In 1945, Billy Wilder, fresh from his success in Double Indemnity, bravely decided to tackle the subject of alcoholism by bringing Charles Jackson’s novel, The Lost Weekend, to the screen. Don Birnam, a writer, is preparing for a weekend with his brother, Wick, who is trying to discourage Don’s drinking, and when Don’s girlfriend, Helen, mentions that she has two tickets to a concert, Don urges Wick to accompany her. And Don goes to the local bar, deliberately misses his train, and then sneaks back to drink…
Jackson’s novel, which reflected his own personal experience with alcoholism, was originally rejected for publication by Simon & Schuster, who assured him that such a personal, individual story would not sell at a time when the mass horrors of the second World War were paramount in the public consciousness. However, Farrar & Rinehart obviously thought differently, and, within five years of its publication, the book sold nearly half a million copies in various editions and was translated into fourteen different languages. And it was hailed by reviewers, among them Sinclair Lewis, who called it “the only unflinching story of an alcoholic that I have ever read”.
Commonplace in films as it may seem today, the theme of alcoholism, and Wilder’s decision to tackle it in film, was unheard of by filmgoing audiences when the film was first released. To chronicle Birnam’s plight, Wilder chose to use a mixture of expressionism, film-noir, and documentary realism, along with a score by Hungarian composer, Miklós Rózsa, perhaps best known at the time for his work in the film-noir genre. Rózsa’s score was one of the first to utilize the theremin, and its warbling and ethereal tones evoke the pathos, sadness, and tragedy of alcoholism. The final result is an eye-opening, searing, unsettling, and affecting portrait of the lengths to which those afflicted by the disease of alcoholism will go for just one more drink.
More about Wilder, at the Library
Check out, from the Library, Jackson’s original novel
More about Jackson, at the Library