Sunday, January 31, 2010

Don't Make a Scene: The Lost Weekend

The Story: The scene that everyone remembers from Billy Wilder's "The Lost Weekend" is the hallucination scene in his room late in the movie with the mouse in the wall, and the attacking bat, and Miklós Rózsa's weird theremin theme that ends with Ray Milland's alcoholic writer screaming at the top of his lungs while blood runs down the walls.

Good stuff, that.

But not for here. That scene is mostly visual with...well, with NO words, and without the squeeks, the whooping and screeches, there's no way to do justice to it.

But, this scene popped out at me. In fact, when it came on, I sat upright on the couch, as we see Don Birnum change. An infusion of rye and he becomes a completely different person—gifted, articulate, fun. Before we'd only seen the watched-over Birnum, the dry Birnum, shifty, paranoid, diffident and surly. But in his element, hanging on to the lip of a glass, he's the man he wants to be...and never can be, sober.

Ray Milland's Oscar-winning performance was stiff before this, but here he's wild and over-the-top—and more than reminds one of another Billy Wilder creation five years down the cinematic road, Norma Desmond from "Sunset Boulevard"—another character drunk, but on themselves. For Norma, her memories are her scotch, and she comes alive only in their presence. In fact, it's not too much of a stretch seeing writer Don Birnum in Hollywood, ducking into Norma's driveway to avoid the cops...probably, they'd have quite the party, and things might have turned out better than they did for Joe Gillis.

The Set-Up: Aspiring writer Don Birnum (Ray Milland) has been going through "the treatment"—trying to quit drinking. This week-end, he's supposed to further his sobriety by going upstate to get out of New York and spend some time in the fresh air. But all he can think about is his next drink. His brother Wick (Phillip Terry) and his girl (Jane Wyman) are off to a show (at Don's insistence), but they'll leave for the train station at 5:45. Left to his own devices, Don has found some money that Wick left for the cleaning lady, and he's gone to the liquor store and stopped off at Nat's pub (run by Howard Da Silva) to do a little pre-functioning before his trip away.


Don drinks his drink, puts down the glass.

DON (To Nat) Nat, weave me another.
NAT You'd better take it easy.
DON Don't worry about me. Just let me know when it's a quarter of six.
NAT Okay.
He pours.

DON And have one yourself, Nat.
NAT Not me, Mr. Birnam.
DON I often wonder what the barman buys, one-half so precious as the stuff he sells.
Nat has poured the drink. Don points at it.

DON Come on, Nat. One little jigger of dreams.

NAT Nope.
DON You don't approve of drinking?
NAT Not the way you drink.

DON It shrinks my liver, doesn't it, Nat? It pickles my kidneys. Yes. But what does it do to my mind?

DON It tosses the sandbags overboard so the balloon can soar. Suddenly I'm above the ordinary. I'm competent, supremely competent. I'm walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls. I'm one of the great ones.

DON I'm Michelangelo moulding the beard of Moses. I'm Van Gogh, painting pure sunlight. I'm Horowitz playing the Emperor Concerto.

DON I'm John Barrymore before the movies got him by the throat.

DON I'm a holdup man -- I'm Jesse James and his two brothers, all three of them.

DON I'm W. Shakespeare.

DON And out there it's not Third Avenue any longer. It's the Nile. The Nile, Nat, and down it moves the barge of Cleopatra.

DON C'mere! Listen:

DON "Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggar'd all description."

During the last two lines he has picked up the jigger of rye. THE CAMERA is on the wet rings which the wet glass has left on the bar. Gradually the music swells under the Shakespearean quotation and drowns it out.

In two QUICK DISSOLVES we see the five rings, then six, then nine. Over the last, the light has changed.

"The Lost Weekend"

Words by Charles R. Jackson and Charles Brackett & Billy Wilder (and W. Shakespeare)

Pictures by John F. Seitz and Billy Wilder

"The Lost Weekend" is available on DVD from Universal Home Video.

No comments: