Billy Wilder, The Lost Weekend (1945)

Norman N. Holland

Enjoying:   Watch the many instances of lying, fictions, and imagination.

    Billy Wilder made this an important film about alcoholism. He was drawing on his experience trying to work on Double Indemnity with Raymond Chandler, an alcoholic. Before The Lost Weekend, Hollywood treated alcoholics as comic, and actors could make a career doing funny drunks: W.C. Fields or Franklin Pangborn or Jack Norton. In the last words of this movie, the protagonist laments that alcoholics are “such comical figures to the rest of the world, as they stagger blindly towards another binge, another bender, another spree . . . . ” Lost Weekend changed all that and evoked a slew of even more grim movies about alcoholism like Smash-Up, the Story of a Woman (Heisler, 1947), I’ll Cry Tomorrow (Mann, 1955), Days of Wine and Roses (Edwards, 1962), Leaving Las Vegas (Figgis, 1995), et al.

    Curiously, reviewers of Lost Weekend thought it a horror story, horror films being popular in the 1940s. Indeed the hero or anti-hero even calls it that: “Morbid stuff. Nothing for the Book-of-the Month Club. A horror story.” And Ray Milland, playing the alcoholic writer Don Birnam, does fascinating things with his eyes. They dart this way and that as he imagines lies for getting whiskey. He looks almost maniacal, in the grip of the true furor poeticus, which just might be the real theme of this film.

    The anti-hero, Don Birnam, drinks because he can’t write. He can’t get past the first paragraph of a novel or story or the first act of a play. Ah, but when he drinks— “But what does it do to my mind? . . . Suddenly, I’m above the ordinary. I’m competent, supremely competent . . . . I’m one of the great ones. I’m Michelangelo molding the beard of Moses . . . . I’m W. Shakespeare.” Lost Weekend, then, is about alcoholism, but it’s also about imagination.

    As ever, the opening sequence says it. Don Birnam is supposed to go on a four-day weekend with brother Wick (Phillip Terry). Instead he’s inventing all kinds of excuses to get an afternoon alone to drink. He is exercising his imagination big time, and he does so all through the movie. Later, he will make up lies to avoid meeting his girlfriend’s parents. He desperately tries to hock his typewriter, his machine for creating fictions, to get booze. He will suffer imaginary visions from DTs. All through the film, he is trying to write a novel, but his imagination goes instead into witty dialogue in Nat’s bar and schemes for getting whiskey. In the finale, he returns to writing his novel which will be the story of this lost weekend. At that point, the film turns reflexive. This film is the fiction that Don Birnam is creating. In that respect, Lost Weekend mimics Wilder’s Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard where the whole film is the protagonist’s flashback.

    As opposed to the fictions, there are the hard realities Don Birnam faces, like money. He is constantly improvising tricks to get money to buy booze, even stealing from the cleaning lady or a woman next to him at a restaurant. Another reality is the sadistic nurse Bim (Frank Faylen) who describes the actuality of alcohol addiction, the recurrence, the physical damage, the shame, and especially the DTs. Helen (Jane Wyman) also stands for reality, as does brother Wick. But all of them are simply obstacles that Don Birnam must overcome to get whiskey.

    Wilder is working characteristic themes. Identity problems: Don Birnam assures his girlfriend that there are two Don Birnams, the writer and the drunk. She is Helen St. James (with maybe a reference to the St. James Infirmary Blues, also about addiction). Another theme: sex and money entangled: Don begs for money from bar-girl Gloria (Doris Dowling, Wilder’s mistress at the time). She hankers after him and, against her better judgment, gives him five dollars. Another Wilder theme is the intelligent man “seduced” by an intelligent woman: here we see Helen trying to manage Don and, in the end, perhaps succeeding. While he is imagining lies, her job is fact-checking for Time magazine. Wilder was interested in male friendship like that between Neff and Keyes in Double Indemnity. Here that relationship is between Don and his brother Wick (Philip Terry). “My brother’s keeper,” he occupies the friend spot. But in the course of this film, he gets fed up and walks out.

