First Time Watch: The Lost Weekend

The Lost Weekend starring In a previous post, yours truly made the admission of being pretty unfamiliar with the work of legendary director and screenwriter Billy Wilder. Well, guess who’s starting to become a really big fan? I made a pledge to get more acquainted with Wilder’s films, and I’m certainly glad I did. After first getting my feet wet with the classic Double Indemnity (discussed in the aforementioned previous installment of this column), I decided to take what seemed like a natural next step and give The Lost Weekend a look. This film piqued my interest because while learning about DI, I became aware that the relationship between Wilder and his co-scripter Raymond Chandler was a tumultuous one. Supposedly, Chandler was a recovering alcoholic, and working on DI with Wilder caused him to fall off the wagon. This was part of the reason why Wilder decided to make The Lost Weekend. It was his attempt to try to explain Chandler to himself. One can only imagine what Chandler’s reaction to this production must have been, but regardless, TLW remains a film that was well ahead of its time in its stark portrayal of alcoholism, with strong performances from all players (especially lead Ray Milland as the drunk), and holds up relatively well, therefore making its four Academy Awards for Best Picture, Actor (which Wilder correctly prophesized), Director and Screenplay most likely well-deserved. However, after viewing the movie for the first time in 2010, it’s apparent that the effort does have some flaws even when taking the period of the 1940s into consideration.

The Lost Weekend was adapted from the novel of the same name by Charles R. Jackson that was one of four books that Wilder picked up on a fateful train ride from Hollywood to New York during an impromptu stop in Chicago. It turned out to be a good move. Incidentally, the alcoholism of the main character in the book stemmed from his frustration over the accusation that he had a homosexual affair with one of his college friends. Now, naturally such “sordid” material was completely unacceptable for Hollywood in 1945, as the country was unfortunately not quite ready for such honesty yet (though, it could be argued that it still isn’t, but that’s perhaps a discussion for another time and place). Instead, TLW focuses on a failed writer (Milland) who’s supported by his brother (Phillip Terry) and who uses alcohol as a crutch. Actually, to state that Milland depends on alcohol to get by is perhaps the understatement of the century. It’s just about his entire reason for living, or maybe just merely existing. Milland is supposed to take a relaxing weekend trip to the country with his put upon brother and get away from New York City after drying out for ten days with Terry’s help (which, the audience will soon learn, isn’t the first time Terry has had to take care of Milland after one of his benders). However, all Milland really wants is a pull from the bottle of rye whiskey that’s hanging outside his bedroom window. Terry manages to find the bottle, but Milland is undeterred. He manages to ditch Terry and his caring girlfriend (Jane Wyman) so that he can hit his favorite watering hole to get wasted. Thus begins a weekend descent into drunken decadence that has Milland ostracizing everyone in his life that tries to help him, including Milland’s local bartender (essayed brilliantly by Howard Da Silva as a burdened barkeep who has seen Milland’s type a billion times and tries to be positive and helpful, but ultimately realizes that he doesn’t have any control over the actions of others), or dares to care about him. This even includes a “working girl” (played by a very fetching Doris Dowling) who has taken a liking to him. In the process, Milland lies, steals and manipulates in really despicable ways, just to grab a drink and get sauced. It all culminates in Milland breaking down into borderline dementia that includes a stop in the mental ward. When everything is said and done, TLW sets the bar high for every movie of its kind that followed. Whether the film deals with alcohol, drugs, or addiction in general, there’s a decent chance that it owes a debt of gratitude to Wilder’s gem.

The Lost Weekend: A First Time Watch

The Lost Weekend Starring Ray Milland

Wilder’s script that he co-wrote with frequent collaborator and producer Charles Brackett works on a multitude of levels and I was totally impressed with how they handled the topic of alcoholism and its nuances with such candor, and that their interpretation was at least relatively accurate without being too heavy-handed. I found myself feeling much the same way about TLW as I did about The Man With The Golden Arm. However, it wasn’t just their take on the alcoholic that struck me. I was especially pleased with the portrayal of how Milland’s addiction affected those in his life. This brilliance is especially present in the scene where Phillip Terry tries to cover up for his brother by telling Wyman that he’s the booze hound and that all the empty liquor bottles belong to him. Of course, Wyman’s character in itself is fantastic, as the woman who sees something in the drunkard that no one else can. Furthermore, once Milland finally comes clean to Wyman about being an addict and explains to her why he drinks, it’s about as frank a discussion as I think I’ve ever heard in a film from the Golden Age of Hollywood. He recounts all of his broken dreams and failures as a writer with plenty of promise who got a big head and dropped out college to become the next Ernest Hemingway, but fell from grace when his first several pieces didn’t quite come off. He began to use whiskey to clear his head and help him write but found all his ideas lost when he sobered up. Milland also confesses that he can’t put a good face on his troubles and live a life a quiet desperation. It’s all pretty heady stuff, and Milland’s delivery is really something that should be seen. Another tremendous scene is when the desperate Milland eventually finds a lost bottle and treats it as a moment of great triumph, but it’s evident that this bottle could actually be his ultimate downfall. It’s a testament to a performance and a script that could be among the best of the era.

