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