Billy Wilder was a gutsy filmmaker, but he didn’t have it in him to tell the story behind Don Binam’s alcoholic binge as it appeared in the novel–that he’d had a homosexual affair in college.
While I watched the movie which Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett have made out of Charles Jackson’s story about alcoholism, The Lost Weekend, I was pretty consistently gratified and excited. When I began to try to review it, I could not forget what Eisenstein said, years ago, when he was asked what he thought of Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front. He said he thought it was a good Ph.D. thesis. I am afraid that applies to The Lost Weekend, too. I don’t mean that it is stuffy: it is unusually hard, tense, cruel, intelligent, and straightforward. But I see nothing in it that is new, sharply individual, or strongly creative. It is, rather, a skillful restatement, satisfying and easy to overrate in a time of general dereliction and fatuousness, of some sound basic commonplaces.
On that scale, of course, excellent things can be done. I don’t see how the drunkard’s first experience of the d. t.’s could be improved on by any means except possibly a dragging-out and brutalization of its climax. Frank Faylen’s performance as a male nurse is fully as right and powerful; so is a shrieking free-for-all in an alcoholic ward—which is fought, however, by an incredibly mistaken use of “background” music. Ray Milland’s performance as the alcoholic Don Birnam is debatable at first, but so absorbed and persuasive as the picture moves along that he all but wins the picture and the doubters over. There are also some first-rate re-creations of place and atmosphere—a soft-leather, soft-noised cocktail lounge, and a perfect setting of the Birnam apartment, and some shots of New York streets and times of day. At best there is a purity of tone and an acuteness about a city and the people in it which belong high in the movies’ great classical strain of unforced, naturalistic poetry. While you watch it, it entirely holds you.
Thinking it over, though, there are curious and disappointing things about the picture. Good as he is, Milland is too robust for the best interests of his role; and in the earlier reels, when he is still sober enough to be assessed as a normal human being, it seems clear that neither he nor the director happens to know very much about the particular kind of provincially born, genteelly bred failed artist Milland is supposed to be playing. None of the other players seem thoroughly at home, either, in the commonplace yet extremely specialized kind of apartment they use, though Philip Terry’s gentle performance as the brother is of itself good, and Jane Wyman is knowingly cast as a Time researcher. Howard de Silva plays the ambiguous bartender well and with force, but the force and his face, in this context, turn it into ambiguity for little tots. The players miscast as Miss Wyman’s ultra-bourgeois parents are probably not to blame, but they turn a sequence where intelligence and restraint would have been particularly gratifying into heavy caricature.