For today’s audiences, a story about an every-day man struggling with alcoholism might feel like an after school special. It’s a subplot in a network soap opera, not meaty enough to carry an entire film script.
But in 1945, the issue of alcohol addiction had not truly been explored on screen in an honest way. Director Billy Wilder, known for films like “Double Indemnity,” “Sunset Boulevard,” “The Apartment,” “Sabrina,” and “Some Like it Hot,” was inspired to adapt Charles R. Jackson’s novel after Wilder’s co-writer on “Double Indemnity” began drinking heavily during the work on that film.
Wilder wanted to make a realistic movie that didn’t exaggerate but also didn’t downplay the dangers of alcoholism. He wanted almost a documentary feel and insisted that the movie be shot on locations instead of built sets in order to add realism. He actually filmed inside the Bellevue Hospital which was never allowed before or since.
The movie’s story revolves around a writer played by Ray Milland, who won Best Actor for his performance. He’s supposed to go away for a long weekend with his brother to celebrate his ten days sobriety. He convinces his brother and girlfriend to go see a concert together while he relaxes by himself and writes. He promises he’ll make their 6 p.m. train. They search his apartment for booze and find none and they know he has no money so they agree to the deal. He finds $10 hidden in a tea pot that was meant for the housekeeper and he snatches it to buy two pints of rye whiskey and uses the change to buy a few shots at the local bar. Even the bartender knows he needs to slow down his drinking. His plan is to bring the bottles on the trip, not that he actually needs them but having them nearby makes him feel safe and secure.
Well, obviously he gets wasted out of his mind and misses the 6 p.m. train and the weekend turns into a sloppy drunk blackout. He begins to recall how he met his girlfriend, played by Jane Wyman, who was once married to Ronald Reagan in real life, and the movie goes back and forth between flashbacks and current day. By Saturday, he’s broke and begging for booze. By Sunday, he wakes up in rehab and the staff informs him he’s going to get the DT’s and see little animals as hallucinations.
“You know that stuff about pink elephants? That’s the bunk,” the orderly tells him. “It’s little animals! Little tiny turkeys in straw hats. Midget monkeys coming through the keyholes. See that guy over there? With him it’s beetles. Come the night, he sees beetles crawling all over him.”
I don’t want to spoil the ending but it’s pretty powerful.
The musical score by Miklós Rózsa makes extensive use of the theremin, an instrument that gives that eerie, wobbly sound that you might have heard in “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” Throughout his career, Rózsa earned 17 Oscar nominations and won three times for Spellbound (the same year as “The Lost Weekend”), “A Double Life” in 1947 and Ben-Hur in 1959.
“The Lost Weekend” is also famous for being the first movie to show the montage of a man walking slowly toward the camera as neon-signs float eerily around him to show that he’s been wandering the streets for bar after bar. That’s been parodied many times (see the “Futurama” image below) and it started with this movie. That’s where it comes from.
Interesting enough, the liquor industry at the time launched a campaign to undermine the film even before its release, even hiring mobster Frank Costello to offer to buy the movie for $5 million to burn the prints. The industry claimed that the movie would hurt sales of alcohol or could even lead to calls to bring back prohibition.
All in all, “The Lost Weekend” is a historic film and — when watched by today’s audiences — a very good movie but maybe not a great one. It hasn’t aged as well as Wilder’s other classics. The screenplay is top notch with witty dialogue and great quotable lines. Milland doesn’t have the charisma of William Holden or Jack Lemmon but he’s capable in the role. The story itself meanders and stretches believability at times. It seems to repeat itself without reaching a proper boil at the right time. But despite these minor criticisms it’s still very good. Maybe not in my top 200 movies of all time, but I can’t quibble with its win for Best Picture in 1945.