More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
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27 January (watched on DVD)
Probably, more of us will be familiar with the humane portrait of drinking, gluttonous and bawdy Sir John Falstaff than with the soberly (pun intended) unremitting world of Don Birnam in Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend (1945). Yet it won Academy Awards for Ray Milland (as Birnam, who is almost never off the screen), Wilder as director and co-writer (with Charles Brackett), and as best picture (as well as nominations for Miklós Rózsa's towering score (Rózsa only lost the award because of winning it himself for that of Spellbound (1945)), and for editing and cinematography).
To-night, the dark experience of Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend (1945) - Miklós Rózsa's score with saw-like theremin, and Ray Milland drunk
— THE AGENT APSLEY (@THEAGENTAPSLEY) January 26, 2014
The theremin cut through like a saw in Miklós Rózsa's wonderful soundtrack to The Lost Weekend (1945) - deserving of its own Academy Award.
— THE AGENT APSLEY (@THEAGENTAPSLEY) January 26, 2014
Sir John is a comic character (although Orson Welles introduces or emphasizes light and shade in his Chimes at Midnight (1965)), Birnam is more complex, and we see his complexity in detail first when the duet with chorus Libiamo ne' lieti calici in a performance of La Traviata starts to get to him, but he is driven to the humorous situation of having to wait for the owner of a leopard-skin coat (Jane Wyman as Helen St. James), because their cloakroom tickets have become confused. As Sir John might, to get some sack from Mistress Quickly, he knows how to turn on the charm, having gracelessly thrown her umbrella at her feet when asked for it, but is torn between the bottle of rye whiskey in his pocket and her kind invitation to a cocktail party, until the former gets smashed (and it remains unclear whether she buys his alibi of having wanted to take it to a sick friend).
Helen's faith in Don, and why it lasts as long as it does (as does that of his curiously named brother Wick), almost certainly has to be a given, for it is not fleshed out, nor is some of the recent past. For some, there may be clues as to whether the New York setting is contemporary, but, if it is, one wonders how Wick and Don avoided the draft. In all honesty, though, Wick's job, how he manages to support Don and him, and where they are supposed to be headed for a long weekend are peripheral (as long as one realizes that 'the cider' talked of there is just apple juice, because US usage calls our cider 'hard cider'). The title, too, can remain ambiguous, whether meaning the weekend that Don does not participate in, his being lost, or how he 'loses' it - perhaps, even, that it is lost as seen from the future that the ending promises.
Don has tried to outsmart Wick at the outset, and, at the end, he tries to conceal his intentions from Helen, but both times his desire is thwarted by chance, that of, respectively, where Wick's tossed cigarette ends up, and the view afforded Helen in the mirror. In the middle part of the film (when he is on his own, with only Nat's professional company (brought to us by Howard Da Silva) to serve him), a reciprocal arrangement between pawnbrokers to close for Yom Kippur has him walking exhaustedly for blocks, checked off by the lamp-post road-markers, before finding out that there is a pattern.
In a way, It's a Wonderful Life (1946) is a mini re-run of the sort of degradation, despair and delinquency that Don is led into at the bottom until he meets a man calling himself Bim (Frank Faylen), and hears a few truths that, whatever has happened to Don before, he has been hiding from himself : Bim has seen it all before, is matter of fact, and dismisses Don's future, and that strikes home as clearly as if he had suddenly pictured himself in the downward path of Hogarth's 'Gin Lane'.
According to Wikipedia, Wilder had worked with Raymond Chandler on Double Indemnity (1944), which had sent Chandler back to drink, and Wilder had chosen to make the film to hold the mirror up to Chandler. In the film, at any rate, Bim holds a mirror up to Don, a message that eventually leads him to the film's two possible endings.
Wilder and Milland pull no punches in showing a man who will beg, demand and even steal for drink, with only the touches of charm to lighten him that seem to have kept his brother and girlfriend loyal to him. But the magic that they work, ably assisted by Rózsa's soundtrack, is to keep us loyal to him, because we have heard about how early success with writing, then over-confidence, then setbacks and the lure of a drink to steady the nerves have reeled him in : he knows all this, because he tells it to Nat as a story in the bar, but that does not help him know it in a way that offers a way out of it.
Then, and since, countless experts and other writers have given accounts of how to beat an addiction such as to alcohol (or gambling or smoking), and maybe they would have different views about what would work for Don to do it, but there is no denying that the image that we have of a man in thrall to whiskey is compelling, frightening and vividly alive, and the film merits its place in the US National Film Registry as an uncompromising look at the devastating effects of alcoholism, and to be described by The Library of Congress as culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.
Shortly after, and in the film adaptation with Albert Finney in 1984, we have Malcolm Lowry's uncompromising story of a man with a deeper debt to alcohol than Don, but, for this film, it ends as it does, with a share of ambivalence (seemingly more evident in Charles R. Jackson's original novel), and much relief. It must be open to put other meanings on the cravings that drive Don, and where they have come from, but one can also just take the film as it comes.
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Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)