An A-Z of Film Themes

L Is for Lost Weekend

As far as these rambling blogs have gone, I’ve tried up until now to avoid focusing all energies on a single movie. But for the letter L there was only one subject that sprang to mind. The Lost Weekend (1945) is, in my view, the best-made film ever, which is different from saying it’s the best film ever made. I don’t think it’s my favourite film (this changes so often it might well have been at some point), and though it seems to be pretty well represented in discussions of Hollywood ‘classics’ – as a film noir, as a social problem film, as a film about alcohol (see blog ‘A’) – there is no attempt here at gilding its memory with a coat of ‘all time greatest.’ There are plenty of Sight and Sound lists for that kind of thing.

The Lost Weekend deserves the title of best-made film, I think, because it is a damn tight package. Its themes, its form and its style are so seamlessly interwoven that removing just one frame, cutting one line of dialogue, turning the lights a little bit up or a little bit down, having the actors move slightly slower off-screen or faster on-screen, would topple its dramatic unity like a house of cards.

It’s difficult to explain quite how compact, but at the same time, precariously balanced, The Lost Weekend feels to me. Trying to break it down has been a bit like buying one of those Argos do-it-yourself wardrobes – once you’ve spent hours removing all that infuriatingly close-fitting plastic comes the real question. Can something useful be made of all these bits and pieces?

Anyway, that convoluted Argos simile was the sum total of my sitting around today trying to devise a witty opening paragraph to introduce a film about a writer who turns to alcohol because the muse has failed him. I give up. Let rhetorical constipation beget rhetorical constipation; let The Lost Weekend speak for itself. And if this sober analysis is no match for enjoying the movie in all its boozy brilliance, let it at least be read responsibly.

The fourth film Billy Wilder directed in America, The Lost Weekend is in many ways a perfect companion piece to Wilder’s classic noir Double Indemnity (1944), offering a similar tale of unchecked desires, crime, moral turpitude and a general descent into physical and spiritual turmoil. ‘The moment they met it was murder’ went the promotional tagline to Double Indemnity. The same sentiments might just as easily have been applied to The Lost Weekend. Here is a film that deals with a relationship of sorts, a relationship that leads central protagonist Don Birnam (Ray Milland) to the brink. Only this time our hapless protagonist does not have Double Indemnity’s Phyllis Dietrichson to contend with; Birnam’s scourge is something else –  just as overpowering, something probably more intoxicating than mere feminine charm. Birnam is married to the bottle.

At the time of The Lost Weekend’s release, Wilder offered a characteristically bad-taste parallel between this lust for booze and lust for women. Noting that, on the back of hit production To Have and to Have Not (1944), the actress Lauren Bacall had gained the title ‘The Look’, Wilder quipped that, after The Lost Weekend’s critical and commercial success, surely Milland would become known as ‘The Kidney.’ And while such glibness does not do justice to The Lost Weekend’s serious subject matter, it does offer an apt allusion to the ways in which it recognises the comedy of drunkenness, the glamour of metropolitan high-life, but at the same time reveals the consequences that having one too many can bring.

The Lost Weekend drags us into the addled mind of a dipsomaniac as he careens from disaster to disaster on a crash-course of drunkenness and despair. In a striking echo of Barton Keyes’ ‘trolley car’ speech in Double Indemnity, Birnam describes his addiction thus: ‘when you get on that merry-go-round, you gotta ride it all the way. Round and round till the music dies down and that blasted thing comes to a stop.’ Like murder, alcoholism in The Lost Weekend is conceived as an incessant journey with only one outcome. Indeed, merry-go-rounds and ‘vicious circles’ become prominent aural and visual metaphors in the film, all signifying Birnam’s fate.

Figure 1: Don Birnham on a hunt for alcohol

From the towering heights of the Empire State to the more humble and anonymous façade of an apartment block, the opening shot presents an array of New York City iconography in one uninterrupted pan (for an excellent scene by scene breakdown see Tim Dirks’s analysis at filmsite.org). Tracking in, the camera reveals that, hanging on a piece of rope from out the apartment window is a bottle. As we shall shortly discover, the bottle contains whisky. The connection between big city life and personal vice is seamlessly conveyed through this shot. If Double Indemnity suggested that Los Angeles glitz and glamour was but a cover for a seedy and corrupt underbelly, The Lost Weekend suggests a similar den of iniquity nestling beneath New York’s impressive exterior.