    Also, Wilder was playing his usual tricks with the studio system. In the eponymous and best-selling novel from which the movie was made, author Charles Jackson attributed the drinking problem (his own) to conflict over homosexual tendencies. This being the era of the Production Code, you couldn’t say that in a movie. Wilder moved the homosexuality to the nurse in the drunk ward, the flagrant and sadistic Bim. And it got by.

    All through, Wilder played another of his recurring themes: people or things being in the wrong place or, sometimes, time. It’s announced in the opening and closing shots, the whiskey bottle hanging outside the apartment window. That whole sequence involves misplaced people, Don supposed to go to the country, sending Wick off to the concert with Helen, Don ending up in Nat’s bar. Earlier, at the opera, topcoats in the wrong places brought Don and Helen together. Then, in the hotel lobby, he was in the wrong place and heard Helen’s parents speculating about him. Wrong time: trying to find a pawnshop on Yom Kippur. We are shown all the strange places in the apartment where Don Birnam would hide his bottles, finally homing in on the ceiling light. When he begs money from Gloria, a little girl playing on the staircase (naughty! naughty!) makes him fall and end up in a very wrong place indeed, the drunk ward at Bellevue. After the DTs he puts Helen’s leopard skin coat in a pawnshop. Finally, he indicates his possible cure by putting a cigarette out in a glass of whiskey. The whole series of misplaced people and things (and there are no doubt more) suggests a persistent pattern in Wilder’s imagination, perhaps stemming from his own refugee status.

    Wilder, as I read this film, also put in a lot of small symbolic touches. One of the most conspicuous is Helen’s leopard skin coat. It fits Jane Wyman’s faintly cat-like cheekbones, but there must be more to it than that. It appears in scene after scene, and it plays doubly in the plot. It was what caused Don and Helen to meet, in a “meet-cute” in the manner of Lubitsch, Wilder's idol. At the end it is what he pawns to buy a gun to commit suicide. Why might Wilder have made a leopard skin coat stand out so? (It’s written specifically into the screenplay by Wilder and Charles Brackett.) I think that Wilder is being ironical here. The coat was supposed to camouflage and protect the leopard, but didn’t. The unfortunate leopard was caught, and so was Helen, snared into this ill-fated relationship in the “concrete jungle,” trapped by this very skin. Another little touch is the conspicuous old-fashioned hearing aid Helen’s father wears. He doesn’t hear, though; it is the unfortunately placed Don who overhears him and makes his escape. Then there are the rings on Nat’s bar that mark how many drinks Don has had and which please him: vicious circles. Wilder, a brilliant filmmaker, must have put in dozens of other such details awaiting the assiduous critic.

    He put in so many film styles, you might think he was just showing off his virtuosity. Critics call Lost Weekend film noir although there are only a few actual night scenes. But there are a lot of dark scenes in interiors, in Wick’s apartment, in the drunk ward, but notably in Nat’s Bar. (The studio built an exact replica of P. J. Clarke’s famous bar at 55th and Third.) Don’s delirium tremens gave Wilder a chance for more film noir and a touch of surrealism. The scene at the opera with the row of raincoats swaying like the row of singers suggests German expressionism, especially the double exposure revealing the whiskey bottle in the coat pocket. Surrealism comes in with Don’s hallucinating in his DTs a bat (Die Fledermaus?) eating a mouse. Much of the film, like that sequence, uses point of view: we see events through Don Birnam’s eyes. But it is we who watch hungover Don walk an agonizing two-and-a-half miles lugging his typewriter up Third Avenue looking for a pawnshop open on Yom Kippur. We watch him in a wonderful piece of documentary street photography, the cameras hidden in delivery trucks and piles of boxes.

    That sequence is realism, but composer Miklós Rózsa brings in the surreal with the theremin, an electronic instrument yielding weird high-pitched notes that slide into one another. Rózsa used it to mark when the craving takes over Don Birnam’s mind. Birnam describes it this way: “Somebody began to look over my shoulder and whisper, in a thin, clear voice like the E-string on a violin.” Rózsa had already made the first use in movies of the theremin in Spellbound (Hitchcock, 1945), but Lost Weekend was released first.

