Sunday, October 30, 2005

The Lost Weekend (1945)

One of the most graphic depictions of what it means to be addicted, The Lost Weekend has lost none of its power 60 years after its release.

Billy Wilder's 1945 film is one of the first mature films to come out of Hollywood after the end of the second World War. It falls somewhere between the categories of "social drama", the type of film that was typified by William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives-films that reflected social realities in film for the first time, inspired by the harsh realities of war, and the newly imported Neo-Realist films from Italy, such as Open City, Paisan, and of course Bicycle Thieves. Wilder, as astute an observer of American society as anyone, wrote this film with Charles Brackett, from a novel by Charles Jackson. The script takes us through the weekend of a terrible alcoholic, a failed writer, played to Oscar-winning perfection by Ray Milland. Over the course of this solitary weekend, we learn the causes and symptoms of his drinking, and see the devastating depths he falls to.

The film carries a strong visual motif throughout, however, as well as a thematic one, both of which link it to the film noir genre of the period. Lost Weekend does not necessarily carry the usual genre elements of noir, but stylistically, it could be classified as such. There is a definite dark mood to the entire film, complete with high contrast lighting and deep cinematography. But to watch Lost Weekend for the film noir aspects is to miss out on the incredible drama and great performances, not to mention the story, which really grips the attention of the audience, bringing each new scene in with a certain level of anticipation and even curiosity.

Director Wilder, who won an Academy Award here, would later become most famous for his series of cynical comedies, most notably Some Like it Hot, The Apartment, and One, Two, Three. But in his early American period (roughly 1942-1950), he directed several darker films that show his unique range. Regular readers of my reviews will know that I consider Wilder to be an outstanding artist on the grounds that he mastered so many different genres, and could adapt so well while always maintaining his own style. This film in particular exemplifies that. There is a memorable running gag in the film with Milland always sticking his cigarette into his mouth backward, and having to reverse it before lighting it. A subtle touch, but it adds so much to the characters.

As mentioned before, there is a definite noir atmosphere about the whole film. This is perhaps most evident in the chilling sequence where Milland wakes up in Bellevue (this was the first film allowed to film scenes inside Bellevue). Milland is forced to listen to the raving and screaming of his fellow patients experiencing DTs. This sequence still tingles the spine to watch and leaves a decided feeling of dread long after it is over.

Wilder avoids preaching to the audience. This film does not attempt to do for alcohol what Reefer Madness did for marijuana-that is, make it seem dangerously fun. Using the alcoholism as an all-controlling force, Wilder creates an interesting antagonistic force that exists within the alcohol himself. By avoiding the outright social statements that would have been easy to fall back on, Wilder presents the film as an entertainment, but one that is not likely to be forgotten or taken lightly by anyone who watches it.

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