Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Lost Weekend (1945) The Lost Noir

No, not lost as in not available, not seen, or unknown. It's the red-headed stepchild of Classic Film Noir. The Lost Weekend is left off almost all citations of the "discovery" or "recognition of the "new" Film Noir by French Critics in 1946 after the end of WWII.

The term Film Noir was used in the French newspapers and magazines of Paris as far back as the 1930s. It was used as both a right wing political dig at the poetic realist movement that they felt was associated with the leftist Popular Front and a condemnation of the negative trend in films that were considered immoral and demoralizing during the pre-war years.

Two 1946 pieces that are always cited in the canon on post WWII Film Noir are Nino Frank's "A New Kind of Police Drama: the Criminal Adventure" for  L'Écran français, and Jean-Pierre Chartier's "Americans Also Make Noir Films" for La Révue du Cinéma. The four films invariably always mentioned when referring to these two critics are Double Indemnity, Laura, The Maltese Falcon, and Murder My Sweet. The film almost always left out in these texts is the third film that Chartier mentions the one that deals with addiction and human frailties The Lost Weekend.

"...the hand of Billy Wilder is clearly evident, particularly in the first person narrative which is used as well in his other ‘noir’ film ‘The Lost Weekend.’” Here we have one of the legendary postwar French critics specifically citing a film as a “noir” and yet this film has been ignored in what is considered “film noir” by the noirists. In the pantheon of American so-called film noirs, “The Lost Weekend” could be known as “The Lost Noir.”

“The Lost Weekend” isn’t listed in Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference of the American Style. In A Panorama of American Film Noir, Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton mention “The Lost Weekend” as “having been classified, somewhat superficially, as belonging to the noir genre, doubtless because of the hospital scenes and the description of delirium tremens. Strangeness and crime, however, were absent from it, and the psychology of the drunk offered one of the most classic examples there are of the all-powerfulness of a rudimentary desire.”

When A Panorama of American Film Noir was published in 1955, the notion that a “film noir” described a crime film, [it] created a gospel from which the form would never recover. Dismissing “The Lost Weekend” as “superficially . . . belonging to the noir genre” doomed the film to be ignored by future writings on “film noir.”

On “The Lost Weekend,” Chartier writes, “The impressions of insanity, of a senseless void, left by the drama of a young man in the grip of singular addiction, makes ‘The Lost Weekend’ one of the most depressing films I have ever seen. Certainly a charming young lady helps our alcoholic hero sober up and permits the film to end with a kiss. But the impression of extreme despair persists despite this upbeat ending.”" (The death Of Film Noir the other Critic (2009) William Ahearn)

Directed by Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity (1944), Sunset Boulevard (1950), Ace in the Hole (1951))  The film was based on Charles R. Jackson's 1944 novel of the same name, the screenplay was by Charles Brackett (Edge of Doom (1950), Sunset Boulevard (1950), Niagara (1953)) and Billy Wilder. The excellent cinematography was by John F. Seitz (Double Indemnity (1944), The Big Clock (1948), Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948), Chicago Deadline (1949), Sunset Boulevard (1950)). The music score by Miklós Rózsa (composer for fourteen Classic Noir) was among the very first to make use of the theremin, it was very effective in creating an eerie leitmotif for creeping addiction of alcoholism.

The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards and for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay). It also shared the Grand Prix at the first Cannes Film Festival.

Don (Milland) and Wick (Terry)

Don and Helen (Wyman)

Don and Nat (Da Silva)

Gloria (Dowling) and Don

Nurse Bim Nolan (Faylen)
The film stars Ray Milland (Ministry of Fear (1944), The Big Clock (1948), Alias Nick Beal (1949), Dial M for Murder (1954)) as Don Birnam, Jane Wyman (The Glass Menagerie (1950)) as Helen St. James, Phillip Terry (Born to Kill (1947), Deadline - U.S.A. (1952)) as Wick Birnam
Howard Da Silva (five Classic Noir) as Nat, Doris Dowling (The Blue Dahlia (1946), Bitter Rice (1949)) as Gloria, Frank Faylen (They Drive by Night (1940), The Blue Dahlia (1946), 99 River Street (1953)) as 'Bim' Nolan, and Manhattan, New York City circa 1945.

