[box cover]

The Lost Weekend

Billy Wilder's 1945 The Lost Weekend begins much like Psycho, another movie about a man with secrets. A roving camera drifting high over the city isolates one small window. Inside is Don Birnam (Ray Milland), a heavy-drinking failed writer who is preparing to leave for the countryside, where he will dry out under the supervision of his brother Wick (Phillip Terry, one of Joan Crawford's husbands). Also on hand is Birnam's girlfriend, Helen St. James (Jane Wyman, the first Mrs. Ronald Reagan). But Birnam contrives to ditch his overseers and embarks on the weekend of the title, in which Birnam alternately pontificates and tells his life story to bartender Nat (Howard da Silva) in the neighborhood bar, runs out of both booze and money, and embarks on the famous trek up Manhattan's Third Avenue, lugging his typewriter and searching for a pawn shop, any pawn shop, that might be open on a Saturday that turns out to be Yom Kippur. Falling down a flight of stairs, Birnam ends up in "Hangover Plaza," the alcoholic ward of Bellevue Hospital, where he is lectured by a contemptuous male nurse (Frank Faylen). He escapes, only to engage in a petty robbery, endure a terrible hallucination, and finally lose all hope, leading him to prepare to commit suicide. Remarkably sticking with him through all this is Helen, who believes that Birnam really can salvage his self-respect and his life from out of the bottom of a bottle. Wilder's fourth film as a director, The Lost Weekend is based on the novel by Charles R. Jackson. Wilder wrote the screenplay with his then partner, the patrician Charles Brackett, who also served as producer. Wilder wanted to make his film as realistic and unsentimental as possible. Birnam is in many ways a typical Wilder hero, a louse and hustler. Birnam is not a nice or cute drunk; at one point, he pimps himself to a hooker (Doris Dowling, with whom Wilder was having an affair at the time) for ten bucks, then ridicules her when he has weaseled the money out of her. Wilder was just coming off of a momentary partnership writing Double Indemnity with mystery novelist Raymond Chandler, who was an alcoholic, so Wilder had some closely observed detail to serve his art. Though Birnam lives in a low-rent part of town, he's an arty guy, with frequent visits to the opera on his agenda. Thus, Wilder and Brackett show alcoholism attacking its victims without care for their social standing or aspirations. Composer Miklos Rosza contrasts his lush musical score with the use of the electronic instrument the theremin, which gives Birnam's cravings a fearful edge. But The Lost Weekend is not a humorless Stanley Kramer-style social-protest document. How could it be with Wilder directing? There is also a great deal of wit and verbal swordplay in the film, the kind of slangy dialogue that captures the American voice at a certain point in time. The Lost Weekend is a great movie that transcends its, so-to-speak, chamber drama limitations. One almost feels ungrateful for thinking that Universal has not exploited the potential of this single-sided, single-layered disc. It features a clean transfer of the film in full-frame (1.33:1), one that fully captures cinematographer John F. Seitz's documentary-style black-and-white photography and his superb close-ups. Sadly, the source print shows some wear and dirt, and the image also flickers subtly. The Dolby Digital sound is in the original mono, but clear. The film comes in English only, with close captions in English, and subtitles in Spanish and French. Extras are minimal, especially considering that Wilder is still alive and could theoretically do an audio commentary, or that there are several critics who are experts on the director. The extras consist of the theatrical trailer, a brief sketch of the film's production history on eight screens, cast notes on six actors and on Wilder, plus a "recommendations" ad for other Universal DVDs. The static, silent menu offers 18 chapter scene selection. Keep-case.
—D.K. Holm



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