Birnam is a writer; in his teenage years he seemed to be on the way to glory. He was published in The Reader’s Digest. He was going to be the new Hemingway. But something happened; he dried up, unable to produce decent writing anymore. The camera tracks in the open apartment window and reveals Birnam packing a suitcase. This shot is accompanied by a particularly eerie musical score.  According to Dirks’ filmsite article, The Lost Weekend made use of an instrument called a theremin in order to create the sounds meant to act as accompaniment to Birnam’s state of mind. They certainly emphasise an almost science-fiction-like quality, as if Birnam is not really on this planet. His mind is certainly not on the job at hand. He is supposed to be going on a long weekend in the country with his brother Wick (Phillip Terry), but, as he informs us later, his mind was elsewhere, ‘eighteen inches below’ the window frame to be exact. That’s where his bottle of whisky hangs.

Wick waxes lyrical about the benefits of a weekend in the country: ‘It’ll be good for you Don, after what you’ve been through. Trees and grass and sweet cider and buttermilk and water from that well that’s colder than any other w…’ An irritated Don interjects: ‘Wick, please, why this emphasis on liquids – very dull liquids.’ There’s something more to Don Birnam’s comment than mere riposte. It actually speaks to the way in which language is used throughout the film to explore the duelling states of drunkenness and sobriety. Different rhythms, registers and speech styles heighten the contrasts between characters. Wick’s speeches are stern and platitude-riddled, if often sympathetic. Don on the other hand, and especially when drunk, veers off into sweeping, colourful, statements and pontifications. Indeed, while Weekend offers a chilling portrait of the dangers of alcoholism, it does at times seem to enjoy the fantastical monologues that emanate from lubricated lips.

The film’s second sequence is revealing on this count. After convincing his girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman) to take Wick to a classical music concert, Birnam is left to his own devices. Ten dollars that were supposed to go to his brother’s housekeeper end up becoming Birnam’s beer tokens as he begins an afternoon’s imbibing. As Birnam enters the off license, the camera lingers behind the whiskey shelf, a secret voyeur into the world of the alcoholic (Figure 1). We never see the proprietor in full profile. He could be anyone; he is but one of many people throughout the film who, while seemingly scornful of Birnam’s alcoholism, are nevertheless happy to fuel this addiction so long as he has money. ‘I can’t stop anyone, can I’, the proprietor says, knowing he’d been asked not to serve Birham, ‘not unless you’re a minor.’ From a less-than-reluctant shopkeeper to a similarly flexible barman, Birnam now moves on to his old haunt, Nats Bar. On the way he greets a well-to-do lady who replies warmly, then whispers to her friend ‘that’s the nice young man who drinks.’ She is one of the hypocritical chattering classes that plague Birnam throughout his drunken escapades.

Entering the bar, Birnam asks the bartender Nat (Howard Da Silva) for his ‘hand in marriage.’ It’s the first  reference to the immense hold that the bar has upon him. ‘Ah Mr. Birnam, why don’t you lay off the stuff for a while’ says Nat, simultaneously sloshing out another jigger of rye. It’s not surprising really: Nat’s Bar is hardly thriving. The only regulars seem to be Nat himself, Birnam and Gloria (Doris Dowling), a wonderful part-comic-part-tragic creation, who’s penchant for abbreviating phrases – ‘why natch’; ‘don’t be ridic’ – serves as a long-running joke, but also as quite a tragic portrayal of a woman desperate to be en vogue and ‘with it’. Her life revolves around the few bucks thrown at her by lonely old men in need of some company. It is through bit players such as Nat and Gloria that a broader slice of city life is carved: like the characters in Double Indemnity, these are men and women not without their scruples and human decency, but who are forced into ‘immoral’ activities for a few much-needed dollars.

