Don't tell Judge Paul Pritchard he's had enough; he can quit anytime he likes!
Our review of The Lost Weekend, published May 8th, 2001, is also available.
"We're both trying. You're trying not to drink and I'm trying not to love you.
In truth, The Lost Weekend was lucky to see the light of day. Based on the novel of the same name by Charles R. Jackson, The Hays Code considered unfilmable due to its subject matter, which tackled alcoholism and homosexuality. Despite this, a reluctant studio, and an alleged attempt by the liquor industry to buy the film for $5 Million so they could bury it; writer/director Billy Wilder (Sunset Boulevard) pressed on and delivered a movie that won Abest picture, actor, screenplay, and director at the 1946 Academy Awards.
Now, thanks to Eureka Entertainment, The Lost Weekend is available on Region B Blu-ray.
Facts of the Case
Don Birnam (Ray Milland, Dial M for Murder) is an author living in New York City. Don is also an alcoholic, who's struggled for years to get a grip on his addiction. In an attempt to take Don away from the vices of the Big Apple, his brother Wick (Philip Terry, Bataan) has arranged for a weekend away in the country. But when he spies an opportunity to avoid the trip, Don goes on a four-day bender, which sees him hit rock bottom and risk forever alienating those who have stood by him.
During the Billy, How Did You Do It? documentary that sits amongst the extras on this Blu-ray release, Billy Wilder remarks how one should keep a shot simple, otherwise risk losing the audience; the inference being that if the viewer is too taken aback by the technical merits of a shot—so much so they are left wondering how it was done—the story loses their attention. Yet it's through the technical brilliance of The Lost Weekend's opening shot that we are informed of Don Birnam's alcoholism before a word is even spoken. Opening on the New York skyline, the camera slowly pans across the city, before the windows of an apartment fill the screen. In the same take, the camera fixes on one particular window and gently zooms in. What first grabs our attention is the figure in the window, Don Birnam, back turned to the camera; but suddenly there's something dangling from the window. Wilder wanted the viewer clued into Birnam's addiction immediately, so his dialogue could flow naturally without having to force a line that explicitly addresses his alcoholism. As such, Wilder had a bottle of whisky, tied to a piece of string, dangling from Birnam's bedroom window. Not only does this inform us he's an alcoholic, it also tells us he is devious in his attempts to hide this problem from his loved ones.
From thereon in, The Lost Weekend paints a stark portrait of alcoholism, depicting the effects on the sufferer as well as their family and friends. This was the first time Hollywood had seriously addressed the issue, with most drunks being utilized for comedic value. But here we are presented with a life—that of a talented and learned man—being frittered away. Every move and suggestion made by Don is scrutinized by his brother, Wick, who has learned only too well how Don will manipulate any given situation to get his next drink. As the brothers prepare for their weekend away, Wick is at the end of his rope, to such an extent he ultimately washes his hands of Don. Through conversations with Helen, Don's "best girl", we come to understand the lengths Wick has gone to first hide his brother's addiction, and later break him out of it. Wick's walking out is not born from a lack of sympathy; rather it comes from his refusal to watch a loved one drink himself into an early grave. Helen, on the other hand, has refused to give up on Don…at least so far. Despite seeing Don at his worst, she still sees the good in him, and is anxious to help, resulting in a harrowing scene where Helen finally realizes how desperate Don has become to rid himself of his demons.
Don's descent into his own personal Hell takes him to a hospital ward for drunks. Like a horror movie, these scenes are filled with blood curdling screams of men begging for just one more drink, as the DTs take their toll. Events continue down this darker path, as Don—an amiable enough chap—takes on an aggressive persona, before suffering terrifying hallucinations that see his sanity pushed to breaking point.
There's a wonderful flow to Wilder's screenplay, which makes clever use of flashbacks to fill us in on Birnam's past misdemeanors. His dialogue is never flashy, as it maintains a naturalness that is fitting considering its harsh subject matter. In fact, the film's climax, likely a by-product of the demands placed upon the studio by The Hays Code, hints at a happy ending. Thanks to Wilder's good sense, it remains only a hint, and Birnam hasn't gone completely teetotal by the time the end credits roll. This ensures the conclusion stays true to the tone set early on in the picture. As it stands, following a particularly dark episode, Don is given a second chance that may lead to his ultimate salvation. There's something almost joyful in seeing Milland look with utter disdain at a glass of whisky and drop a spent cigarette into it. Yet we are all too aware that one slip, one knock on his confidence, and Don could quite easily fall again.
Ray Milland's performance is remarkable. The moment he first escapes the gaze of his brother, making his way to the local bar, sees him positively beaming with glee. His interactions with others are, initially, extremely pleasant and we are presented with a warm, almost lovable drunk. But thanks to Wilder's writing, Milland is able to convey the darker side of alcoholism, and as he spirals out of control, becoming a pathetic figure. The final moments of the film, which I won't spoil for those who have not yet seen it, showcase stony-faced Milland and the true extent of Don's problem laid bare for all to see.
Presented in 1.37:1/1080p high definition full frame, The Lost Weekend looks resplendent. The transfer offer a good level of detail, and is (with the odd exception) quite sharp. There is some evidence of damage to the print, but never in excessive amounts. The DTS-HD 1.0 Master Audio track offers crisp dialogue complemented by composer Miklos Rozsa's fine musical score.
In terms of bonus features, filmmaker Alex Cox (Repo Man) provides an introduction to the film, which allows him to give voice to his love for The Lost Weekend, and in particular the character of Bim, whom Birnam meets during his hospital stay. Stars Ray Milland and Jane Wyman reprise their roles for the (audio only) Screen Guild Theatre's radio adaptation. By far the best of the extras is the three part "Billy, How Did You Do It?" documentary, originally aired on the BBC in 1992 as part of their Arena program. In it, German filmmaker Volker Schlondorff discusses his admiration for Wilder's work, before going on to interview the man himself. Clocking in at 3-hours, this doc offers wonderful insight into how an oft-celebrated filmmaker went about his trade. The package is rounded out by the film's original theatrical trailer.
With fantastic acting, writing, and direction, The Lost Weekend is the complete package. Milland's performance is such that—for as much as we might despise his selfish actions—we come to understand why his loved ones would stand by him. It is that investment in the characters that really stands out, and earns this picture a spot in upper echelon of cinematic history.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Eureka Entertainment
Review content copyright © 2012 Paul Pritchard; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.