1945 Manhattan Skyline lt. to rt. Chrysler building, center spire Empire State building, Grand Central Terminal, and The Waldorf Astoria twin towers near rt.

Midtown with Radio City center rt.
Thursday. Manhattan. Upper East Side apartment house. A pan to the side of a building reveals a window with a plant and another, out of which hangs a booze bottle on a string. As we zoom into the window we hear the first faint wail of the theremin.

 You could say the bottle on the string below the window is like a noose around his neck symbolised by the pull shade cord
Don Birman (Milland). Broke. Loser. Wasted word slinger. Alkie for six or so years. His brother Wick (Terry), his keeper. Been watching over Dons periods of lucidity between his binges. They are packing for a four day weekend in the country. Don hasn't touched the "stuff" for ten days. Don has a loyal girlfriend of three years, Helen (Wyman), who is helping to combat his problem. Helen arrives with a book, cigarettes, and chewing gum for Don's trip.

Don anxious. Don conniving. He wants to get at that bottle. He finagles himself out of the picture getting Helen and Wick to go to a concert so that he can drink before getting on the train, but Wick finds his stash and pours it down the sink. Don is irate but Wick and Helen reluctantly leave him alone to stew in the apartment. Wick isn't worried because Don hasn't any money to buy any hooch and He's told all the neighborhood sources not to give him any credit.

pouring out the hooch

Looking for a stash

the cleaning lady's money

Cleaning lady
Don begins a frantic search of the apartment as the theremin addiction leitmotif kicks into high gear. He's almost defeated until the cleaning lady arrives at the door to get her money. Don finds out from her that Wick has left her a ten spot in the lid of the sugar bowl. He tells her that Wick must have forgot and he pockets the dough. She leaves. Don is ecstatic and on the loose on his "lost weekend."

"You know what brand...."
He heads to the nearest liquor store.

Don Birman: Two Bottles of rye.
Mr. Brophy: What brand?
Don Birman: You know what brand Mr. Brophy. The cheapest. None of that twelve year old aged in the wood, chi chi, nuts, for me.

With his newly acquired swag he goes to Nats (Da Silva) Bar at 42nd and Third Avenue. He buys a shot and knocks it back. He flirts with B-girl hooker Gloria (Dowling) and five shots later expounds about his boozing to Nat.

Don Birnam: It shrinks my liver, doesn't it, Nat? It pickles my kidneys, yeah. But what it does to the mind? It tosses the sandbags overboard so the balloon can soar. Suddenly I'm above the ordinary. I'm competent. I'm walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls. I'm one of the great ones. I'm Michelangelo, molding the beard of Moses. I'm Van Gogh painting pure sunlight. I'm Horowitz, playing the Emperor Concerto. I'm John Barrymore before movies got him by the throat. I'm Jesse James and his two brothers, all three of them. I'm W. Shakespeare. And out there it's not Third Avenue any longer, it's the Nile. Nat, it's the Nile and down it moves the barge of Cleopatra.

"I'm Michelangelo, molding the beard of Moses."

Meanwhile back at the apartment Helen and Wick discover Don is gone and probably off on one of his binges. Wick is pissed and leaving for the weekend at the farm.

"You know how he gets,,,"
Helen: You know how he gets, he'll get run over by a car, he'll get arrested, a cigarette may fall from his mouth and he'll burn his bed.
Wick Birnam: If it happens, it happens and I hope it does. I've had six years of this. I've had my belly full... Who are we fooling? We've tried everything, haven't we? We've reasoned with him. We've baited him. We've watched him like a hawk. We've tried trusting him. How often have you cried? How often have I beaten him up? Scrape him out of a gutter and pump some kind of self-respect into him and back he falls, back in every time.
Helen St. James: He's a sick person. It's as though there was something wrong with his heart or his lungs. You wouldn't walk out on him if he had an attack. He needs our help.
Wick Birnam: He won't accept our help. Not Don, he hates us. He wants to be alone with that bottle of his. It's all he gives a hang about. Why kid ourselves? He's a hopeless alcoholic.

