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.
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?