Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Lost Weekend... aka Love Conquers All?

Let me have my little vicious circle. You know, the circle is the perfect geometric figure. No end, no beginning. -- Don Birnam
Even some 66 years later, Billy Wilder's best picture winning The Lost Weekend remains one of the most compelling films depicting drug addiction. Groundbreaking for its time, The Lost Weekend was the first film to ask if alcoholism was really a just character flaw or if it was a disease... if those afflicted were to be hated or pitied. Wilder had to fight hard to get this movie made; Paramount Pictures was reluctant to finance a movie that uncompromisingly entertained such a dark subject and once the movie was finished, the alcohol industry itself tried to suppress its release. Even proponents of the temperance movement protested, oddly fearing that the film might encourage alcohol use. Despite these road-blocks, The Lost Weekend was eventually released to great acclaim in 1945, thanks to an incisive script by Billy Wilder, his perfect, atmospheric direction, a haunting, ethereal score and, last but not least, a titanic performance by Ray Milland.

At the film's beginning, Don Birnam and his unreasonably patient brother Wick are packing for a restful long weekend in the country. Though Don is pretending to be enthused for the weekend, and the luxuries of the farm, his mind couldn't be further from it. A bottle of rye hidden outside the window is the sole thing occupying his thoughts. His longtime, ceaselessly supportive girlfriend Helen St. James also comes along to see them off. Using the insidious cunning inherent to all motivated drug addicts, Don connives to get them out of the house, and so begins his 3-day meteoric drop to rock bottom.

Ray Milland's Don Birnam is a swirling storm of self-loathing, desperation and compulsive tics. Trading on his innate likeability, Birnam never fails to take advantage of the love and trust of the people around him to further pursue his destructive vice. Once, he kisses a prostitute he stood up for a date just to convince her to give him five dollars, knowing that in her love for him, she cannot refuse his request. An eloquent lush, Milland spends much of the movie pontificating with his favorite bartender Nat on his favorite subjects: himself and his addiction. "Pour it softly, pour it gently and pour it to the brim," he commands the weary Nat, a reluctant abettor to his addiction.

In his own mind, Birnam's descent into addiction is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions and indeed, he seems to find inspiration for self-destruction in classic works... once driven into a frenzy from watching characters in an opera imbibing his sacred liquids. When he drinks, he believes he's unstoppable and that he's worthy of the early promise he showed as a writer (his failure to deliver on that promise is given as the initial reason for his slide into addiction). He proudly boasts of how alcohol bolsters him: "I’m Horowitz playing the Emperor Concerto, John Barrymore before the movies got him by the throat, and Jesse James and his brothers, all three of them, and William Shakespeare...and out there it isn’t Third Avenue, it is the Nile, man, the Nile, and down comes the barge of Cleopatra." Milland's performance as Birnam is fearless. He never pulls any punches to attempt to make him seem likeable, despite warnings from his agent that taking the role might ruin his career. And yet, despite of the way he dissembles and lies his way through the weekend, we never hate him... so thoroughly are we enveloped in his misery.

Throughout the film, the score by Miklós Rózsa drives Birnam relentlessly onward, the eerie wail of the theremin echoing the seductive clarion call of alcohol. That the film has lost nearly none of its impact throughout the decades is in part thanks to this score. Despite the fact that other, more recent films, have been allowed to depict the rock bottom of addiction more nakedly, few have been able to replicate how perfectly this score marries itself with the harried, desperate nature of the addict.  

Wilder's competent hand is in evidence all over this film. The film is perfectly paced, as is evidenced from many excruciatingly tense sequences. Perhaps the most impressive of which is the scene where Milland unsuccessfully tries to steal a woman's purse just so that he might pay for his drinks. Other scenes of note are the horrifying night he spends in the hospital, surrounded by fellow addicts suffering the DTs, and also when he finally succumbs to the hallucinations himself, screaming in mindless horror at his vision of a mouse torn to shreds by bats.

While the supporting cast acquits itself admirably, the limited nature of their roles prevents them from shining in any really memorable way. This is Wilder's and Milland's show... and it's thanks to their total commitment to this movie that even now, watching this movie remains a deeply unsettling experience, and despite the fact that this is not normally among Wilder's most remember films today, there's no denying that it remains his most perhaps his most effective turn as a director.

Many people criticize the ending as being too unreasonably optimistic, but personally I think its among Wilder's most subtle moments. It seems that Birnam has finally and suddenly changed, having refused away a drink, deciding against suicide and beginning, finally, to compose his great literary work. The love of his girlfriend Helen saves him it seems... but has it really? The film's final shot panning over New York City, mirroring the opening shot of the movie, suggests otherwise. I'm reminded of the quote that opens this review. Addiction is a vicious cycle. He's resolute to change now... but what happens the next day? Perhaps he has turned a corner in his addiction, but maybe this is just another bend in the vicious circle of his love affair with the drink. Perhaps Birnam hasn't found a glorious end or a hopeful beginning, but just another loop in his inexorable spiral down the drain.

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