The Lost Weekend

OK, so while there are tons of wonderful things to point out about this film, it’s also necessary to mention that it does unravel ever so slightly in the last act. As Milland really starts to lose his mind, I found all the crazed theatrics and the vampire bat attacking the mouse in the wall (a not-so-subtle sign that he’s experiencing DTs) to be a bit too over-the-top, at least for me. However, thankfully it wasn’t anything in the style of Reefer Madness, and I suppose it could be argued that it worked well enough to serve its purpose. Additionally, while I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone who hasn’t seen the movie, I thought that it was too neat, convenient and dismissive. This is an issue for debate among many fans of TLW. Some critics agree with this assessment and others don’t. The point could be made that the resolution is left open-ended and that matters could go one way just as easily as they could go another, but even so, it’s all too glib. However, Milland’s speech at the end, relating his problem to the masses was a nice touch.

In closing, I’m going to give TLW four stars out of five. So, who’s up for a drink…? I only state that because, once again, censors had a real problem with this film. However, it’s tough to accurately gauge where the real legitimate concern was. Supposedly, studio executives were wary of the film, worried that it would romanticize drinking. Conversely, alcohol companies were frenzied that the film would turn the public off to their product. There’s even the alleged report that the industry offered Paramount a bribe worth millions to bury the project. It all serves as further proof for just how ridiculous censorship is, and that all art should be released without interference for folks to judge on its own merit or lack there of. The fact remains that TLW is obviously a classic, and it’s no surprise that when Wilder and Brackett returned to the Paramount offices the day after Oscar night, they found liquor bottles hanging outside all of the windows.

  • Jackie

    I saw this movie for the first time when I was still in High School.I always had been a fan of Ray Milland and thought his acting was outstanding!Anyone who is on the brink of being alcohol dependent should see this movie! It just might sober them up! This movie and the magnificent “Days of Wine and Roses” with Jack Lemmon and Lee Remiok are never to be forgotten.

  • JUanita Curtis

    I have always been a fan of Ray Milland and this was probably the first film to show his range directed by the incomparable Billy Wilder.

  • Bruce

    This movie is both a classic for both directing and acting, not to mention score my Miklos (Ben Hurr) Rozsa and should be must viewing for young
    adults. Having an alcoholic in the family and attending meetings makes me look back to see more than entertainment was offered here.

  • Bruce

    This is a great movie. If you enjoy this you might also enjoy “Smash-up The Story of a Woman” with Susan Hayward…..

  • Jim

    Mr. Sieck,

    Howard Da Silva was just plain great as the psychiatrist in David and Lisa in the early 1960s.
    Have you seen that one yet?

    • hypatiab7

       I love Howard daSilva. He went from playing villains in the early movies to a fantastic Ben Franklin in “1776″.

  • brian sieck

    I haven’t seen David and Lisa. I’ll have to put it on the list, but sadly, the film isn’t available on DVD.

  • masterofoneinchpunch

    I’ve always been a big fan of Billy Wilder. There are so many films of his I would consider a classic though I think I would put this one a bit less and recommend many others to watch before this movie (though I do like this film). The usual suspects recommended from his oeuvre that you have not seen are SOME LIKE IT HOT (recently added to Roger Ebert’s great movie list) which is well known for its Marilyn Monroe performance and comedy, STALAG 17 which is a personal favorite of mine, SUNSET BOULEVARD which is I think one of the best films about Hollywood, ACE IN THE HOLE which has a great Criterion edition (themes you would see much later in NETWORK), and THE APARTMENT. There are many other good films from him (of course every Wilder fan has their own favorites), but I feel those are the most widely recognized for their greatness.

    Another film which has a similar DT scene is THE SMALL BACK ROOM (1949) also on Criterion.