    More conventional music turns up in the script several times. The opening involves Don avoiding a symphonic concert, wonderfully rendered in the subtitles as “Bob Roller’s conducting, Brahms’ Second Symphony, some Beethoven, Handel, and not one note of Greek.” (There’s a picture of Brahms on the wall in Wick’s apartment.) Then there’s Don’s attending the opera and the “Libiamo” scene from La Traviata bringing on an uncontrollable thirst. I think music of this familiar kind highlights Don’s problems with writing. Opera and concert—these are well-known pieces and you play them or act them or sing them. You don’t have to make them up. Making up stories is what drives Don Birnam to drink, although he is clever enough at creating stories when he’s trying to score a bottle of rye.

    Overall, Don’s ordeal follows the pattern of the “monomyth” or the hero’s journey, Joseph Campbell’s famous adaptation of Jungian psychology to describe a recurring pattern in all kinds of myths and folktales. In its fullest form it has 17 stages, but Campbell summarized it this way: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

    Here, it is a monomyth failed. Don treks up Third Avenue, finding all the pawnshops are closed. “Somebody passed away, most likely.” Don Birnam’s death symbolically. After cadging a drink from Nat the bartender and $5 from Gloria the bar girl, he descends, falling down the stairs. He enters the underworld in the form of the drunk ward at Bellevue, “hangover plaza,” a region of supernatural dreams, presided over by the devilish Bim. The only victory he wins there is to escape. He does score a victory over a liquor store owner, bluffing a bottle from him. Then he finds the same horrifying visions at home that the drunk ward provided. We have had a death-and-rebirth—but a rebirth into the same torment. Still later, Helen pries his gun from him, and he is “saved.” He and Helen combine the two Don Birnams into one, and he settles down to write his novel.

    The finale thus confronts us once again with the problem of imagination. Don Birnam stubs a cigarette out in a glass of whiskey—now he can’t drink it. Is he cured? Is this a happy ending? In that final sequence he goes back to his old tricks, imagining fictions. Grinning enthusiastically, he fantasies his novel finished and published. He thinks of himself sending copies of his books to people, and he envisions a pile of his books in a bookstore window—all imaginary. People read the finale as optimistic, a touch of old Hollywood, a happy ending. I don’t think so, and neither did Wilder: “When Birnam promises his girl that he is going to stop drinking, this is really not a happy ending at all. He says he will try not to drink anymore.” Alas, we know more about alcoholism and addiction these days. It will take more than trying and the love of a good woman to cure Don Birnam.

    The film ends by reversing its opening shot: Don remembers (re-imagines) his packing for a trip but thinking of the hidden bottle hanging out the window, and Wilder reverses the long pan across some New York skyscrapers. Birnam in voice-over hopes for sympathy, not scorn, for the alcoholics “in that great big concrete jungle.” The real and the fictional again, with no real resolution to this alcoholic’s other addiction, imagining.

    Lost Weekend garnered a slew of Oscars, seven nominations and four wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay (Adapted). Privately Wilder said it got so many awards because the Academy regretted that it had slighted Double Indemnity the year before (favoring the Bing Crosby vehicle, Leo McCarey’s Going My Way instead!). Double Indemnity seems to me better than Lost Weekend, certainly more enjoyable. Watching a man’s addiction and decline is no fun, no matter how skillfully rendered. But Lost Weekend surely shows Wilder’s genius in scene after scene as he ever so ingeniously turns the alcoholic’s plight into gems of moviemaking. Don Birnam’s imagination may lead to tragedy, but Billy Wilder’s leads to triumph.

An item I’ve referred to:

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1949. 23.

The opening sequence

The opening sequence (cont.)

Don and Wick Birnam

Helen: the love of a good woman

The pain of watching others drink

The rack of empty raincoats

Meeting Helen

The terrifying parents

The pawnshops are all closed

 Bim and Hangover Plaza

DTs: the bat eats the mouse

The ambiguous ending

Enjoying: Play it again and watch the excellent camera work of John Seitz.