Continuing with this scene: once Birnam’s had a few drinks he transforms from an agitated bag of nerves into a relaxed, eloquent and, truth be told, thoroughly entertaining bon vivre. ‘It shrinks my liver doesn’t it; it pickles my kidney’s, yes – but what does it do to my mind?’ Birnam explains: ‘It tosses the sandbags overboard so the balloon can soar. Suddenly I’m above the ordinary. I’m    competent, supremely competent. I’m walking a tightrope over the Niagara Falls. I’m one of the great ones.’ The supreme confidence with which Birnam extols the glories of booze is but one instance where alcohol is to some degree romanticised, at least to begin with, as a means of escape from the hum-drum.

Figure 2: The Vicious Circle

Undercutting Birnam’s merriment at this point, however, is the introduction of the ‘vicious circle’ motif, which crops up in visuals and dialogue throughout the film. After knocking back his first whiskey, he asks Nat to leave the circular stains left by the glass untouched. ‘Don’t wipe it way, Nat. Let me have my little vicious circle’, he says. ‘You know the circle is the perfect geometric figure: no end, no beginning.’ This is how Birnam conceives his addiction. As discussed below, one could also apply this circle metaphor to the structure of the film itself. Later on Birnam will refer to being stuck on a ‘merry-go-round’ (noted above), another telling metaphor for his personal struggles. The film’s narrative may be linear, but there is the constant assertion that the hero’s journey is circular.

The film’s first twenty minutes introduce a series of parallels and juxtapositions: drunken looseness vs. stolid sobriety; middle-class morality vs. the capitalist system. The jumping backward and forward between the apartment and the bar emphasises the repetitiveness and circularity of Birnam’s life. The next scene sees him back at Nat’s Bar. He speaks of how he sometimes ‘doesn’t know if it’s day or night’ and how he lives according to what time the bar or liquor stores open. A strange line is spoken here, as if Birnam was comparing his existence to that of a businessman or banker. Nat reminds him of a second bottle of whiskey he’d purchased the day before. Birnam replies: ‘That’s right, I did have two bottles didn’t I. I hid one of them. I’m a capitalist, Nat. I’ve got untapped reserves – I’m rich!’ In a society where assets are everything, Birnam sees himself as, I suppose, a wheeler and dealer – a boozy entrepreneur. Here it would seem that drinking, like The Asphalt Jungle would say of crime, is a ‘left-handed form of human endeavour.’ Society requires one to buy and consume en mass.

A brief argument between Nat and Birnam leads into a substantial flashback. It is Birnam recounting his romance with Helen.

In a vague echo of a scenario Wilder apparently concocted early in his American career for the Ernst Lubitsch directed Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938), confusion over clothing leads to Birnam meeting his future girlfriend. In Bluebeard’s the main couple meet in a department store. The man (Gary Cooper) wants to buy a pair of pyjama trousers – he only wears the trousers – but is told that he must but the whole suit. Enter the woman (Claudette Colbert), who offers to go halves and buy the top for her father, who only wears pyjama tops. In a similar vein Birnam has to wait for Helen to exit the theatre to exchange coats. From here a romance begins to blossom. It seems significant that Bluebeard’s, a film about a woman attempting to ‘tame’ her man, is alluded to, for there are parallels between the two films’plots. It is another example of Wilderian self-referentiality/playing with conventions. Double Indemnity had seen Barbara Stanwyck redo her previously comedic role of intelligent beguiler of men (films like The Lady Eve) as evil, murderous manipulator. In The Lost Weekend this allusion works as an ironic commentary on the task ahead for the blissfully ignorant Helen. She, like Colbert, has some taming to do. Only, this time it’s not a millionaire playboy who needs controlling, but a raging alcoholic.

