Sunday, January 11, 2015

Tonight's Movie: The Lost Weekend (1945) at UCLA

Viewing films from this year's 10 Classics List is off to a good start! Tonight I saw my first film from the list, THE LOST WEEKEND (1945).

The occasion was an evening Celebrating Charles Brackett in the ongoing UCLA Archive Treasures series.

Film historian Anthony Slide was on hand to sign his new book presenting excerpts from screenwriter Brackett's diaries, IT'S THE PICTURES THAT GOT SMALL: CHARLES BRACKETT ON BILLY WILDER AND HOLLYWOOD'S GOLDEN AGE. Slide also gave a short talk about Wilder and Brackett's work style and some background information on the evening's program.

As many will already be aware, THE LOST WEEKEND was written by Brackett and Billy Wilder, based on a book by Charles R. Jackson. Wilder also directed this somber tale of a few miserable days in the life of alcoholic writer Don Birnam (Ray Milland).

Though Don has the longstanding support of his girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman) and brother Wick (Phillip Terry), he's unable to kick his intense craving for alcohol; indeed, it seems likely Don may end up dead before the weekend is over.

There isn't much more to the plot than that. It's an engrossing film, but while it has positive attributes, I also found the film a bit of a letdown, given its Oscar-winning reputation.

First, the positives: Milland, who won the Best Actor Oscar, and Wyman are excellent, and their compelling performances keep the viewer engrossed from start to finish. Milland's performance must have been a bit of a jolt to audiences of the '40s who were so used to seeing him as the leading man in romantic comedies, although he did have meatier dramatic roles from time to time, such as the previous year's MINISTRY OF FEAR (1944) and THE UNINVITED (1944). It's an intense role, and Milland seemed fearless about playing someone who doesn't engender much audience sympathy.

This film was a significant break for Wyman; she was cast in it based on her supporting performance in PRINCESS O'ROURKE (1943), and it launched a new phase in her career as a leading lady of "A" pictures, with an Oscar not much further down the road.

The film is also noteworthy for its willingness to present such an unrelentingly brutal take on a topic not usually treated so seriously in films of the day. That context seems significant to keep in mind.

That said, I felt let down by the script, starting with a lack of significant back story for Don; it seems unlikely being a failed writer was all that led him to nearly drink himself to death, and more significantly, there is zero explanation for what Helen sees in Don. Although the film has flashback sequences, including the time they first met, we are not shown a single scene of Don treating Helen with charm or romance. We're told he didn't drink for six weeks after meeting her, but we don't see it.

As Lindsay noted to me after the film, it seems as though the audience was supposed to insert that positive background themselves, based on Milland's casting. I've certainly seen that reliance on audience goodwill happen in other films, and most recently noted something similar when I watched COME LIVE WITH ME (1941), where James Stewart's character lacks much time to be nice and the audience roots for Hedy Lamarr to choose him largely on the basis that he's James Stewart.

Apparently the viewer is supposed to imagine the charming Milland of other films and assume that's why Jane Wyman's character stays true to him for so long. However, her complete devotion to someone so ill and angry, who refuses to get help, actually raises questions in the viewer's mind about whether Helen has issues of her own. Why is an intelligent, independent woman willing to put up with Don's behavior not changing for years? Are her actions a positive sign of an upbeat person making a loving and responsible commitment, or is standing by Don for so long an indicator that she has issues of her own?

I also had trouble buying the ultimate "redemption" scene which lasted all of a minute or two before the movie ended. Why should Helen or the viewer believe that this time will be any different? There wasn't really any basis for feeling good about Don's likely future; it seemed tacked on so that viewers wouldn't leave the theater in a state of total depression!

I honestly expected the story to take a different arc and have Don hit bottom earlier in the film, then start to grope his way out of the abyss, leaving the viewer with the hope that he was truly on the path of sobriety. That didn't happen at all. The fact that the film is basically 101 minutes of watching a man in misery means I don't anticipate it being something I'll revisit. I'm glad I finally saw it but once will be enough for me.

On the positive side, I like a movie that makes me think, even if it's because I'm dissatisfied with some aspects of the storytelling. This film definitely had me mentally turning it inside and out all the way home from Los Angeles!

I haven't had time to read it yet, but Lindsay also sent me the link to a 2013 Vanity Fair article on the novel's adaptation which looks interesting. Perhaps it -- or the new Brackett book -- addresses some of my questions.

Frank Faylen has a good couple of scenes as a nurse in a detox ward. The cast also includes Frank Orth, Howard Da Silva, and Doris Dowling. Lilian Fontaine, mother of Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland, plays Jane Wyman's mother, and Lewis L. Russell plays her father.

THE LOST WEEKEND was filmed by John F. Seitz and scored by Miklos Rozsa.

THE LOST WEEKEND is available on DVD. It's also had a release on VHS.

UCLA also showed FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO (1943) this evening, but as much as I would have liked to see it, I needed to have an early evening and cut out after the first film tonight. I'll look forward to watching it at a future date.


Blogger Bill O said...

Milland never seemed to care about courting the audience's sympathy, even in his '40's prime. Even played the Devil once. Seemed drawn to outre material, doing horror films in the '60's more by choice than economic necessity. Went on the Tonight Show gleefully decsribing his character in Thing With Two Heads as a racist who gets his head transplanted onto Rosey Grier's body.

4:30 AM  
Blogger Kristina said...

I feel much the same way about it, definitely a Milland essential and showcase but SO overwhelmingly heavy and downbeat. Hope you get around to seeing FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO sometime :)

6:38 AM  
Blogger barrylane said...

I believe you will find a gay subtext to Milland's character upon further research. As simply a point of personal preference, I dislike this film and all about it -- other than the performances by Jane Wyman and associates.

7:02 AM  
Blogger dfordoom said...

I'm not a big fan of this movie, but then I'm not that much of a Billy Wilder fan. Sometimes his excessive bleakness works (as it does in SUNSET BOULEVARD and DOUBLE INDEMNITY) but sometimes it just seems like misery for misery's sake.

10:52 AM  
Blogger 71Texasgrad said...

I prefer Wilder's comedies but this is an excellent turn by Milland. You need to be in a mood for something dark and brooding to watch this one.


1:44 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Very much enjoyed all of your comments, thanks for adding to the discussion!

DforDoom, I'm finding that in general I seem to prefer the comedies Wilder wrote before he started directing -- as you noted, he could be awfully bleak!

Best wishes,

2:11 PM  

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