The Lost Weekend (1945)
Written by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder
Directed by Billy Wilder
After working with Raymond Chandler on Double Indemnity, Billy Wilder felt drawn to develop the novel The Lost Weekend for film. Chandler was a notorious alcoholic, and his addiction greatly affected the production of that film. Wilder admired the craft and art that Chandler brought to his writing but was struck with how awful he became when craving drink. Wilder decided to dive into making this movie as a way to better understand what was going on in Chandler’s mind.
Writer Don Birnam is an alcoholic preparing for a weekend vacation with his brother Wick. Don’s girlfriend Helen stops by to send him off, but she and Wick discover Don still hiding bottles of bourbon around the house. Don can get out of the supervision of both his carers and immediately sets off searching for a drink where ever he can find one. Don camps out at a bar with Nat, a favorite bartender of his who tries to discourage the man from harming himself. Don tells the story of how he met Helen and the way drinking got in the way of their relationship. By the end of this weekend, Don will reach complete rock bottom experience physical and psychic trauma when the liquor dries up.
This was a movie made in an era of social horror films like Reefer Madness. In some moments, The Lost Weekend slides into farcical territory with its treatment of alcoholism. This is because the script is painfully sincere and earnest at times, which makes its characters feel simplistic. On the other hand, the tone of the picture is bleak, not shying away from exploring the depths an addict will go to for their fix. Don has a stay in the drunk wing of a mental hospital that is filmed like a horror film. I’d even argue that this whole picture is a horror movie with alcoholism taking the place of a monstrous transformation a la The Wolfman.
The story manages to find sympathy for Don rather than judgment. He does very despicable things to get money for booze, well as bad as you could get during the Hayes Code era. But the flashbacks to how Don and Helen’s relationship developed highlight moments where emotional vulnerability drove Don to drink as an escape. The tone of the picture feels quite similar to Double Indemnity, a jazzy gritty film noir without a murder or some other crime at the forefront.
Alcoholics Anonymous was founded only a decade before this movie was made, and I don’t think the majority of people really had an understanding of the difference between drinking to excess and actual alcoholism. Details like Don hiding bottles around his house while he was drunk and then forgetting where he put them were likely surprising to audiences. Don’s constant argument that he enjoys a drink, that it helps his creative process are also common excuses. Ultimately it’s his own personal failures that fuel his desire for whiskey.
The ending of the movie doesn’t quite match the first two acts. I guess there was a demand that the picture did not end on too bleak a note, that the audience can see some redemption. The implication is that through the love of his girlfriend and his desire to be a writer, he can cure his alcoholism. It’s a way too pat way to wrap things up. Yes, we could say that he’s said he would seek help before, and we might be at the start of a new cycle, but I doubt that is what the filmmakers intended. The Lost Weekend isn’t quite as good as Double Indemnity, but it is a surprisingly complex exploration of addiction from a time when those things weren’t talked about.