The Lost Weekend is film noir and is based on the novel of the same name by Charles R. Jackson.
Set in New York City, it’s the story of a man named Don Birnam (Ray Milland) whose alcoholism reaches a peak on a weekend in which he is supposed to be enjoying a four-day restful vacation.
The movie is a rather frank dissertation on alcoholism as viewed in 1945.
Your humble reviewer’s opinion is that this movie is very good and will hold your attention for its 101 minute duration. It was the winner of four Oscars; Best Picture, Best Director (Billy Wilder), Best Actor in a Leading Role (Ray Milland), and Best Screenplay (Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder). It also won Best Picture and Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival and Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Director, and Best Actor.
One difference between this film and most movies of the noir flavor is that it does not contain the crime element found in most noir productions. It does, however, have the dark, foreboding and repressed ominousness that denotes the genre.
The rest of this review will contain spoilers, so if you have not seen this movie, read on at your own risk.
Don Birnam is a struggling writer. He’s not struggling to get something published – he’s struggling just to get something on paper. The cause of his struggle is bottle-related.
When we really get to know Don Birnam, we learn that he was the object of high hopes in college but since that time he hasn’t accomplished anything. Presently, he’s in his early thirties and lives with his brother Wick (Phillip Terry) in a New York City apartment. Wick seems to be successful and he also cares very much for his brother so he allows him to live with him rent-free. Wick has been sympathetic to Don’s problem and has tried for six years to help him. So far it hasn’t worked, even through one try at rehabilitation.
Don also has a beautiful girlfriend named Helen St. James (Jane Wyman) who, despite his problem, is extremely loyal to him. She’s been willing to stand by him even though he has no job or money and drinks to excess.
As the movie begins, we find Don and Wick packing for what is planned as a four-day weekend in the outdoors. Apparently, Don has just come off a bender as they refer several times to what he’s “just been through.” Don states that he hasn’t “touched the stuff for ten days.” Wick extols the virtues of spending time in the outdoors and four days away from the city and seems to believe that Don is at a point of positive change in his life.
But, in reality, Don has other things on his mind. There’s a bottle hanging out the window on a rope and he’s trying to figure out how to stow it in his luggage without Wick finding out.
We meet Helen when she arrives at the apartment to see the brothers off. Don uses this visit as an opportunity to get rid of the two of them for a few hours before they are set to depart when he convinces Wick to accompany Helen to an event.
Just before Wick and Helen leave the apartment Wick discovers the bottle outside the window and pours it down the drain. Don claims that it must have been there for some time and that he did not recall that it was there.
Now Don has a problem. He has no money and no liquor but he needs a drink.
Within minutes a cleaning lady arrives to clean the apartment. Don is not in the mood for her and shoos her away. Before she goes she asks for her money. When Don tells her that he doesn’t have any money she tells him that Wick usually leaves her money in the sugar jar. Don checks – and when he does, he finds a $10 bill.
He tells the cleaning lady that the money was not there and she departs. He departs too – right behind her and headed for a liquor store where with the $10 he buys two bottles of Rye.
He’s still planning on going on the trip with Wick and the idea now is to smuggle the two bottles to their destination. On the way home he stops by a neighborhood bar to have a few shots of Rye with the money he has left.
Predictably, he stays too long and gets drunk. Meanwhile, Wick and Helen are at Wick’s apartment waiting for Don. When he doesn’t arrive Wick is disgusted and ready to wash his hands of Don for good. He decides to go on the trip alone and departs.
We don’t see Wick again in the movie until a scene where Don tells his story to a bartender and the movie flashes back to show us how Don and Helen met, and how she subsequently learned of his alcoholism.
Now, Don is all alone in Wick’s apartment with two bottles of Rye. He’s already missed the trip and he’s well-oiled. He decides to drink one bottle of Rye and hide the other one. Even though he’s alone now, he’s so used to hiding his liquor that he continues to do it now.
He knows that Wick is already on to all of his old hiding places (including behind books and heating vents) and he discovers a new place on top of a ceiling light.
The next morning Don awakens and he instantly needs more booze. He makes his way down the street to Nat’s Bar. He has enough money for a few more shots of Rye. Nat (Howard Da Silva) doesn’t care for Don at all and lets him know as much.
