In 1945, Billy Wilder was still becoming himself, but he wasn’t a Hollywood newbie. The Lost Weekend, would win him two Academy Awards for writing and for directing (he would win again for writing in 1950 for Sunset Boulevard and become the first person to win separate Oscars for writing, directing, and producing in the same year with 1960’s The Apartment). It would firmly plant him in the big leagues of Hollywood, but the picture was made on the back of his supremely successful hard-boiled exercise in nihilism, Double Indemnity, from the year before. In this light, had it not been for Double Indemnity, it would be easy to claim that The Lost Weekend just wasn’t quite there yet, or that it was still the product of a director and a writer identifying their place in Hollywood. But then, Double Indemnity burns with Wilder’s patented fiery brand of ice, and The Lost Weekend is merely a sharp noir in full-on potboiler mode. Good Wilder, surely, but not Wilder at his best.
Still, good Wilder is pretty nifty filmmaking when it comes down to it, and if this writer/director would out-write and out-direct himself several times later (and just one year before with Double Indemnity), The Lost Weekend is not short on strengths. A breathless set-up for one, where we learn that Don Birnam (a hot-tempered Ray Milland) is an alcoholic writer, that his girlfriend Helen St. James (Jane Wyman) loves him and has spent years dealing with his alcoholism, and that he resides at the apartment of his brother Wick Birnam (Phillip Terry).
The expediency is central to the success of the narrative, where Don is meant to accompany his brother to a weekend getaway where he can imbibe in no alcohol, until he gives his brother the slip and goes on a weekend long bender of titanic and potentially life destroying portions. As a piece of writing (adapted from Charles R. Jackson’s novel The Lost Weekend), this film is an adequate production, but it is plainly obvious that Wilder encountered the novel as an avenue for undertaking a moral crusade, rather than to nuance a character or a narrative. On paper, writer Charles Brackett and Wilder offer little of interest today about the perils of alcoholism, although that was certainly not true for the time. By 1945, and for much longer, alcoholism was a proposition weighed on heavily by public opinion (it still is, to a great degree) and the general public saw it as a personality flaw or a weakness. The Lost Weekend offered a destabilizing blast to the contrary, and it was, in its day, a searing, important, matter-of-fact tale of a man on the brink of destruction, but it was not then, nor is it now, a great screenplay. A statement that is true even if we don’t judge it as the product of arguably the greatest, most pungent screenwriter of the 20th century.
What saves the film, other than Ray Milland’s grotesquely fitting and rigorously uncomposed performance (he enters full-on hysterics mode, and the raw physicality of his performance, if not an accurate portrayal of alcoholism per-se, is cinematic lighting), is Wilder’s willingness to explore the nooks and crannies of alcoholism as an avenue for ricocheting camerawork and steamy chiaroscuro (by John F. Seitz, who would go on to photograph arguably the most visually luminous black-and-white American film ever, Sunset Boulevard, also with Wilder). The filmmaking is, itself, fraught with hysterics. Although it isn’t quite as demonically unholy and lightning-rod exciting as the stream of projects the hard-charging rabble-rouser Sam Fuller would undertake in the ’50s and ’60s, Wilder’s visual mood setting sees him in full-on agitator mode. The camera, like a trapped animal fraught with paranoia, transforms the city of New York into a prison of caverns and cages both beckoning Birnam toward his goals and keeping him at bay. The film does not know softness; angles lash out, and darkness engulfs Birnam’s desires and fears. Alcoholism becomes a figurative nightmare, and Birnam loses his grasp on reality, and Wilder is committed to dissassembling alcoholism and stripping it for visual parts.
If The Lost Weekend isn’t the most nuanced study in alcoholism, it expends so much effort drawing its audience into its own state of mind with its own brand of passion that the failures of script don’t, in the end, much matter. It isn’t a film that necessarily wants to say something about alcoholism so much as it wants you to feel every drop of sweat streaming down Milland’s face and sweat yourself when you become a victim in its trap. It is dedicated to the feeling of alcoholism, and if the film isn’t Wilder at his best (it boasts none of Wilder’s trademark bitter levity or cunning wordplay), it feels every ounce of torment it wants us to feel. It is a very tactile film, not a better work than Double Indemnity, but a superior directorial showpiece. If Wilder the writer let the good intentions of the screenplay slack his pen hand a bit, he sacrificed none of his visual showmanship, and it is arguably the single work that best showcases his eye and his natural inclination toward subtle visual cues, diabolical angles, and jungle-like visual framing (the score by Miklós Rósza, all harsh orchestral shards and nervous horror-movie howls, galvanizes the visuals with pure fear as well).
For many writer-directors, the former job takes center stage, and the visual storytelling of cinema is an afterthought for their pen-and-paper workouts. Because of its dubious merits as a work of writing, The Lost Weekend is a firm showcase for Wilder as one of the few writer-directors who places equal weight on both legs. It is entirely his directing that saves the film, and from the looks of it, Wilder might have intended it that way; proof that he was born and bred as a filmmaker in the heyday of classical noir entertainment, and if his greatest successes would come later in the field of caustic comedy, he wasn’t about to forget his noirish roots.
Despite all the lightness he adopted with age, Wilder was always committed to pushing the noir to its limits, and to discovering new crevices and secret areas of seemingly non-noir productions (like his later The Apartment) to introduce the visual language of curdled noir into and reinterpret what a noir meant. A noir did not need a hard-boiled detective, he said, or a femme fatale, or a mystery at all. It only needed a prowling attitude, a cackling brashness, a fringe-dwelling swagger, and a visual vocabulary out of human nightmares, and Wilder dedicated himself to pursuing this mood in the types of films that nominally had nothing to do with the noir. Jut look at the many other drippy, creaking message movies from the mid-’40s just to see how far they fall without The Lost Weekend’s caustic burst of noir visuals propping them up. The Lost Weekend is not perfect, but it’s got nerve. Not Billy Wilder-caliber nerve, but nerve nonetheless, and that counts for a mighty something when all is said and done. Not great, but it gets points for being a panic attack where a film ought to reside.