal to the pity of a sympathetic acquaintance -- a call girl who frequents Nat’s Bar -- the willowy brunette Gloria (notably played by Doris Dowling, who followed up this debut ‘tart with a heart’ role with an appearance in the classic George Marshall Film Noir “The Blue Dalia” opposite Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake) who has something of crush on him but only ever sees him merry and drunk in the full flow of his alcohol induced loquaciousness. He stumbles on the stairs to her apartment after tapping her for money and wakes up in the alcoholics’ ward of Bellevue Hospital, where he witnesses patients in the terrifying throes of their delirium tremens. This is where the movie most resembles the classic Noir thrillers we associate the term with today: indeed, this section of the film plays like a Val Lewton terror picture -- full of striking shadow-laced imagery as the sinister nurse who calls himself Bim (Frank Faylen) taunts Birnam in a manner that suggests he derives enjoyment from seeing these helpless cases destroy themselves, and assuring Birnam, as he leads him among the wards while gleefully recounting case after case of hopeless horrors, that he’ll be back among them before too long. Escaping the ominous hospital, penniless in the middle of the night, Birnam then threatens a liquor store owner opposite a church until he hands over a bottle of rye for free lest Birnam turn violent. Then, even more nightmarish, is his own subsequent descent into delirium, when he experiences surreal hallucinations inside his darkened flat (some have compared the style of this horrific sequence to “Repulsion” by Roman Polanski) in which a squeaking dormouse appears to emerge from a previously unseen hole in his apartment wall, only to be pounced upon by a phantasmagorical bat that swoops down from the ceiling, whereupon blood splutters out of the gap in the plaster and oozes horribly down the wall!
Birnam’s drink-fuelled excesses play like an increasingly desperate picaresque of mishap, self-pity and forgetfulness, but Wilder and Brackett punctuate the woozy descent with several lengthy flashback sequences, recalled by the boozy Birnam at Nat’s Bar, which take us back to three years before the present events to his first meeting with his devoted girlfriend Helen, and the key developments that subsequently come to define their relationship. This meeting, ironically enough, occurs after a staging of Verdi’s opera La Traviata, when Birnam becomes so distracted by the onstage bibulousness taking place during the famous Libiamo ne'lieti calici (or Drinking Song) that he starts imagining the performers as a collection of disembodied raincoats -- their pockets bulging with whisky bottles. His attempt to leave the performance early is thwarted by a mix up over coat-tickets that results in him being left in the possession of a woman’s leopard-skin print coat rather than his own mac (which contains the bottle he was reminded off constantly during the performance). He has to wait until the end of the show in order to exchange coats with the true owner – which turns out to be Helen.
Despite his initial rudeness (Birnam is of course anxious to get away and consume his concealed bottle of rye) he decides to accompany her to a cocktail reception (after his bulky whisky Bottle falls out of his pocket and smashes on the sidewalk) and the relationship develops as Birnam at first manages to persuade himself that love has overcome his addiction. Soon though, the pressure of trying to live up to the expectations of Helen’s wealthy and socially conscious parents re-awaken his old preoccupation with the bottle and he runs out on a planned dinner with her folks to get drunk at his apartment. We learn that up till now, Birnam’s brother Wick has always tried to cover for him; indeed, he attempts to concoct a tall tale to explain to Helen why Don couldn’t show up for dinner with her parents, even claiming that the empty whisky bottles secreted around the apartment are his own. When Helen discovers the truth, though, it’s telling that she becomes even more enamoured of Don, and resolves to make it her life’s mission to help him cure himself.
In the short video introduction Alex Cox provides as an extra for this Blu-ray release, he points out how, to a modern audience, Helen and Wick come across as what in contemporary parlance are termed ‘enablers’, protecting Don from the consequences of his actions and unwittingly allowing them to continue, indulging his addiction through constantly attempting to cover up for him, even as they try to encourage him to give up the booze. Helen in particular seems to derive great satisfaction from the maternal nature of her role, which their relationship seems to engender. It wasn’t picked up on in many reviews at the time, which saw the film purely as a hard hitting expose of a great social problem, but it’s typical of the cynical attitude so often expressed in Wilder’s cinema, especially coming straight after a movie like “Double Indemnity”. Jane Wyman is a deeply likable presence in the picture even if her role becomes ambiguous as the film reaches the highly unconvincing final act during which Don sobers up enough to plan his suicide, but is talked out of it at the last moment by Helen, who then comes up with the idea of Don turning their story into the subject matter of his much-talked-about-but-never-started novel. Thus the movie’s striking circular structure, as we realise that we’ve just been watching an account of the very piece that Don, now hopeful and sober again, is about to write in order to free himself of his demons.
Of course, this being Wilder, we might well consider if this apparently happy ending is as straightforward as it at first appears, since we have no reason to believe that this attempt at an escape into art will be any more successful than any of Don’s previous attempts at writing, and the pronounced circular structure of the movie, which ends with the camera exiting from the very same apartment window it first entered, and panning back along the same Manhattan skyline on which the film opened, suggests that merry-go-round cycle of addiction and recovery continuing to revolve without apparent end, until the gun hidden in the sink one day really does cause it to ‘die down and grind to a stop’ for good.
“The Lost Weekend” looks simply stunning in HD, with a superb high contrast transfer and beautifully rendered detail bringing renewed appreciation for John F. Seitz’s superb black & white photography. The disc comes with English subtitles for the hard of hearing, a short video appreciation by filmmaker Alex Cox, a trailer and a three hour (yes … three hours!!) documentary, “Billy … How Did You Do It” which was screened for the BBC in three parts as part of its ARENA arts strand in 1992. It features Berlin-based filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff, director of “The Tin Drum”, in extended conversation with Wilder as he covers every stage of his Hollywood career up to “The Apartment”. This excellent disc also comes with the usual high quality Masters of Cinema booklet featuring an erudite review by screenwriter Chris Cairns; “Delirium Tremens: Novel, Screenplay, Film” which examines Ray Milland’s hallucination sequence in its various forms to tease out the creative input Wilder and Brackett brought to it in their adaptation from the original novel. Finally, a ‘damage limitation’ advertising campaign from the time, sponsored by Seagrams in response to the film’s depiction of alcoholism, is reproduced.
Milland’s truthful portrait of the deception and cunning involved in alcohol addiction continues to resonate, even if the film is more stylised through its Noir associations than we would expect of such subject matter today. Wilder’s direction is superlative though and the literate screenplay, once again, word perfect. This is another highly recommended release, which also makes for a perfect companion to Eureka’s “Double Indemnity” Blu-ray. Buy them both!