Appropriately, the couple’s relationship takes off thanks to Birnam accidentally dropping his bottle of whiskey. Instead of a night’s drunkenness, he accompanies Helen to a cocktail party where he, in his words, drank ‘only tomato juice.’ Then, after getting cold feet over meeting Helen’s parents, Don gets drunk again. It is clear to see where James Dean took inspiration for his drunken performance at the beginning of Rebel without a Cause. Birnam’s stooping gait, dragged feet, slurred but cutting remarks – all seem prototypes for Dean’s insouciant rebel. Helen appears at the apartment asking for him. Initially, Wick tells her that he’s not there and pretends that the empty whisky bottles are his own. Just as Helen is about to leave, however, Birnam emerges from the backroom and begins explaining himself. ‘What I’m trying to say is that I’m not a drinker, I’m a drunk.’ Birnam proceeds to explain his psychology. There are, apparently, two Don Birnam’s: Don the writer and Don the drunk…

Humour, pathos, rhythm, verbal gymnastics: the speech in the above clip could be something from a Tennessee Williams play. The repetition of certain words, ‘to counterbalance the counterbalance’, ‘the flop suicide of a flop writer’, hammers home the repetitive, incessantly circular existence in which Birnam finds himself. He is talking through and teasing out his own emotional traumas. This speech is the verbal equivalent of the whiskey stains on the bar, or the dissolves used to transition from reality to dream to nightmare.‘I’ve never done anything, I’m not doing anything, I never will do anything. Zero, Zero, Zero.’ So concludes Birnam’s rant. And after this, Birnam and the film itself descend into a dark, shadowy, noirish place, a place difficult to locate. A scene in which Birnham is disgraced at an upmarket bar (he attempts to steal money for his fancy vermouth drinks) concludes the second section. Jeered out of the bar by irate customers he stumbles home once more. Maybe it’s the lonely streets and boarded up buildings of an unforgiving New York City, or perhaps it’s because we’re now entering the black core of Birnam’s withered soul. Either way, things are about to go from bad to worse.

Part Three: the hangover to end all hangovers. Perhaps it’s the recent mega-success of the Hangover films, but it feels to me as if there have been quite a few shit portrayals of boozing lately. Whether we’re watching the Hangover and Hangover II’s overgrown babies wondering where their mate left his willy last night, or enduring another two hours of Johnny Depp’s theatrical mincing in Pirates of the Caribbean, hitting the ale has become a bit of an easy option for comedy filmmakers.  Fair enough, there can definitely be some humour in the un-complis mentus. But too often it is used to cover up a bad script. Not so in The Lost Weekend. Here we see the twisted nausea of a man suffering the hangover of the century. Bedraggled, penniless and in no mood for conversation, Birnam ignores the ringing telephone and heads out to pawn his typewriter. He staggers along the street in search of a shop. The first one he comes to is closed. And the second. Something is not right. Viewed through the shop’s iron shutters Birnam is revealed for the prisoner he is (Figure 3). A prisoner to fate on this occasion, for it happens to be Yom Kippur and therefore none of the Jewish pawn shops are open. Nor are the Irish ones – they have a deal. ‘They keep closed on Yom Kippur and we don’t open on St. Patrick’s.’ The music builds to a crescendo as Birnam staggers through the New York City streets. A series of dissolves reveal scorched, intimidating streets and boarded up buildings – not a place to go in search of charity.

Figure 3: Birnam as a prisoner of his own addiction

Eventually Birnam returns to the one place where he know’s he can find help:

Nat’s Bar. ‘One’s too many and a hundred’s not enough’ says Nat as he pours Birnam one free drink, then unceremoniously kicks him out. Next stop is Gloria’s place. Gloria’s anger at him standing her up for a date the night before leads her to initially snub his requests for money. When he kisses her, though, she melts and produces a five dollar bill. But it’s too little too late for Birnam, who is about to take a trip to the hospital. Bumping into a child, he crashes down the stairs and passes out at the bottom. Fade to a close up on Birnam’s face. More iron meshes signify that he is in another prison, a ward for alcoholics. The last refuge of the bar-fiend, it is a miserable place, inhabited by men who drool and grizzle. A nurse, Bim (Frank Faylen), enters. Bim is exactly the kind of character you’d expect to find, were The Lost Weekend a gothic horror and Birnam had just stumbled on isolated castle in the middle of some European mountain range. But appearing as he does in 1940s New York City, his languid yet chilling diction feels more like the product of Birnam’s twisted imagination than a ‘real’ character. A small smile creeps across Bim’s face as he speaks of the dreaded DT hallucinations. ‘You know that stuff about pink elephants’ he informs Birnam, ‘that’s the bunk. ‘It’s little animals: little tiny turkeys with straw hats, midget monkeys coming through the keyholes … like the doctor was just telling me, delirium is a disease of the night.’ And, of course, he concludes in the most camped-up drawl possible: ‘good night.’

