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.
The causes of Don Birnam’s alcoholism were not thoroughly controlled or understood, I thought, in the novel. In the movie they hardly exist. It may have been the better part of valor not to try to tackle them, and not to dabble in streams of consciousness, but when you add to this the fact that Mr. Milland cannot convincingly put before you this particular kind of thirsty man, you can see that the picture is bound to lack certain important kinds of depth, warmth, and intensity, not to mention plain dramatic interest. It becomes, too much of the time, just a virtuoso piece about a handsome, practically unidentified maniac. In one or two scenes you get with some force the terrible humiliation which is one of the drunkard’s experiences; but considering the over-all quality of the film, it is remarkable how much you seem to have been given, and how little you actually get. There is very little appreciation, for instance, of the many and subtle moods possible in drunkenness; almost no registration of the workings of the several minds inside a drinker’s brain; hardly a trace of the narcissism arid self-deceit which are so indispensable or of the self-loathing and self-pity which are so invariable; hardly a hint, except through abrupt action, of the desperation of thirst; no hint at all of the many colorings possible in the desperation. The hangovers lack the weakness, sickness, and horrible distortions of time-sense which they need.,
It is irrelevant to the carefully developed, finely photographed, wholly objective scheme of the movie, but I cannot help suggesting that many of these failures might have been avoided if the work had been done from a little farther inside. In some respects the method would still have been objective. A few minutes of dead-silent pantomime (without music, please!) of deadly weakness, in hangover, for instance, might have made definitive a good deal that is here only sketched; it should be the kind of weakness in which it is virtually unbearable to lift a hand, and for some reason necessary to do much more than that. Much of the wrestling of minds and moods too, I suspect, could have been registered from outside, through lines, business, mere close-up, and posture: Chaplin, after all, has made incredibly complicated things articulate in pantomime. Surely, for one simple instance most obviously perhaps after the dawn escape from the hospital—it would have been possible to show the abject shattering coldness to which even temperate men are liable; and perhaps also to capture, through it, the sudden annihilating loneliness and fear of God—-or whatever more terrifying it may be which are so common, if peculiar, an experience. For certain other things you would have to take your camera and soundtrack part way inside the mind. Not to mention the curious enhancements and dilations which the outside world takes on for a drunken man—and I don’t mean distortions in any “artistic” or “fantastic” sense but only such qualities as withering, euphoria, and tumescence. In the aftermath of drunkenness one is liable to be excruciatingly oversensitive to things touched, and to sound, and to light. Touch would have had to be carried by business—and night surely have been used to convey feverishness as well. Sound and light peculiarities could have been impacted in the film and track by appropriate, dry exaggerations. A knocking radiator, an abrupt auto horn, coupled with the right kind of playing, might have told the audience as much in an instant as an hour of pure objectivity could. The light equivalents of flashing traffic on a sunny autumn day, as Birnam would experience them, might drive an audience moaning from the theatre, unless their exact realism were modified into art.
I undershtand that liquor interesh: innerish intereshtsh are rather worried about thish film. Thash tough.