Thursday, May 15, 2014

2014 Cannes Marathon: The Lost Weekend

(Co-Winner of the Palme d’Or & Best Actor Prize to Ray Milland at the 1946 Cannes Film Festival)

Based on the novel by Charles R. Jackson, The Lost Weekend is the story of a writer struggling with alcoholism as he tries to clean himself up. Directed by Billy Wilder and screenplay by Wilder and Charles Brackett, the film is an exploration into a man and his addiction to alcohol as Ray Milland plays the lead role of Don Birnam. Also starring Jane Wyman, Phillip Terry, Howard Da Silva, Doris Dowling, and Frank Faylen. The Lost Weekend is a harrowing yet mesmerizing film from Billy Wilder.

Taking place in the span of a long weekend in New York City, the film explores Don Birnam’s struggle with alcoholism as he was supposed to go away for a long weekend with his brother. Instead, Birnam’s thirst for booze has him creating trouble for himself much to the worry of his brother Wick (Phillip Terry) and Don’s longtime girlfriend Helen St. James (Jane Wyman) who had been trying to get him sober. With Wick away for the weekend and Helen searching all over the city to find Don, Don would often shut himself from the world in his apartment finding whatever booze he has or use whatever money he can find to buy liquor. It’s essentially a character study of a man at the throes of his sickness as it raises question into when he will reach his bottom.

The film’s screenplay by Billy Wilder and producer Charles Brackett creates a structure that plays into Birnam’s descent as the first act is about Birnam hiding from his girlfriend and brother while doing whatever to get a drink at his favorite bar as it takes place on a Thursday. The second act is set on a Friday where Birnam is at his favorite bar talking about how he met Helen while talking about his ambitions to create the ultimate novel about his alcoholism. The third act is about Birnam finding his bottom and his desperation to drink booze and do whatever to get money so he can buy a bottle or something. The script would not just explore Birnam’s desperation but how low he can go into doing whatever just to have a drink as he would want one more. There’s also some very strong dialogue in the script as it plays to Birnam’s own self-loathing but also his struggle to get clean as he would endure not just others who have the same problem but also the sense of terror that his addiction has taken a toll on him.

Wilder’s direction is very entrancing not just in some of the noir-look of the film but also in his approach to framing. Some of which involved some tight close-ups and medium shots where Wilder would put Don right near the camera with Wick and Helen in the background to showcase how detached he is from them. Wilder does go for some simple shots but also maintains that sense of dread about when Don would hit his bottom. Wilder also puts in a lot of symbolism into his images such as the typewriter as it’s the one thing that Don has and needs yet his thirst for booze would have him do things to that. Especially as Wilder puts into great detail in his frame over the look of Don’s apartment and the things he sees as it would include a scene where he’s in a ward in the third act as he is confronted by men suffering from alcoholism. Even a flashback scene of the night Don meets Helen at a play where Don sees images of actors drinking as it plays to his struggle where it would come into this third act and climax into the decision he would make in his life. Overall, Wilder creates a very haunting yet intense film about a man’s struggle with alcoholism.

Cinematographer John F. Seitz does incredible work with the cinematography with its use of shades and lighting schemes to play into that sense of darkness creeping around Don in his apartment and the ward he briefly stays in. Editor Doane Harrison does excellent work with the editing with its approach to rhythmic cuts to play into Don‘s sense of fear and self-loathing along with a few fade-outs for structural reasons. Art directors Hans Dreier and A. Earl Hedrick, with set decorator Bertram C. Granger, do amazing work with the look of Don‘s apartment as it would play into the chaotic world that he lives in.

Costume designer Edith Head does brilliant work with the costumes from the dresses that Helen wears to the ragged suit and clothes that Don would wear. Sound recorders Stanley Cooley and Joel Moss do terrific work with the sound from the way things sound at the apartment as well as the bar Don goes to. The film’s music by Miklos Rozsa is fantastic for its mixture of somber yet chilling orchestral music that includes some eerie accompaniments from the theremin that adds to the dark tone of the film.

The casting by Robert Mayo and Alice Thomas is superb as it features some notable small performances from Mary Young as Don’s neighbor, Frank Faylen as a nurse at the ward who knows Don’s condition very well, Doris Dowling as a fellow bar patron Don knows and sometimes flirt with, and Howard Da Silva as the bartender Nat who doesn’t want to give Don anymore but needs to run his business. Phillip Terry is terrific as Don’s brother Wick who always ensure that he helps but starts to lose his patience over his brother’s drinking. Jane Wyman is amazing as Helen as this woman who becomes aware of how serious Don’s problem is as it’s a very fierce performance that has Wyman be dramatic but also not willing to give up. Finally, there’s Ray Milland in a magnificent performance as Don Birnam as this self-loathing writer who has a hard time being sober as he falls off the wagon again as he becomes desperate for booze as it’s a very dark yet captivating performance that explores the world of alcoholism.

The Lost Weekend is a phenomenal film from Billy Wilder that features a towering performance from Ray Milland. Not only is this film one of the most sobering portraits of alcoholism but also in how dark it is as it was a very daring film to be shown in the mid-1940s. Especially from someone as brave and confrontational in a filmmaker like Billy Wilder who wasn’t afraid to push boundaries. In the end, The Lost Weekend is a remarkable film from Billy Wilder.

Billy Wilder Films: (Mauvaise Graine) - (The Major and the Minor) - (Five Graves to Cairo) - Double Indemnity - (The Emperor Waltz) - (A Foreign Affair) - Sunset Boulevard - Ace in the Hole - Stalag 17 - (Sabrina) - (The Seven Year Itch) - (The Spirit of St. Louis) - (Love in the Afternoon) - (Witness for the Prosecution) - Some Like It Hot - The Apartment - (One, Two, Three) - (Irma La Douce) - (Kiss Me, Stupid) - (The Fortune Cookie) - (The Private Lives of Sherlock Holmes) - (Avanti!) - (The Front Page) - (Fedora) - (Buddy Buddy)

© thevoid99 2014


Alex Withrow said...

One of my all-time favorite films. Love that you referred to Milland's work as towering. That really is the best way to describe it. So damn good.

thevoid99 said...

It was scary to watch at times yet was also ahead of its time. Especially as it was made when the code was still intact and Milland just wanted to go for something that felt real. After seeing this, I want to explore more of the works of Billy Wilder as I hope to do an Auteurs piece on him soon.

ruth said...

Wow, another Billy Wilder's masterpiece I still need to catch up on. I'm hoping to see The Apartment this weekend as I mistakenly watched another Wilder film for my Blindspot last month!

thevoid99 said...

@ruth-I hope to see more of Billy Wilder's work in the coming months as I'm just impressed by what he's done as I hope to do more. There's no question into why he is so revered. Plus, this is one of the rare films that won an Oscar and actually earned it.