Where the Wilder Things Are: Words and Image in The Lost Weekend

Whenever you think of the films of Billy Wilder, the first ones that come to mind are probably Double Indemnity, Some Like It Hot and Sunset Boulevard. But there are so many other wonderful Wilder films––The Apartment, The Seven Year Itch, and the highly underrated Stalag 17.

As impacting as all of Wilder’s films are, there is one I must have watched at least 12 times so far, right up there with American Beauty (26 times, seven of which were in the theater and twice on a plane), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (three times in the theater and five years as an example of great screenwriting for my creative writing classes) and Donnie Darko (R.I.P. Two Boots Pioneer Theater, the heart of every Saturday night for four months straight!)

The film is The Lost Weekend (1945) starring Ray Milland and Jane Wyman. This tale of a young upstart writer turned middle aged alcoholic took four Academy Awards in 1946 and was nominated for three others. It also rocked Cannes, earning Milland a “Best Actor” award and granting Wilder the Grand Prize that same year.

Ray Milland stars as Don Birnam, upstart writer and hopeless alcoholic in The Lost Weekend.

Being a word man primarily, I get all cuckoo’s nest over the wonderful wordplay of any of Wilder’s films. But screenwriters Wilder and Charles Brackett really lifted Don Birnam out of the book (of the same title by author Charles R. Jackson) and into our everyday lives. Don is a man who, after a few shots of rye, can breathe even more life into the greatest lines of Shakespeare and twist his own words into sentences that are a witty panoply of craft and style. He’s a writer with a capital “W.” But he’s also suffering from a disease, and these two aspects together build up empathy in Don and draws a line of demarcation between “Don the drunk and Don the writer.”

In this pivotal scene at the film’s halfway point, Don confronts Helen and his brother Wick about his predilection towards alcohol, and we get a deeper glimpse into the inner workings of Don’s mind, how he thinks and, most importantly, why he drinks:

		        HELEN
	There must be a reason why you drink.
	The right doctor can find it.

			DON
	I'm way ahead of the right doctor. I
	know the reason. The reason is me.
	What I am. Or, rather, what I'm not.

			HELEN
	What aren't you that you want to be,
	Don?

			DON
	A writer. Silly, isn't it? You see,
	in college I passed for a genius.
	They couldn't get out the college
	magazine without one of my stories.
	Boy, was I hot. Hemingway stuff. I
	reached my peak when I was nineteen.
	Sold a piece to the Atlantic Monthly.
	It was reprinted in the Readers'
	Digest. Who wants to stay in college
	when he's Hemingway? My mother bought
	me a brand new typewriter, and I
	moved right in on New York. Well,
	the first thing I wrote, that didn't
	quite come off. And the second I
	dropped. The public wasn't ready for
	that one. I started a third, a fourth,
	only about then somebody began to
	look over my shoulder and whisper,
	in a thin, clear voice like the E-
	string on a violin. Don Birnam, he'd
	whisper, it's not good enough. Not
	that way. How about a couple of drinks
	just to put it on its feet? So I had
	a couple. Oh, that was a great idea.
	That made all the difference. Suddenly
	I could see the whole thing -- the
	tragic sweep of the great novel,
	beautifully proportioned. But before
	I could really grab it and throw it
	down on paper, the drink would wear
	off and everything be gone like a
	mirage. Then there was despair, and
	a drink to counterbalance despair,
	and one to counterbalance the
	counterbalance. I'd be sitting in
	front of that typewriter, trying to
	squeeze out a page that was halfway
	decent, and that guy would pop up
	again.

			HELEN
	What guy? Who are you talking about?

			DON
	The other Don Birnam. There are two
	of us, you know: Don the drunk and
	Don the writer. And the drunk will
	say to the writer, Come on, you idiot.
	Let's get some good out of that
	portable. Let's hock it. We'll take
	it to that pawn shop over on Third
	Avenue. Always good for ten dollars,
	for another drink, another binge,
	another bender, another spree. Such
	humorous words. I tried to break
	away from that guy a lot of ways. No
	good. Once I even bought myself a
	gun and some bullets.
		(He goes to the desk)
	I meant to do it on my thirtieth
	birthday.

He opens the drawer, takes out two bullets, holds them in
the palm of his hand.

			DON
	Here are the bullets. The gun went
	for three quarts of whiskey. That
	other Don wanted us to have a drink
	first. He always wants us to have a
	drink first. The flop suicide of a
	flop writer.

Perhaps my favorite moment in The Lost Weekend is not a dialog driven one, but a visual one that ties everything together through a brilliant metaphor. Upon returning home from a sanitarium, Don squirms uncomfortably in a chair, suffering through his withdrawals. He gazes off at a hole in the wall. A mouse is stuck inside, squirming to get free. Suddenly, a bat enters the apartment, swoops about and ultimately lands on the hole and devours the defenseless, trapped mouse. Don screeches in a panic. Blood streams down the wall.

It’s a powerful scene, but its true power lies in the metaphor that is created throughout the film by Don’s words, namely his description of the two Dons. The mouse is Don the writer trapped in his environment (his apartment, Nat’s Bar, or simply within his empty alcoholic self) while the bat represents Don the drunk––the high-flying “I can do anything” persona that’s killing the writer.

It’s this attention to metaphor that is unfortunately lacking in lots of films today. Granted, the director is typically hailed as the “author” of a film, but the writer is a film’s true creator, the quiet god of words that gets lost behind the moving images. In our world composed of an audience of “image junkies” (as my friend Raul would call them), it’s easy for words to get forgotten behind the silver curtain, and it’s even easier for a striking image to only impact rather than affect the audience.

Had this same scene in The Lost Weekend been without full development of the metaphor it represents using exposition interspersed throughout the film, it would not have made a lasting impression.

Are there any films you know that have a scene (or scenes) that make use of both image and words working together to affect rather than just impact the audience?

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