Old Movies, New Eyes: The Lost Weekend

One’s too many, and a hundred’s not enough.

The Lost Weekend, one's too many still 1
Ray Milland as Don Birnam in The Lost Weekend

When The Lost Weekend first came out in 1945, nobody had predicted that it would be a hit. It was based on a novel that had sold well, but the book market was one thing. The film market was another. And Charles Jackson’s semi-autobiographical tale of an alcoholic loser who deliberately rejects love, hope and sobriety to go on a three-day bender was not exactly an easy sell.

Yet somehow, against all odds, the film swept the Oscars and the box office alike. Perhaps it was because in The Lost Weekend, people finally saw something that reflected the painful truth of alcoholism, as opposed to the Hollywood fictions that had glamorized it or laughed it off. Perhaps when they looked in the lost eyes of Don Birnam, they saw their own prodigal brothers, lovers and sons.

But I would be short-changing this film if I described it as merely a message movie about alcoholism. Don Birnam’s story is not merely the story of an alcoholic. It is the story of a sinner and the grace that pursues him even when he pushes it away. It is the story of a soul with life and death set before him, as they are set before every soul. And it stands as a haunting reminder that, in the words of C. S. Lewis, “There are only two kinds of people, in the end: those who say to God, Thy will be done, and those to whom God says, in the end, Thy will be done.”

From the opening shot, director Billy Wilder lets the viewer into the world of Don Birnam (played by Ray Milland). Although he hasn’t touched liquor in ten days and is packing for a vacation in the country with his brother, Wick, he can’t keep his eyes from straying to the bedroom window. There, he and we know that something is hanging outside, something he put there for safekeeping. It’s his security, his insurance. It’s a bottle on a string. And when Wick casually reveals that he’s scheduled the excursion for a full five days, longer than Don had counted on, his mind immediately begins working overtime on a plan of escape.

Perhaps the most painful aspect of addiction is the deception the addict practices on his loved ones. Don is a master of it. When he cajoles Wick into going to a show with his own girlfriend, Helen, while Don stays behind and “finishes packing,” Wick is resistant at first. “I’ve told you, I won’t leave the apartment,” Don insists. Wick replies ruefully, “You’ve told us a good many things, Don.”

Don is humiliatingly aware that he depends on his younger brother’s charity. He hasn’t held down a job in years. Wick, for his part, has done his best to walk the line between enabling and rejecting Don. He hasn’t always met the challenge perfectly, but his character is drawn with great dignity and compassion. It’s a credit to the film’s thoughtfulness that when Wick and Helen return to find Don gone, we sympathize completely with Wick’s decision to give up and leave him behind. In one of the best-written and most wrenchingly honest pieces of dialogue, he reminds Helen of the countless times they’ve dragged Don out of the gutter and tried to set him on his feet again. “How many times have you cried? How many times have I beaten him up?” Yet “back he goes, back in every time.”

But Helen never loses faith that one day, Don will kick his addiction for good. The viewer understandably comes to wonder why she persists in waiting indefinitely for such a loser, as does Don himself. He still recalls the day when she first learned his secret. “There must be a reason why you drink, Don. The right doctor could find it.” “Look,” he had replied, drunk even in that moment but speaking with remarkable insight, “I’m way ahead of the right doctor. I know the reason. The reason is me, what I am. Or rather, what I’m not. What I wanted to become.”

What he wanted to become was a writer. Not just any writer, a really top-shelf, quality writer. He had always had the talent. It was the courage and the will that he lost somewhere along the way. Every time Don the Writer would sit down, for real this time, to turn out something really good, Don the Drunk would suggest that it was a great moment to have a drink. Then came the second drink, to “counterbalance” the first. Then another one “to counterbalance the counterbalance.” He’s always stopped short of hocking his typewriter, but it comforts him to know that it’s always good for ten dollars.

