The Lost Weekend
is a 1945 American drama film
directed by Billy Wilder
and starring Ray Milland
and Jane Wyman
. The film was based on a novel of the same title
by Charles R. Jackson
about a writer who drinks heavily.
The film recounts the life of an alcoholic New York writer, Don Birnam (Milland), over the last half of a six year period, and in particular on a weekend alcoholic binge.
A shot of the Manhattan skyline to an apartment, with a whiskey bottle hung outside a window. Don and his brother Wick (Phillip Terry) are packing for a weekend vacation. Wick believes that Don, a recovering alcoholic, has been on the wagon for ten days. After Don's girlfriend Helen St. James (Wyman) arrives, Don urges his brother to take a later train, and urges him to go to a Barbirolli concert with Helen, while he collects his thoughts at home. Wick, having disposed of his brother's hidden supply of drink, reluctantly agrees, despite seeing Helen as his brother's girl. Helen, slightly mockingly, claims to be trying not to love Don while he is trying not to drink. On their way out of the building, Wick reassures Helen he has found Don's hidden supply of alcohol and points out Don is broke. A few minutes later, the cleaning lady arrives for work, but Don cons her out of her wages and sends her away.
Don stays too long at his favorite watering hole, Nat's Bar on Third Avenue, based on the legendary P. J. Clarke's, and misses the train he is meant to catch. Wick, effectively rejecting his brother, intends to leave without him, though Helen is wary of leaving Don alone for four days. She is very busy with her work at Time magazine. As Wick is leaving the building, he urges Helen to give herself a chance by dropping Don. Helen waits. Don sneaks into his apartment to drink and hide the cheap whiskey he has bought. The following morning he finds a message from Helen pinned to his front door, urging him to call her.
While drinking at Nat's Bar, Don recounts his history to Nat (Howard Da Silva), who is reluctant to fuel Don's habit, though he easily relents. Don met Helen three years earlier at the Metropolitan Opera after a matinee performance of La Traviata thanks to confusion about checked coats. In his mind, during "Libiamo ne' lieti calici", the "drinking song" in the first act, the singers on stage are converted into a row of raincoats identical to Don's. His contains a bottle of rye whiskey. He leaves the performance early, and on collecting his coat is presented with a woman's leopardskin coat. After the performance ends, he waits until everyone has claimed their coat until he is able to exchange coats with Helen. They had been seated in neighboring seats, but evidently did not speak. She finds him rude, but they quickly develop a rapport, especially after the bottle falls out of his coat pocket. He claims he intends it for a friend. He accepts her invitation to a cocktail party. He drinks tomato juice and avoids alcohol for weeks.
Their relationship becomes serious. One day he is due to meet Helen's parents, visiting from Toledo, Ohio, whom he overhears discussing his character flaws in the hotel lobby. Overpowered by anxiety, he escapes into the phone booth as Helen arrives and, while clandestinely observing her, calls and asks her to go ahead with lunch without him. This incident caused his return to drinking. Later, after Wick attempts to cover for Don's absence by telling Helen that Don is in Philadelphia, Don emerges from hiding and confesses his alcohol problem to Helen. He recognizes himself as two people: 'Don the writer' and 'Don the drunk', who is dependent on his brother. Don explains that he dropped out of college, identified earlier as Cornell, because he was convinced he was already a Hemingway, a "great writer." As he began to doubt his writing talent, he found solace in drink. Don says he can only develop writing ideas while drunk, but he forgets them when sober. Don suggests Helen drop him, but his words only strengthen Helen's resolve to help Don.
The story returns to the present. Don cannot find a hidden bottle of whiskey, but discovers the name of a bar he has not visited before on a pack of matches. In order to pay his bill at Harry & Joe's, he steals a woman's handbag, takes it into the men's room, and manages to extract enough money to pay his bill. The woman, though, has recognized the theft, and he is identified as the culprit. He admits he has taken her money. The woman takes pity on him in his drunken state and does not press charges. He is told not to return and thrown out.
Don Birnam (Ray Milland
) stumbling down Third Avenue, seeking to pawn his typewriter.
The next day, Saturday, Don's phone rings repeatedly. Don supposes it is Helen, but ignores it. Later, he tries and fails to pawn his typewriter, since all the Third Avenue pawnshops are closed because of Yom Kippur. Returning exhausted to the bar, Nat refuses to serve him. Don visits Gloria (Doris Dowling), another habitué of Nat's Bar, whom he had half-seriously propositioned at the bar and who has admitted being attracted to him. She is now angry over the dates he has his broken with her, but after he kisses her in desperation, she yields and hands over a little money. He then falls down the stairs and is knocked unconscious. Coming around in the alcoholics' ward of a hospital on Sunday, he is confronted by 'Bim' Nolan (Frank Faylen) who mockingly recounts the histories of other patients at "Hangover Plaza." Bim allows that admissions to the ward were more numerous during prohibition and offers Don a solution to counteract the effects of the DTs, which Don refuses. During the night, on his second attempt and wearing a stolen coat over his pajamas, Don succeeds in escaping from the ward while the staff are occupied with a more disturbed and violent patient.
Meanwhile, Helen sleeps on the stairs outside his apartment. Don always ignores his milk and newspaper deliveries, but Helen is awoken by the milkman. Don's landlady assumes he is on one of his benders. She tells Helen she would be better off if he were dead. Elsewhere, as a liquor store is opening for the day, Don snatches a cheap bottle of whiskey from an assistant clerk. He returns home and ignores the ringing phone. Later, while inebriated, he imagines a mouse appearing out of a crack in the wall and a bat flying around his living room. The bat attacks the mouse. Bim had explained earlier that alcoholics usually imagine seeing small animals rather than "pink elephants." Helen returns, alerted by a call from Don's landlady who can hear his screams. Finding him in a delirious state, she vows to look after him and spends the night for reasons of propriety on Don's couch.
In the morning, Tuesday, Don is again absent. Helen learns that Don has pawned her coat–the one that brought them together–for a gun. Once more, Helen returns to Don's apartment. He is eager to get rid of her, though she asks him to lend her his raincoat. Don claims their relationship is at an end. Helen, via a reflection in a mirror, spots the gun concealed in the bathroom wash basin and offers him drink as a distraction. Quickly, she is able to retrieve the gun, but Don wrenches it away from her. She reiterates her love for him.
As Helen tries to persuade Don to quit drinking, the door buzzer sounds. Don answers, and Nat enters to return the typewriter Don lost at Gloria's home the night he fell. After Helen persuades him that "Don the writer" and "Don the drunk" are the same person, Don finally commits to writing his novel The Bottle, dedicated to Helen, which will recount the events of the weekend. He drops a cigarette into a glass of whiskey rather than drink it. He recalls that while packing for his lost weekend his mind was on a bottle suspended just outside his window, he ponders, over a reversal of the opening shot, how many other people in New York City are in the same position as he.
Production and notable features
Wilder was originally drawn to this material after having worked with Raymond Chandler on the screenplay for Double Indemnity. Chandler was a recovering alcoholic at the time, and the stress and tumultuous relationship with Wilder during the collaboration caused him to go back to drinking. Wilder made the film, in part, to try to explain Chandler to himself.
The film's musical score was among the first to feature the theremin, which was used to create the pathos of alcoholism.
This movie also made famous the "character walking toward the camera as neon signs pass by" camera effect.
Rights to the film are currently held by Universal Studios, which owns the pre-1950 Paramount sound feature film library via EMKA, Ltd.
Awards and honors
At the 18th Academy Awards in May 1946, The Lost Weekend received seven nominations and won in 4 categories.