Don stumbles back to his pad just as Wick and Helen are leaving. He hides at the back of the hallway and then goes up and drinks himself into an alcoholic stupor.

Friday morning he's back a Nat's Bar at 11AM just as he's opening up.

Don Birman: Just give me another drink,
Nat: Mr. Birman, this is the morning.
Don Birman: That's when you need it most in the morning, haven't you learned that yet? At night that stuffs to drink, in the morning it's medicine.

Of course under the Motion Picture Production Code it's all in the subtext but Gloria shows up looking for a trick her pimp called her about who is supposed to meet her at the bar, her clients are all "relatives" who come down from Albany. She usually takes them to see "Grant's Tomb."

"I'd like to give it to you."

Nat: It's amazing how many guys come down from Albany just to see Grant's Tomb.
Gloria (to Don while she seductively sticks a chocolate bar in her mouth): Sometimes I wish you came from Albany.
Don Birman: Yea, where would you take me?
Gloria: Lot's of places, the Music Hall, the New Yorker roof maybe...
Don Birman: There is now being presented of 44th Street the uncut version of Hamlet, I could see us setting out for that, do you know Hamlet?
Gloria: I know 44th Street.
Don Birman: I'd like to get your interpretation of Hamlet's character.
Gloria: I'd like to give it to you.

Don and Gloria make a date, but Nat knows Don is full of BS. He chastises Don and tells him that not only is he pulling Gloria's let but he's also treating Helen terribly. When Nat asks how she ever got mixed up with someone who sops up the sauce like him we go into a long flashback sequence that begins when he met Helen at a performance of La Traviata. The opera's opening scene where there is a protracted toast with many goblets being passed among the performers is almost comically very suggestive to poor Don who begins to hallucinate his raincoat and it's bottle of booze that he checked in the lobby. When he can't take it any longer he heads to the lobby and discovers he has the wrong ticket. Helen has his and they meet.

La Traviata

Don Birnam: 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 rain spout in front of her house, the ringing of a telephone that sounds like Beethoven's Pastorale, a letter scribbled on her office stationery that you carry around in your pocket because it smells like all the lilacs in Ohio.

Don decides to go back to the apartment to start his novel. He gets blocked again and begins to look for the bottle he hid. Frantic he can't remember where he left it. He heads out to Harry & Joe's where he runs out of money. He tries stealing money from a woman's purse. He's caught and thrown out. That night back at his flat he sees the bottle he stashed in the light fixture from it's reflection on the ceiling.  He drinks himself stupid.

searching for his stash

Stealing the purse
Saturday. Broke and out of booze. Don decides to pawn his typewriter. He goes on an Odyssey up 3rd Ave. All the pawnshops are closed on Yom Kippur. He desperately goes to Gloria's and begs her for cash. She at first refuses since he stood her up then takes pity. Don relieved, starts to leave but falls down the stairs waking up Sunday in the Bellevue Hospital drunk ward "Hangover Plaza". The male nurse Bim Nolan (Faylen ) tells him that delirium is a disease of the night. That night when a fellow ward patient gets the DT's distracting the nurses he escapes.

Monday. Don steals a bottle of whiskey and drinks himself increasingly into Noirsville.


Ray Milland is excellent, he is a wonderful drunk, he effectively portrays all the nuances of an intelligent man who is keenly aware of his own helpless degradation. Jane Wyman is impressive as the loyal girlfriend who determinedly fights for her man. Phillip Terry is believable as the disgusted and disgruntled brother. Howard Da Silva put in a good show as the disapproving barkeep, and Doris Dowling is great as the hopeful B-girl/hooker.

The film also features some great sequences of Manhattan and the Third Avenue el, sure some of it is  second unit rear projection but other sequences aren't. It's a nice time capsule to 1945.

Will Don make it? Or is this another interlude? He gets the girl in the end but he still has the revolver in his pocket.

Screencaps are from the 2001 Universal DVD. 10/10

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