The Lost Weekend

28/11/2002 19:45.

Rather than go on a family outing to the country aspiring novelist Don Birnham, suffering from writer’s block and alcohol, spends a ‘lost weekend’ on a wild drinking binge – ending up in the alcoholics’ ward. Director Billy Wilder’s dispassionate portrait of an alcoholic’s personal hell and society’s indifference.
USA 1945, 117 Minutes, Dir: Billy Wilder

Programme Notes

Don Birnham is living ‘temporarily’ in his brother’s New York apartment until his writing career pays off. He has a girlfriend, Helen, who loves him, and although he has a drink problem, with her help he’s been on the wagon for over a week. Helen and Wick, Don’s brother, have planned a weekend away from the city. But Don has another kind of ‘weekend away’ –a four-day bender.

‘Demon’ has two main meanings in English – a genius or spirit that inspires you, or an evil spirit that harms you – and ‘the demon drink’ is well named. Don uses it to ‘toss the sandbags overboard’ so that his mind can soar. Without it, he’s ordinary. With it, he’s Michelangelo, Shakespeare, John Barrymore and Jesse James rolled into one, a drunk, an object of pity if he’s lucky, more likely of disgust.

Director Billy Wilder was born in Austria and came to Hollywood in 1933, in his late twenties. His mother, who was to die in Auschwitz, loved all things American; she is said to have dubbed him ‘Billy’ after Buffalo Bill. He took a more detached, even pessimistic, view, and his films, even a comedy like Some Like it Hot, take a dispassionate look at people teetering on the brink of disaster, inviting our sympathy by showing society’s indifference. In Lost Weekend, the all-seeing eye of the camera follows Don through bars and dives to the drunks’ ward of Bellevue Hospital and, through imaginative cinematography, including a justly famous ‘hallucination’ sequence, into his own private hell.

The film was an enormous gamble. Ray Milland was warned it might be the end of his career. When it was previewed in 1945 it didn’t go down well; post-war audiences had had enough realism lately, thank you. Paramount was nervous about releasing it, and there was even talk of a distiller’s syndicate buying it and losing it for rather more than a weekend. It was eventually released with a rather spurious ‘happy ending’, and went on to win Oscars for best picture, director, screenplay and actor (Ray Milland), and to be acknowledged as possibly the best film about addiction ever made.

Don – Ray Mill,
Helen – Jane Wyman
Wick – Philip Terry
Nat – Howard da Silva
Director – Billy Wilder
Producer – Charles Brackett
Screenplay – Billy Wilder & Charles Bracket
Photography: John F Seitzss


  • Superb acting.
  • Very painful…
  • An insight into a terrible condition.
  • Brilliant acting, direction & script. The best archive film I’ve seen in 12 years. Every alcoholic should watch it.
  • Maintained tension throughout, with sparkling bit part by Bernie the nurse. Odd that Don shaved before contemplating suicide.
  • Powerful for its time. A bit over-acted but gripping.
  • Sombre. Sometimes difficult to work out the sequence of events. A very cynical & cruel nurse. A salutary tale.
  • Good performances but too simple.
  • The music was a bit ghoulish.
  • Horrifying & far from good entertainment.
  • You are a writer; you have all the qualifications for it – imagination, wit, pity… Overwrought acting & music but superb photography. Dreadful, moralising, happy ending.
  • (marked B) …..but an unrealistic ending!
  • Remarkably gripping until just before the end…
  • Another unbelievable ending!


A:10, B:23, C:8, D:0, E:0 to give 76%