This movie supposedly threw all sorts of folks into hysterics when it was about to be released in 1945. The temperance groups threw a little hissy fit because it dared to show some heavy drinking, even though the story is that the liquor industry offered the studio 5 million to leave it in the can, because it gave drinking a "bad name." The same story says that the studio told the liquor industry to shove it and released it anyway. I have a hard time swallowing that story, because 5 million was actually a lot of money in 1945. However, I guess it's true, because Billy Wilder, the filmmaker, seems to have said at one time or another that he would have taken the 5 million and burned the film in a heartbeat if it'd been up to him.
Apparently Billy didn't think much of this effort, overall. Neither did I. The irony is that he had released a much better picture the year before, Double Indemnity, which didn’t win jack at the all-important Oscars, whereas The Lost Weekend walked away with both Best Picture and Billy Wilder with Best Director a year later.
Producer Charles Brackett and director Billy Wilder wrote the script and claimed that it was relatively easy, owing to the excellent construction of Charles R. Jackson's novel.
How much you care for literature or film usually depends on how much empathy you can muster up for the characters. I had a boatload of empathy for old Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity. There was a guy who fell into a long shot at some big bucks and a creased blonde and who rode the bull until it snagged him right in the jewels. I like a guy like that. I like a guy like Edward G. Robinson who smells a rat and won't give up until he finds out where the hole is. I like a dame like Barbara Stanwyck who'll throw her leg around a stranger and lie so goddamned good that God wouldn't doubt her.
I do not like a 33 year-old glamour-faced pussy boy who sponges off of his brother, spends his time feeling sorry for himself, tells lies at the drop of a hat just to cover his own sorry ass, and can't hold either his liquor or a job. And that's Ray Milland in this movie. Also, I do not like a woman with a good career who throws her life away trying to see if she can salvage the likes of a loser like this. That's Jane Wyman in this movie.
The story is simple enough. Milland plays a guy who wants to be a writer but has turned out to be a hell of lot better at chugging rye whiskey straight out of the bottle than filling up a little white page with words. This might be amusing if he were sixteen, but he’s thirty fucking three! I don’t know about you, but by the time I was in my mid-thirties, I had a fairly clear picture of what I could and could not do. So did everyone around me. And we'd long since quit feeling sorry for the whimpering wasted who "weren’t doing what they weally, weally wanted to do."
The movie takes place over a four-day weekend where his brother is supposed to be taking him out for a quiet rest at the farm. The brother and the girlfriend have to watch him constantly so that he won't do what he's been doing to them for years: Stealing their money and lying about what he intends to do with it. And he does manage to tell one more whopper in order to get them out of the apartment for a while so he can hit the bars. The brother winds up leaving for the weekend without him, and he spends the four days consuming (from what I could count) about eight quarts of whisky.
The parts of the movie which bothered me the most were when Milland gets those first couple of drinks in him and turns into some sort of quotomatic queer for high-handed verse. I've been in plenty of bars in my life, and guys like that don't last twenty minutes without a severe ass-whoopin' from one side of the bar or the other. It's thrown in because it sounds good and gives Milland a chance to be poetic in this pitiful role for just a little while. But it doesn't ring true, and no one would sit and listen to it for as long as those in the film do.
Most of the story is told in Milland's recounting of his history with the girl to his favorite bartender. As in Double Indemnity, the meat of the story lies in the past, which we're given in the form of flashbacks.
After getting tossed out of a bar for stealing a lady's purse and winding up in the detox ward of the local hospital, Milland manages to escape and make his way home to the apartment where the D.T.s drive him to a screaming fit which brings the girlfriend back around. (Funny how, after years of doing this, he never has had the D.T.s until they are mentioned to him at the hospital the night before.) After a pitiful attempt at suicide, the long-suffering girlfriend talks him into writing again and the movie ends with a little rosy hope that everything will be OK as Milland starts rambling off what will be the first page of his new novel.
Guess what it'll be about. Go ahead, guess. Did you guess, "the lost weekend he just suffered?" Righto, ol' bean. See, you could've written this screenplay yourself.
If you want to see a really good movie about alcoholism, try Blake Edwards' The Days of Wine and Roses with Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick from 1962.