Directed by Billy Wilder, The Lost Weekend (which was based on the novel of the same name), was a groundbreaking movie that brought the dark realities of alcoholism out into the open. And for all us old-time New York lovers, it also offers a wonderful glimpse back into 1940’s New York City when the Third Avenue subway was a major form of transportation, a train ride cost a nickel and a fella can score a dame merely by mixing up their coats!
Don Birnam (a perfectly cast Ray Milland) is packing for a long weekend in the country with his brother, Wick (Phillip Terry). Don is a writer who’s hoping to use this time away to start work on his long gestating novel. Thing is, Don currently isn’t really thinking about writing, or packing, nor is he really looking forward to this long weekend getaway. You see Don is a “not quite recovered” alcoholic whose thoughts are only attached to the bottle of whiskey that’s hanging from a string outside his window and away from his brother’s prying eyes.
Don’s plan is to pack said bottle and bring it on the trip with him. Unfortunately for Don however, his plans are thwarted when Wick eventually finds said bottle and pours its sweet contents down the drain. To say Don is devastated is an understatement.
Don’s mood changes somewhat when his girlfriend, Helen St. James (a cute, spunky, never-give-up-on-her-man, Jane Wyman) stops by to drop off some traveling gifts. She then mentions in passing that she needs to run as her boss gave her two tickets for the opera and since she got them last minute, she’ll be going by herself.
Um, not so fast, Helen. With this tidbit of information, Don puts his devilish mind to work and hatches a plan to get Wick out of the house so he can score a much needed “fix”. Don manages to convince Wick and Helen that they should attend the opera together and that he and Wick should also take a later train to the country so that he can ahem, “finish packing and (maybe) take a little nap”. Winning!
With Wick and Helen out of the way, Don is now dangerously alone with his demons. He’s also alone with no drink and no money. But, not for long, however. Salvation comes in the form of the arrival of Mrs. Foley, the Birnam’s maid, who comes knocking, looking for her weekly salary. Don puts the chain on the door and tells her he doesn’t have her money.
Well, Mrs. Foley knows exactly where Wick keeps her salary–in the sugar bowl. Excitedly, Don checks and lo and behold, there it is…a crisp ten dollar bill! Being the sweetheart of a guy that he is, Don lies and tells the poor woman that it’s not there, Wick must’ve forgotten to leave it. Sending the woman on her way empty handed, Don is now flush with cash and his long weekend from hell is about to begin…
Thursday – “Mr. Boinam”
Feeling like a millionaire, Don’s first stop is the liquor store for two bottles of rye.
The next and last stop is Don’s home away from home, Nat’s Saloon. When he enters, Nat (portrayed by a wonderful Howard Da Silva), warily greets Don with a guarded, ” hello, Mr. Boinam” (oh the joys of classic movies New York-ese!!). You see on many prior visits, Don has not properly squared away his bill (Nat has Don’s cuffs links and wrist watch as collateral to prove it) so we can forgive Nat’s hesitancy to serve him.
Don understands Nat’s misgivings however, and happily announces that today, “we can barter on a cash basis”. With that now out of the way, Don orders his usual–a jigger of rye. As Nat pours his drink, Don then announces that he absolutely must be reminded when it’s quarter of six so that Wick will “find me at home, ready and packed”.
(On a side note, it’s Nat who recites the now classic line, “one’s too many an’ a hundred’s not enough”, a line that I’m sure resonates so deeply with many people suffering from addiction.)
With all now well in his world, Don takes a celebratory swig of his drink. When he puts it back down, he admires the perfect circle his glass has left on the bar.
Kudos are due here to Wilder who cleverly shows the passage of time when one circle becomes eight, which soon becomes twelve and then it’s 6:10 pm and Don is late for meeting Wick.
But is he really upset, though? Um, no not really. Don has more important things on his mind–like finding a safe place for his most prized possessions: his two bottles of rye. Alone and back in the safety of his apartment, Don soon finds the perfect hiding spot–the ceiling light fixture. He only places one bottle there, however. The other bottle?…ahh, the other bottle is for tonight.
