A recent cinematic crush on Billy Wilder prompted another sampling of his work, this time the infamous The Lost Weekend. Knowing of Wilder’s later career comedies has made the earlier, darker works (this one, along with Ace in the Hole and Sunset Boulevard) all the more interesting. Wilder seems to have been a provocateur in his day. Ace in the Hole pulls no punches toward the media and their irreverent sensationalism. Sunset Boulevard points the finger at Hollywood itself, chastising the industry from the producers to the directors to the writers to the stars. Some Like It Hot is (insert funk guitar wow-chicka-wow sound here) famous for its cross-dressing and other sartorial suggestiveness with Marilyn. The dark and scandalous humor of The Apartment has license to kill in a way that perhaps only Wilder and Jack Lemmon could have gotten away with. By the time of Avanti!, Wilder puts it all out there while bracketing one of the most morbid facts of human life in the context of a comedy.
As a study of myopic agoraphobia and the problem of memory in postwar U.S. urban environments, it hardly gets any better than The Lost Weekend. It’s 1945: the war is only just over, and the Depression before it, so a sense of wishful idealism pervades the Western world and the U.S. in particular. Film noir marvelously turns this idealism on its head by counteracting it with a new kind of fear: the fear of the self, of ourselves. Once Japanese cinema got back on its feet, some of its most renowned films were the Godzilla (Gojira) movies, which tapped into the return of the repressed, the fear of the monstrous other – the atomic bomb – returning to wreak havoc on urban Japan. In the U.S., the fear reversed itself and turned inward. We had defeated the evil powers of the world and achieved a new high in world domination. The economy was rolling, we had plenty of living war heroes (never mind the other ones), and photos of the everyman returning home to the street and swooping ecstatic and unknowing women off their feet with Lucky Strike-flavored kisses.
On the other hand, a certain loss of idealism following the victory in the Great War (the supposed “war to end all wars”) floated just beneath the surface of this joy. This wasn’t helped by post-traumatic stress and the memories of anyone involved in the European or Pacific wars; our own return of the repressed. Fittingly, then, it’s the main character himself, Don (Ray Milland), whose memory is razor sharp. An addicted alcoholic, it’s Don whose flashbacks contextualize the narrative and take the viewers back, interestingly, six years before the main diegesis (1939 – pre-war). Don knows what’s coming with every binge, every bender, every spree. He remembers all too well what got him to this point, which is precisely the source of his hopelessness. On the other hand, his naïve and devoted girlfriend Helen is the amnesiac. She repeatedly has to be reminded of what happened before, what got Don to this point. Though she seems to remember, she’s only too willing to move past it and look ahead to what she insist will be better times. This creates an impossible disconnect between her and Don, one hopeless who can only remember the past and the other optimistic who can only think about the future.
This taps into the myopia of most of the characters in The Lost Weekend. Between these two headlining figures, there’s no “good” or “bad,” another fitting feature of noir and the postwar American mood. They’re both fools, they’re both zooming in on a single fact (true or not), they’re both wearing self-imposed blinders that restrict their vision and oversimplify their worldviews. Of course, Don’s myopia is manifest most obviously at the level of the bottle. It’s all he can see and, in a way, all he wants to see. The film itself, through narrative and cinematography, takes on this point of view, apparently to the chagrin of the original pre-screening audience. The effect is exhausting and brutal. It forces the spectator to accompany Don through the dark nights of solitude and addiction, then into the blinding daylight of artificial community with the barkeep and the pawnbroker, all part of the routine to score enough cash for another few drinks.
These daylight sequences convey what Edward Dimendberg labels “the walking cure” in his excellent Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity. Postwar malaise and urban claustrophobia necessitates a walking cure, a pedestrian jaunt to cure the sickness by a return to memory. Urban landmarks serve as flags, signals, and triggers to give context to the lone pedestrian. It offers the subject a feeling of place and space, an escape from the “nest” of the apartment and into the urban “forest.” Ironically, however, film noir often illustrates the failure of the walking cure and the impression that the pedestrian subject now has in fact become even more surrounded, encased in a shell rather than simply dwarfed by a forest. It seems that The Lost Weekend was the first film to use the now-cliché device of horizontally-moving, dissolving street signs overlaying the pedestrian subject while walking toward the camera perspective. This is the appeal to memory par excellence, and the evidence of its reverse effect. The pedestrian only becomes more anxious and ill. The internal flood of memories is coupled with the external excess of the familiar, transforming agoraphobia into claustrophobia.
Obsession and addiction, it is well documented, are effects of post-traumatic stress. In The Lost Weekend there is no suggestion that Don ever went to war; on the contrary, he’s been an unemployed writer with a six-year block living off of his brother’s generosity through his girlfriend’s obsessively maternal care for him. This lack of acknowledgment or participation in the war by the main character may be the most powerful aspect to the film. Wilder does not blame his character’s problems on the other but rather on the self. How easy it was in the mid-late 40s to externalize fundamentally human problems through blame-shifting. In the 60s, this worsened by blaming not the foreign other but the domestic other, as if the U.S. political administration was to blame for every problem that followed the Vietnam war, whether directly connected to it or not. Wilder’s film places the blame and the responsibility squarely on the individual’s shoulders while never failing to acknowledge that no man is an island. Don needs Helen to improve himself, but he has only himself to blame for his problems. Wilder here constructs a distinctly postwar setting – it could never be mistaken for anything other. By avoiding the tendency to state the fact of the war, he leaves Don no choice but to restrict his memory to his own self-destructive actions.
It may have been an allusion, it may not have been, but one small element in this film reminds the viewer of the war. When Don is visiting numerous pawnshops attempting to sell his typewriter for booze cash, he discovers that they are all closed. He asks a woman if it’s Sunday, and she replies that it’s Saturday. When he asks her why the shops are closed, she states that it is Yom Kippur. Because some of the shop owners are Jewish, there is an agreement with the non-Jewish owners to close their shop on the religious day out of respect (a fascinating spin on pawnbroker stereotypes). It’s not hard at this point to think of the Jewish Holocaust in Europe that had only recently been ended. Perhaps significantly, this suggestion implicitly forbids Don from blaming his problem on the war. If anything, Jews are indirectly responsible for keeping Don away from the bottle. Of course, this possibility breaks down quickly when it’s eventually through a pawnbroker that Don obtains a pistol for the purpose of ending his addiction along with his life. The innocent storeowner, when questioned by Helen, never thinks to worry about Don, perhaps indicating an inability from a Jew in the mid-late 40s to understand the concept of suicide. They had survived genocide, so why would they seek death from their own hand?
The shopkeeper isn’t unlike the bartender at Don’s favorite hangout, but the latter is the source of wisdom and eventual hope for Don. Not quite willing to withhold the bottle from Don completely, he knows that Don will get a hold of it one way or another, so he may as well drink in the relative safety of the bar, where Nat the bartender will make the effort to speak reason to him. Even Nat reaches a breaking point, however, and kicks Don out of the bar.
All of the above is not without other impressive moments and effective storytelling tools. The detox sequence feels like the nightmare it is. Don’s cyclical sojourn around the city is reminiscent of an episode of The Twilight Zone or perhaps The Shining. The impossibility of escape, the repetition of the familiar, the suffocating choke-hold of the myopic gaze, the prison of subjective memory, and the inevitability of responsibility: Wilder captures the horrors of these quintessentially human realities without succumbing to nihilism. The film ends on an up-note, and not an unrealistic one. It’s less naïve than insistent, less fatalistic than didactic.