American auteur Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945) has deservedly been given the Masters of Cinema treatment this week. Available for the first time on Blu-ray, Wilder’s phenomenally earnest depiction of substance abuse caused a stir on its original release due to its warts-and-all portrayal of alcoholism. Hopeless alcoholic Don Birnam’s (Ray Milland) brother, Wick (Phillip Terry), is all set to take him away for a much needed weekend retreat after his ten days spent t-total. However, Don is far from over his reliance on alcohol, something that quickly becomes apparent when he turns up inebriated just moments before they’re scheduled to leave.
The Lost Weekend remains a truly remarkable and devastating film about substance abuse and addiction. When Don preaches about alcohol being a “drink at night but in the morning its medicine”, the honesty in his voice is genuinely chilling, especially as this is a man who’s inability to enjoy just one drink is described by a bartender as like someone “jumping off a roof and expecting to only fall one floor”. Wilder brilliantly dispenses his tentative premise with a harsh realism that renders Don’s downward spiral into despair utterly heartbreaking and emotionally painful for the audience to endure.
Wilder’s assertive and confident style further enhances this formidable tale thanks to some breathtaking imagery. Whether it be using the ‘vicious circle’ left by the shot glass to show the extent of Don’s drinking binge, the careful framing of his hidden whiskey hiding places or sound tracking the smash of a bourbon bottle with the sound of a gunshot, Wilder knows exactly how to subtly evoke a heightened sense of anxious trepidation for Don’s deteriorating state. With the tragic sweep of a great novel, Wilder’s The Lost Weekend is an almost un-watchable portrait of alcoholism told through a compelling collection of assured direction, confident performances and a near-perfect script.