A girl hangs out at Nat’s named Gloria (Doris Dowling). She’s a prostitute and she likes Don – a lot. In fact, she wants to go out with him and he agrees to take her out. Nat knows that Don has no plans of actually taking her out and he unloads on Don after Gloria leaves the bar.
Later, Don is back at the apartment and he can’t remember stashing the other bottle of Rye on top of the ceiling light and tears the apartment apart searching for it – without success.
He sits down and notices a matchbook on the coffee table with the name of a bar on it. He needs to drink so he decides to go.
At the bar Don drinks Gin and when he’s presented with the bill, he realizes that the small amount of money that he has left has dwindled down to the point that he can’t pay the bill. Now he has a new mess that he has to find a way out of.
A couple sitting near him are occupied with each other and the young lady is not paying attention to her purse. Don decides to relieve her of her money so he steals the $10 she has in her purse. He’s caught though and an embarrassing scene is the result. Don is summarily ejected from the bar.
He goes home and ends up finding the bottle he stashed on top of the ceiling light – and proceeds to drain it dry.
The next morning Don awakens disheveled and broke, but one thing has not changed; he needs another drink. But, Don has run out of friends.
He’s no stranger to using the services of pawn shops to help meet his needs and now he takes his typewriter, a gift from his mother, and departs the apartment in order to get a few more dollars. Unbeknownst to Don, it’s Yom Kippur and all of the pawn shops are locked up tight. There’s no chance of turning the typewriter into another $10 today.
As he staggers down the street, Don realizes he is outside the apartment building where Gloria (the girl from the bar) lives and goes in and finds her apartment. She’s mad at him, really mad, but she cares for him and when he begs her to give him money, she gives in and gives him $5. He quickly turns to leave.
This really shows the depth of Don’s situation. One moment she is his total focus. But, the minute she hands him some money, he’s done with her and is now focused only on getting to the nearest bar or liquor store.
As he turns to descend the stairs, a little girl is on her way up the stairs. When she and Don meet, he starts to lose his balance and he grabs for a light fixture on the wall. It won’t support him though and he falls all the way down the stairs.
When Don awakens, he’s not sure where he is. He’s in a room surrounded with people who all appear to be mentally ill. It turns out to be a combination drunk tank and mental ward. He wants to leave but is denied.
That night, two other patients/inmates simultaneously experience delirium tremens. While a doctor and several orderlies attend to those patients, Don uses a doctor’s coat and the darkness to slip out onto the city’s streets.
It’s Sunday morning and people are on the streets headed to church. Don is wearing an overcoat and the pajamas he was dressed in at the facility. Again, he needs a drink.
Seeing a liquor store operator opening his store Don follows him in. He tells the man that he needs a bottle of Rye and although he doesn’t have the money to pay for it, he is taking it.
After committing the strong-arm robbery Don returns to the apartment where he is still alone. He drinks the bottle of Rye he has just acquired.
While he is sleeping it off Helen comes to call. He won’t open the door for her so she gets help from the apartment building owner and janitor and they open the door for her.
Don is in bad shape. Helen insists that she is going to stay and help him. He doesn’t want her presence.
Early the next morning Don quietly exits the apartment, but not before stealing Helen’s coat. He takes the coat to the pawn shop (where he is known well) and pawns it.
Helen awakens just as Don leaves the apartment and follows him in the rain. She confronts him on the street but it’s of no use.
Helen believes that Don has pawned her coat so that he can buy another bottle.
She enters the pawn shop and speaks to the operator. He tells her that he did not give Don money; he gave him something else instead.
As stated earlier in this review, this is not a boring movie. Like many noir films it will keep most viewers interested throughout.
It’s always interesting to see a classic film that deals with a problem that is still relevant to society today.
Don Birnam is on a collision course with himself. Throughout the movie Don speaks of “the two Dons.” There is the Don that is creative and wants to be a writer and there is the Don that is an alcoholic.
The second Don has now taken over and the situation is not sustainable. He recognizes it and actually understands the problem completely. He is able to articulate his problem and has no delusions about the situation that he is in.
Yet, he drinks.