Tag Archives: 1940s

59. The Lost Weekend – Billy Wilder (1945)

First Viewing.

If Billy Wilder were a band he’d be The Beatles, just take a look at some of the hits in his back catalogue; Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Sabrina, The Seven Year Itch, Witness for the Prosecution, The Apartment, and, of course, Some like it Hot. Three of those films, Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, and Witness for the Prosecution all could make a great case for being in my own personal favourite top ten. Wilder really was a true master of his craft. The Lost Weekend is one of his earlier films, and, I find, his earlier work to be more daring than the later stuff which was more mainstream and safe, by comparison. (The reverse of what The Beatles did!)

The plot of The Lost Weekend is fairly simple and doesn’t have any major twists or turns; we follow the life of Don Birnam, played by Ray Milland, and he, plain and simple, is a drunk. A drunk, but with aspirations to be a writer. We follow his life and the depths to which it sinks; stealing, begging and lying just to get himself a drink. We see alcohol corrupt his life to such an extent that nothing matters any more except where and when he can get his next fix. He does have one saving grace, his girlfriend, Helen, devoted to him beyond all reason. She believes in him, and his ability to conquer the booze, and to write that great American novel. Don also has the help of his brother, Wick, who has cleared up plenty of Don’s mess over the past few years, literally and metaphorically. Wick’s on the verge of giving up on Don though, Don’s about to hit rock bottom. And, this lost weekend, is Don losing it completely.

There’s a lot to like about this film; it’s not overtly sentimental, it doesn’t sugarcoat alcoholism, and, most importantly for me, it does it’s best to avoid a clichéd and obvious ending. Wilder and Milland do a fantastically adept job of making us dislike and pity Don Birnam, but we never hate him. His character has no obvious redeeming characteristics – he treats his girlfriend, brother and acquaintances like shit- but we root for him, even though we really shouldn’t. That’s the great thing about this film, we want him to get better, and go on to be a success. It wouldn’t work if we gave up on the guy. The downside to the film is that it’s not exactly uplifting! The idea of watching a man drink himself to the verge of death for 90 minutes isn’t ever going to be fun. There are times when watching Don’s drunken antics can become predictable and boring, but these moments are rare enough that it doesn’t detract from the bigger picture that Wilder is painting. At times Wilder is really pushing the boundaries of 1940s filmmaking. The Lost Weekend has an almost dangerous, illicit feel to it. You never feel comfortable, anything could happen when Don’s on screen.

I wouldn’t call The Lost Weekend a hidden treasure, it’s an Oscar winner for starters, it is, however, one of the slightly lesser known Wilder movies, and yet equally as worthy as any of the others for a viewing. It makes for a great late night watch especially, go check your TV guides for it’s next appearance.

Marks out of ten – Eight

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46. Brief Encounter – David Lean (1945)

Repeat viewing.

England may not have as fine a tradition of cinematic excellence as some other European countries, I’m thinking France mainly here, but we do have a fair amount of great movies that capture our country exquisitely, and none more so than Brief Encounter. If England were ever needed to be represented by a movie to be shown to visitors from a galaxy far, far away then you couldn’t pick anything more suitable than this. It’s what I loved about this country. It’s charming, witty, and beautifully sad. It captures a country recovering from war and entering into a period of great change and the two main characters, Laura and Alec, capture this moment perfectly. Both are married, both, it would seem, love their partner, and both have fallen in love with each other. They want each other, but know the consequences of running off together are terrible in the eyes of society. It’s the eternal question, should one do what one wants or should one do what is considered right? The films follows the characters as they make their choices. Of course being English and living in the 1940s they, Alec and Laura, cannot possibly confess their love of another person to any of their friends or acquaintances, they have appearances to uphold, and that famous stiff upper lip to adhere to, so nearly everything we hear on the subject of love is from the inner monologue of Laura. It works rather well here, but it isn’t exactly the best way to tell a film and this technique would crash and burn in other films, especially ones much less charming than this.

This film, as you may or may not know, was written by one of the legends of English playwright history, Noel Coward, the Shakespeare of his day, except he’d be more likely to be found with a Martini  in his hand rather than a goblet of red wine. Coward creates a beautiful script with such perfect dialogue that it left myself pining for the days when the people of this country spoke with eloquence and wit, not the bastard love-child of Dick Van Dyke and Ali G we’re left with instead. I also cannot finish this review without mentioning the director, David Lean, another shining star in English history. The direction is so perfect here that one barely even notices the lack of set-pieces and how this film really is a play at it’s heart.

Marks out of ten – Eight

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