  • Timothy Murphy

    “The Lost Weekend” is one helluva movie and has long been a favorite of mine. The scenes with Howard Da Silva serving up drinks and advice to Ray Milland were shot inside “PJ Clarkes” underneath the old eleavated RR tracks in NYC (Third Ave & 55 St). The el is long gone but the bar remains. Years ago, I’d sometimes have lunch there to see what I could identify from the movie. Anyway, I’d give this movie 5 stars or more !

    • duke1029

      The saloon scenes were not shot inside P.J. Clarke’s. It would have been unfeasible although there was considerable outside footage shot on location for the pawn shop / typewriter sequence. An exact duplicate of Clarke’s watering hole was built on a Paramount sound stage. It was so realistic, in fact, that Algonquin Table regular, humorist, Paramount contractee, and heavy drinker Robert Bencjhley used to wander into the set every day about 5 because it made him homesick. There was a bottle of real liquor waiting for him. A lot of the street scenes with Milland staggering with his typewriter were shot on location from a camera hidden inside a van. They were so realistic, in fact, that an acquaintance of Milland’s who saw him thought he was really drunk and contacted his wife to alert her to her husband’s behavior.

  • Tlynette

    This movie is so good, and Ray Milland is so good in it! I can’t hear “La Traviata” without thinking about “The Lost Weekend.”



  • Glenn Walker

    I’m digging your work here, Brian. Rock on.

  • Deborah Green

    Anyone who has a drinking problem needs to see this movie, as well as Days of Wine and Roses. Maybe they will sober-up. This movie is the best. I can watch it over and over again. Great acting by Ray Milland. I also loved him in Dial M for Murder.

  • GG

    I love this film. I mean it really is gritty, and I reference it allot when time is wasted. I always say, “It’s like Ray Milland’s Lost Weekend”…of course no one knows what I’m on about. :) My fav scene is when he looking for that bottle….and finally sees where it is hidden. This is a guy who is just over the edge and at the lowest low of addiction.

    Anyway thanks for sharing and enjoy your visit with Billy Wilder– you will be happy you took the trip!

  • carla

    Brian, what do you mean when you imply you can’t watch a movie unless it’s on DVD? Yikes! I have so many great films still (and maybe only?) on VHS I’d be sad if my VCR broke down. :)
    Thanks for a great review of a relatively unknown film for todays’s young people. It is a rave of acting performances!

  • frankie-machine

    The best three films I’ve seen about waste, decay, and substance abuse are Lost Weekend,
    The Man With the Golden Arm, and Drugstore Cowboy.
    Taking into account the decades they were filmed in, I give ‘em all 5 stars.

  • BadGnx2

    I also feel this film is a TRUE CLASSIC. The filmmakers probably went as far as the censors and Paramount brass would allow in the forties. However its still a groundbreaking film of its time.
    “The Days Of Wine And Roses” is the where the bar is set in my opinion. And its a PRETTY HIGH ONE. The film starts out slow and soon shifts gears into overdrive and DOES NOT LET UP even to its sad and haunting ending. The principals (Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick) were outstanding and all of the supporting players gave it their all too. This is a superior film about a subject that is universally known about but forever on the back burner.

    Another GREAT film about addiction (drugs in this case) that probably stretched the limits in its time (the fabulous fifties) was “A Hatful Of Rain”. This is another seldom mentioned classic about addictions, family frustrations and failed dreams. It is raw and gritty and goes much, much further than the more celebrated “Man With The Golden Arm”.

    An honorable mention goes to Al Pacino’s first film “The Panic In Needle Park” (1971). This featured a young Pacino in a very good movie about drug addicts just trying to make it to the next high and the problems that entails. Its also sad and haunting and treats its subject matter honestly and respectfully.

  • Belle-Michele

    I love this movie…it never registered with me for some reason that it’s a Billy Wilder movie.
    It’s weird, I’ve never met anyone else (personally) that has actually seen or heard of this movie…it’s nice to come across others that are familiar with this movie.
    I definitely agree that “Smash-up The Story of a Woman” with Susan Hayward… another great movie that again, I’ve never met anyone else (personally) that has seen it.

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  • hypatiab7

    Why has no one mentioned the wonderful James Cagney movie “Come Fill the Cup”? It covers
    a lot of the same territory as “The Lost Weekend”, but it stands on its own as a great movie. I
    especially like the grand old character actor James Gleason in it. Gig Young and Raymond Massey are also in it. I’ve been searching for a dvd copy of this movie for years.