Friday – The Coat
Hung over and desperate for a drink, Don is back at Nat’s, putting his last five bucks to work. But Nat’s not happy to see him. He feels bad for Helen who stopped in last night crying her eyes out searching for him. Nat can’t believe that someone as classy as Helen would ever cross paths much less be in a relationship with someone like Don.
Well, as Don explains, their relationship started with a coat.
Three years ago, Don was at the opera taking in La Traviata and as they say,”white knuckling it”. You see, Don’s thoughts were most definitely not on the performance. They were in the cloakroom where his raincoat pocket was hiding a very special item–a bottle of scotch. Things soon took a really uncomfortable turn when Don started imagining that the performers were all singing, dancing raincoats with bottles of liquor in their pockets. Bravo again to Wilder for such an inventive, maddening way of depicting the ferocious grip of alcoholism.
Now in the throes of a full-on panic attack and in dire need of a drink, Don made a mad dash for the cloak room. But due to a ticket mix-up, he was handed the wrong coat–a simple, yet stylish leopard skin number and a ladies umbrella! Panicked, he offered to enter the cloak room and find his coat himself but the attendant (an hysterical Frank Orth!), would not have it! So Don had no other choice but to wait.
Finally, the opera ended and the owner of the coat (Helen) appeared holding Don’s coat and hat. Short tempered, rude and a tad abusive, Don approached Helen and demanded his coat. They exchanged garments and when Helen asked for her umbrella, he tossed it at her. Catching the better of himself though, Don picked up the umbrella, handed it to her and apologized. Whatta guy! Somehow though, in spite of himself, this one chance meeting turned into a full blown romance!
Fast forward several months and Don is scheduled to meet Helen’s parents at a luncheon at a fine hotel. He arrived early and just happened to overhear her parents talking smack about him–unemployed writer, didn’t graduate college, yada, yada, yada. Embarrassed, Don called Helen to cancel their lunch and then ran home to find refuge at the bottom of a glass. Not one to be tossed aside however, Helen came a-calling. Wanting to be a good guy, Don tried to convince her to give up on him, telling her there’s actually two Don Birnams–Don the drunk and Don the writer and neither of them are worth a nickel. Helen however, refused to listen and insisted that she will not give up on him.
It’s now back to present day at Nat’s and Don is suddenly feeling energized by the re-telling of this story. He then announces he’s ready to put this story in a book which he’s going to call, The Bottle.
Well, as the old saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions and Don’s good intentions have hit a road block (or to be more precise–a writer’s block). The only sentences his tortured mind can formulate are three simple lines: The Bottle, A Novel by Don Birnam, To Helen With All My Love. With his writing curtailed, Don’s old sweetheart, the bottle, has now come knocking. Remembering that he hid a bottle for safekeeping but the demons in his head won’t let him find it, Don tears up his apartment like a madman. Soon however, he feels like he’s struck gold when he finds a match book with the magical words: “Harry and Joe’s – Where Good Liquor Flows” at 13 West 52nd Street in NYC\”.
Good news? The liquor does indeed flow at Harry’s and Joe’s. Bad news? It stops when you can’t pay for it. Don finds that out the hard way when his attempt at stealing some dough from a table mate’s purse in order to pay his bill, gets him embarrassingly and forcefully booted out.
Now safely home (but not happy about it), that ol’ siren alcohol is once again calling his name. Collapsing in an armchair and staring helplessly at the ceiling, a wondrous sight however, soon catches his eye. Up there, like a shining beacon, an angel appears above him. It’s the glowing shadows of the bottle that he hid in the ceiling light fixture. Ahh, bliss!
Saturday – “Don’t be Ridic”
Knowing that his liquor stash and finances are non- existent, Don looks at the only thing he owns that is valuable enough to sell–his typewriter. Tearing out the paper from last night’s writing attempt, he puts the machine in its carrier and stumbles out the door.