Figure 4: In the Hospital

The dark room, punctured by occasional light slats beaming through the window; a close up on a particularly grotesque-looking Birnam as, off-screen, someone hacks up his lungs. A scream! One of the alkies has started seeing beetles on his pjamas. Nurses and orderlies rush to his assistance and, as they do so, Birnam slips out into the night. By the early hours he’s pacing around, waiting for the off license to open.

The days are passing so quickly now they are virtually non-existant. Birnam starts experiencing his first DTs. A mouse being brutally devoured by a bat on his living room wall pushes him to paroxysm. He screams and screams again. The apartment landlady hears him and phones Helen. Don’s face is true expressionist dynamite – sweating, shaking, eyes bulging – it’s like the film has suddenly gone ten years back in time and we’re in M or something similarly melodramatic and German.

Helen manages to bust in and calm him down. They both go to sleep. Don’s up again a few hours later. It’s proper morning now and he steals Helen’s jacket, bound for the pawn shop. Helen chases him, but by the time she catches up he’s hocked it. She assumes it’s for a drink, but then discovers it was for a gun. Birnam exchanges the very coat that brought them together in the first place, for an instrument of his own execution. As in Double Indemnity love becomes death, romance is translated into destruction. Helen is, however, intent on stopping this tragedy.

After chasing Don back to the apartment, there ensues a final scene that some argue negates the film’s attempts at social commentary. David Thomson, for instance, calls The Lost Weekend’s conclusion ‘a dispiriting compromise’ that ‘could not avoid Hollywood’s sense of a “happy ending.”’ On the surface it would seem that the film attempts to sugar coat all that has come before with a rather superficial reconciliation. Aware that Birnam has hidden the gun in his bathroom sink, Helen attempts to stall him. She asks for a coat, then a scarf, then even offers a glass of whiskey. Once it becomes clear that she knows of his intentions, Birnam attempts to justify the suicide: ‘this is just a formality; Don Birnam died this weekend.’ After a short argument Helen is, of course, eventually able to stop him. Nat the barman makes an appearance carrying Don’s typewriter: ‘I’ve oiled it up nice.’ Everything ends happily ever after: Don announces his plans to write the novel and as a symbolic gesture spoils the last remaining splash of whiskey with a dropped cigarette stub. His dangerous addiction beaten, perhaps.

While I accept Thomson’s point that The Lost Weekend provides a more positive conclusion than that offered in the novel on which the film is based, I’m not convinced that it is an entirely unproblematic ‘Hollywood happy ending.’ In some ways style undercuts content and provides something a little more complex and contradictory. In order to explore this possibility, we need to return to the above noted ‘vicious circle’ motif that crops up in dialogue and visuals throughout The Lost Weekend. We have Don Birnam once again ranting, as he had done with Nat, about his intentions to write a novel (that fact that Nat is the one who returns his typewriter is vaguely sinister in itself – as if his writing career is still under the control of a barman). We then have Birnam’s concluding comments, which are essentially a hark back to the film’s beginning: ‘I’m gonna put this whole weekend down, minute by minute. The way I stood in there packing my suitcase. Only my mind wasn’t on the suitcase; it wasn’t on the weekend … my mind was hanging outside the window, suspended, just about eighteen inches below.’ This speech facilitates a dissolve back to that opening scene. We see Don packing his suitcase once again. Then, in a mirror image of the shots that began the film the camera tracks backward to reveal the whiskey hanging from the window frame. Finally, it pans across to the New York City skyline. The film has come full circle. Surely, given the film’s themes and structure thus far, one could argue that the whole damn process is about to begin again. Birnam may have stopped drinking at present, but the scene implies that another cycle is on the cards. For all the optimistic patter emanating from the mouths of the two lovers, there remains a sneaking suspicion that it will not be long before Don Birnam jumps back on the merry-go-round for one last sup at the jigger of dreams. Just the one.


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