We never get to see the man Don was before he became a slave to drink, and it’s been fairly argued that this is a weakness of the film. We depend solely on his and Helen’s descriptions of his wasted potential. If anything, the flowery monologues he launches into under the influence tend to be more annoying than impressive. (One is reminded of nothing so much as the tragic ghost in C. S. Lewis’s Great Divorce, who uses ventriloquism to speak through a giant puppet in exaggerated theatrical tones.) But every so often, we glimpse something in the wreckage. He tells an understanding bartender that his magnum opus is to be the story of his own life, only he hasn’t yet figured out how it ends. And he’s still trying to sort out how to write about his love for Helen:

That’s what’s gonna be so hard to write. Love is the hardest thing in the world to write about. It’s so simple. You’ve gotta catch it through details, like the early morning sunlight hitting the gray tin of the rose garden in front of her house, the ringing of a telephone that sounds like Beethoven’s Pastorale, a letter scribbled on her office stationary that you carry around in your pocket because it smells like all the lilacs in Ohio…

In fleeting moments like this, we are moved by what could have been, though we still struggle to feel sympathy for someone so methodically determined to wallow in his own misery. This is the tight-rope any story with a difficult, dysfunctional protagonist must walk: to portray the character in a way that inspires pity, but doesn’t demand it.

Helen’s unconditional love for Don, though misplaced, provides the few grace notes in the bleakness of his self-imposed downward spiral. Perhaps the most famous and powerful scene in the film is when Don has hit rock-bottom and begins hallucinating. First, he sees a mouse appear in a crack of the wall, then a bat swooping in to eat it. This sends him into a fit of terrified, full-throated screams. There are few sounds as disturbing as the screams of a grown man, and Ray Milland’s performance holds nothing back. The fact that if you look very closely, you can see the strings holding the bat up is irrelevant. We’re not looking closely, because Milland is so raw and convincing that our disbelief is completely suspended.

When Don hears Helen and his landlady rushing up the stairs, he stumbles out of his chair and begins crawling across the floor, not to open his door, but to lock it. But he fumbles with the chain and can’t quite shut Helen out in time. She finds him in a crumpled heap by the door, covering his face in shame. Light floods the room as she flips the switch and helps him up, but he balks and yelps when they walk past the place in the wall where he hallucinated the mouse and the bat. At her insistence, he looks and sees for himself that there’s not so much as a crack in the wall. He feels it wonderingly with his hand, then lets out a sob of relief.

Those who can’t imagine what it would be like for someone to freely choose hell should watch this film. They should watch Don Birnam as he fights with his last ounce of strength to separate himself from goodness, light, and love. Then perhaps they would understand what damnation looks like.

The Lost Weekend is not a perfect film. From a technical angle, the music score is overbearing and dated. (It was the first to incorporate the spooky-sounding theremin, which unfortunately came to be associated more with C-grade sci-fi than serious drama). From a writing angle, there’s a nasty streak that runs through a couple of scenes, like a sequence where Don falls down the stairs and wakes up in an alkie ward. (The ghoulish warden practically seems to relish his job.) And as mentioned previously, Helen’s refusal to move on from Don is problematic, though she does grow into a strong character, particularly by the film’s end.

Speaking of the ending, I won’t give it away, but those who like it seem to be in the minority. I will say that the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. It felt earned, moving, and less simplistic than people downplay it to be.

Despite its flaws, The Lost Weekend remains a compelling watch. It is not tragic and bleak merely for the sake of being tragic and bleak. It is certainly those things and more, but it is also compassionate. It makes the viewer “see,” as Joseph Conrad wrote that all well-done stories should. And for the Christian viewer, it raises probing questions about what it means to love the unlovable, casting Romans 5:7 into sharp relief. Perhaps for a good man, one might dare to die, but for Don Birnam? Yet here he is, for our consideration. And if we listen closely, we might hear a still, small voice whispering in our ear: “Look well. Here is a man poor, wretched and vile. Here is a man who has squandered every chance of redemption. Will you love him?”

[Disclaimer: Don’t take this positive review of the film to be a unilateral recommendation of the original book. Without going into details, there are aspects of it that rightly had to be removed  for the film version.]

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