The Lost Weekend

THE LOST WEEKENDwhere are my keys, and uh, sorry, who are you? Most of us, if you’ve bothered to be alive while living, have passed a lost weekend, likely more than one. But hopefully they haven’t been as bat-devours-mouse awful as the one experienced by a self-blocked writer in the famous 1945 mood mangler, the first movie to tackle alcoholism as a condition being less than adorably tipsy fun. Down this rotgut, have a nightcap with Days Of Wine And Roses, then hair-of-the-dog via Leaving Las Vegas: sorrow-killing will seem more like slo-motion suicide.

Booze-plagued writer (or would-be) ‘Don Birnam’ (Ray Milland) bails out of a getaway weekend with his brother and also skips a concert date with girlfriend ‘Helen’ (Jane Wyman). They quickly realize what’s up, since Don’s previous attempts to dry out have dried up. The brother is done, Helen vainly hopes Don will man-up. Plowed into pathetic desperation, Don undergoes a nightmare stalk through New York City that eventually entails an enforced stay at Bellevue Hospital. Family, relationships and bridges burned, humiliation and hallucinations arrive.

Piqued by whipping thru the 244-page best-seller novel by Charles R. Jackson, director Billy Wilder, fresh off his noir triumph Double Indemnity, reteamed with scenarist Charles Brackett (their 15th of 16 collaborations) and went against type to cast “nice guy” Milland as the selfish, self-pitying souse. Studio execs balked at the depressing subject matter, the liquor industry fumed to the point of a secret offer to Paramount to buy the negative prints for $5,000,000, and at a preview, the audience response was overwhelmingly negative. After a new music score was substituted, and positive critical reviews came in, the movie went from nearly being shelved to become 1945’s 17th biggest moneymaker, grossing $9,500,000, a generous tip against the cost tab of $1,300,000. When the Oscars rolled around the (sobering) drama bought one on the house, winning Best Picture, Actor for Milland, Director and Screenplay. Further nominations went to the Cinematography, Film Editing and Music Score (Miklos Rózsa lost to himself, for Spellbound).

Unless they’re downright tragic, memories of weekends best left lost can mist over, and much of the film’s original 181-proof kick has diminished over time, leaving it mainly as a check-list item on the “groundbreakers” menu, certainly laudable for time & place intent, career-best work from Milland and still-queasy moments when Don’s rye-ridden imagination sees things that aren’t there.

What doesn’t hold up as well is the script’s insistence on making Don’s long-winded flights of self-impressed oratorical fancy ring true (Milland saddled with delivering them), a crucial lack of showing enough of his good side (he’s a jerk from the start) to see why he’d attract Helen’s attention let alone devotion (Wyman never looked better), or why others would put up with him. Though the great Miklos Rózsa provided an initially effectively eerie musical motif, using a theremin to suggest despairing sickness, it’s poured on to the point of exhaustion: like the guy the theme spirals around, it’s one more for the road by a pint.

With Howard Da Silva (patiently pestered bartender ‘Nat’), Philip Terry (fed-up brother ‘Wick’), Doris Dowling (debut, as a hopeful b-girl), Frank Faylen (sadistic nurse ‘Bim’) and Douglas Spencer (wildly losing it as the beetles-besieged d.t. sufferer in the Bellevue ward). *

               Doris Dowling, 1923-2004

* Alluring in an offbeat way (fab eyes), starlet Doris Dowling was the married-but-straying Wilder’s girlfriend at the time. Besides later being bandleader Artie Shaw’s 7th of eight wives (paging Ava Gardner, Lana Turner and Evelyn Keyes), Dowling’s spotty career included parts in the Alan Ladd noir fave The Blue Dahlia (Wikihooeyia blabs she was six inches taller, which would make Ladd 4’6″—who submitted this idiocy and WTF let it pass? FYI, Ladd was 5’6″), the Italian neo-realist classic Bitter Rice and the Orson Welles version of Othello. As a stand-up gal (albeit a veiled hooker) who soused Milland stands up, she’s very good in The Lost Weekend.

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