The American cinema can count itself lucky with the wave of arrival of the best European talent in the days prior to World War II. Among the most distinguished directors that came to Hollywood was Billy Wilder who left a legacy, not only as a director, but in the many screen plays he wrote. One of his great works was "The Lost Week-end". Written with Charles Brackett, one of his most frequent collaborators, this is a film that dared to talk about a thing that no one dared to speak before: alcoholism.
If you haven't seen the film, please stop reading now.
On the opening scene of the picture we watch Don Birman, and his brother Wick packing suitcases for a long weekend in the country. We realize not everything is all right as we watch a bottle tied with a piece of string hanging out of a window. It's clear to see what was wrong with that picture, Don is an alcoholic! Wick, having enough common sense, wants to keep his brother near him, in order to control the situation.
Things get complicated with the arrival of Helen, the woman in love with Don. Helen St. James has been in a relationship with Don that has gone nowhere because of his drinking problem. Helen, as well as Wick, don't have the courage to have him committed to have him cured of his addiction. In fact, both are to blame about the condition affecting Don, but neither realize how deep is the problem.
In 1945 themes involving addiction were never told to the movie going public. Alcoholism was a vice that affected a lot of people in the country, but those were the days where people with drinking problems stayed in the closet, not daring to recognize how their lives were being ruined by the heavy use of alcohol.
We watch in horror as Don spends a weekend in hell going from one scheme to the next trying to get money to support his nasty habit. We also see Don Birman experience the worst night of his life when he is taken to a hospital, after falling down from a staircase. There, he sees first hand the horrors his addictions will bring to him. In a way, the exposure to the men in the hospital is a wake up call for Don, who decides to end it all because drinking has taken over his life. The movie should be seen by anyone suffering from this terrible social disease.
Ray Milland transforms himself into this troubled man. He gives an incredible performance. Mr. Milland has to be given credit in undertaking the portrayal of this lost soul in such a convincing fashion. By Hollywood standards, Ray Milland, an actor better known for his work in comedies, transforms himself into this Don Birman.
The supporting cast was excellent as well. Jane Wyman as Helen St. James is seen in one of her better roles of her career. Phillip Terry, as Wick, the kind brother is also good. Howard DaSilva, the bartender Nat, makes an impressive appearance in the film. Doris Dowling, as Gloria the friendly prostitute is equally effective.
Of course, this is a movie that shows Billy Wilder at his best. By filming on location in Manhattan, a rich texture is added. From Nat's bar we can watch the trams that circulated on Third Ave. at that time, as well as the 3rd. Av. El. The excellent black and white cinematography of John Seitz looks as good today, as it must have looked in 1945, when the film was released. The music score by the great Milos Rozsa is haunting without being too obvious.
This is, without a doubt, one of Billy Wilder's best movies, one that endures the passing of time. Mr. Wilder dared to speak out loud about something no one wanted to talk about.