The throes of alcohol are a horrid sight indeed. Billy Wilder hopes to capture the brutality of addiction through The Lost Weekend. Following the gradual self-destruction of Don Birnam (Ray Milland), his friends and those around him can only watch in awe as he consumes unacceptable quantities of alcohol. Numbing his mind of various failings and misgivings, Wilder brings a flawed man to the forefront of his feature as he drinks his troubles away. Not quite knowing how to start his great novel, skipping out on a weekend away with his brother, Don spirals rather rapidly through a film that has more than a handful of issues.
Wilder films are usually very solid. The Lost Weekend is no exception, but it is perhaps his weakest work. Milland gives a strong performance, but outside of being a relatively notorious drunk, pitied by townsfolk and struck down with animosity from bartenders, he has nothing else. There is very limited growth to his character aside from giving up the boozing from time to time. Even then, these are only glimmers of what the character will inevitably transform into at the end of the film. At his peak, Birnam is a charming man with a free spirit and a desire to pen the great novel of his time. Crashing out to his lowest, though, and Wilder presents a man at his lowest, with no hopes of escaping a seemingly inevitable, permanent ailment.
Crucially, though, The Lost Weekend has an understanding of its doomed scenario. Liquor-laden gents have only themselves for support, and Wilder’s craft showcases that much. He doesn’t go the extra mile though, not showing how or why Birnam’s affliction is caused, or why it worries the stalwart friends that surround and support him. Underwhelming frustrations are lingering, brother Wick Birnam (Phillip Terry) and love interest Helen St. James (Jane Wyman) hang around as moral ballast. Neither quite engage as well with their audience as Milland does, but they serve strongly enough in a supporting capacity. They flag up the expected morally judicious characteristics, the blanket of sweeping understanding thrown at the intricate fire of alcoholism.
Still, The Lost Weekend is a strong bit of entertainment. Milland and Wyman have solid chemistry with one another, and some moments will strike up that care for the craft Wilder always held. Not as engaged with its cast as it should be though, and at times it forgets to round up its narrative leads cleanly. Characters come and go; surroundings and sentiments change as the story flutters through a long weekend lost to the horrible realities of overconsumption. Wilder blurs his story into a long, gruelling narrative that showcases just how muddled the mind of Birnam really was.