Ray Milland Stars in Billy Wilder’s Bold, Cautionary Oscar Winner.



Kino Lorber Studio Classics has uncorked Billy Wilder’s celebrated Best Picture winner from 1945, The Lost Weekend.  Based on Charles R. Jackson’s novel of the same title, the film sets out to depict the perceived “trapped” mental state of an alcoholic.  Groundbreaking for the time in this respect, The Lost Weekend depicts the downward spiral of its chronically drunk protagonist, as played by Ray Milland.  

Milland plays Don Birnam, a struggling writer whose inability to put words to page manifests as a tail-chasing addiction to hard liquor.  As Birnam, Milland manages to be both magnetic as an actor and repulsive as a crumbling human being.  We are made to have sympathy for him but not excuse him in his abuses.  It’s an incredibly fine line to walk every step of the way, from Wilder and Charles Brackett’s casually masterful adapted screenplay (switching Birnam’s motivation from Jackson’s repressed homosexuality to Hays Code-friendly writer’s block) to the careful nuances of Milland’s clammy, bloodshot performance.  For all of the above, the film took home Oscars.

Though Wilder’s so-called cynicism (he called it truth-telling) is brazenly evident throughout this earlier phase of his career, none of his film before or after would demonstrate The Lost Weekend’s outright lucid qualities.  The film’s score by the great Miklós Rózsa imbues Birnam’s life with an otherworldliness largely due to its rare utilization of the theremin.  As the metaphorical walls around Birnam close in, the literal walls take on hallucinatory horror all their own.  The precise black and white cinematography of John F. Seitz (Sunset Blvd.) is a seduction all its own, attractive then momentarily horrific- not unlike the story’s central addiction.

Film Historian Joseph McBride is on hand for an audio commentary track.  By his own open admission, he’s been around the block in terms of both film itself (having met and written extensively about Wilder) and the subject matter of this film in particular.  Consequently, he’s got some distinct opinions on The Lost Weekend, not altogether positive.  But delivering a solid commentary does not require that one be a fan of the film being considered.  McBride, though, proves to be a particularly strong candidate for expert accompaniment through this particularly prominent film.

Kino Lorber Studio Classics’ new release of The Lost Weekend on Blu-ray delivers the kind of immersive presentation that this film needs.  The brand new 4K master displayed here is top of the line, a terrifically satisfying treatment for an Oscar winner long absent in high definition.  Besides Joseph McBride’s previously discussed new commentary track, the disc also contains a vintage radio adaptation of the film that manages to condense the entire 101-minute story to around twenty minutes.  It stars original cast members Milland and Jane Wyman and serves as a curious timepiece regarding how the Hollywood periphery eagerly processed and appropriated its popular cinema of the day.  Finally, besides the usual array of trailers, Mark Pellington hosts a brief “Trailers from Hell” segment.

Though a well-deserved hit in its own time, the widespread appeal of The Lost Weekend has diminished over time.  While this is understandable considering that, when it comes down to it, it is a “message movie”.  It is with great clarity, then, that Wilder, Milland and company’s awarded efforts with The Lost Weekend are no longer lost to high definition.