Arriving at his go-to neighborhood pawnshop, the steel gate across the doorway however, signifies it’s closed. Same thing with the other pawnshop across the street. Walking now with only the help of sheer willpower, he begins the long trek all the way up Third Avenue.
(Now begins for this old-time native New Yorker, one of the best scenes in the film. While Don is walking up 1940’s NYC, we spy the old Third Avenue El, food for 35 cents, the fashion! More on that later, though.)
Five blocks…ten blocks…twenty blocks! Every pawnshop in sight is closed. Don feels like he’s either in a bad dream or the subject of a sick cosmic joke. Finally at 120th Street he asks a group of men dressed in black and wearing yarmulkes why all the pawnshops are closed. The answer–it’s Yom Kippur. Don wonders why the Irish shops are closed as well. The man responds that Irish shops close on Yom Kippur so the Jewish shops don’t open on St. Patrick’s Day. Ain’t that a hoot?! The group of men smile and laugh. Don however, fails to see the humor in it.
It’s now three hours later and Don, on the verge of collapse, has arrived back in his neighborhood where he finds himself in front of the building of one Gloria De Vries (Doris Dowling). Gloria, a lady friend or more specifically, a lady of the night, had taken a liking to Don. In one of his drunken states, he even offered to take her out on the town. But of course, Don got himself so drunk he forgot all about the date and stood her up.
For now however, none of that matters. Right now, Don needs some money and a drink and Gloria is his only hope. To get to Gloria’s apartment however, he must first contend with a narrow, steep staircase which in Don’s delicate condition feels like the stairway to hell. He finally makes it to her apartment but as can be expected, Gloria’s response is none too cordial:
“Don’t be ridic. Get out of here. Make with those stairs. Go on!”
She almost closes the door in his face, but Don grabs her by the hand and kisses her passionately. Now helpless to the Don Birnam charm, Gloria reaches for her wallet and hands him a five dollar bill. Taking the money, Don then gentlemanly kisses her hand.
“You do really like me a little, don’t you, honey?”, she asks
“Why, natch, Gloria. Natch.”
With his typewriter in one hand and the fiver in the other, Don now begins the descent down the long flight of stairs. Just as he’s midway down however, a little girl of about seven comes clambering up the narrow staircase. She passes him but Don loses his balance and falls…blackness.
Sunday – Bim
Aching head. Strange murmurings. Lying in a cot, Don slowly opens his eyes, sits up in bed and looks around. This is definitely not the Birnam residence. A male nurse now approaches. He says he goes by the name of Bim (Frank Faylen, in a completely different role from Ernie in It’s a Wonderful Life!) Bim is a seen it all kind of guy. Hardened, cynical. In his response to Don’s question of where he is, it’s a no-nonsense, Alcoholic’s Ward. Or as Bim also calls it “Hangover Plaza”.
Don is shocked that he’s in this place and doesn’t believe that he belongs here. Bim, however thinks otherwise. (Now comes an exchange between the two that is another example of pure old movie smart-alecky, New York-ese and one of my favorites from the movie!):
“Why did they put me in the Alcoholic Ward?”
“Are you kidding? We took a peek at your blood. Straight applejack. Ninety- six proof.”
He gets a pad and pencil from his pocket.
“What’s your name?”
“What kind of Birnam?”
“What kind of Birnam?!”…LOVE IT! Now Bim gets down to business. He hands Don a sleeping medication which Don refuses to take. Bim however, encourages him to take it as the ward gets kind of noisy at night with the “guests” suffering from delirium tremens and the hallucinations that come with it. As he explains:
“That stuff about pink elephants, that’s the bunk. It’s little animals…Has to be dark, though. It’s like the doctor was saying to me, “Delirium is a disease of the night. Well, good night”
Don still refuses the sleep aid.
It’s several hours later and just as Bim stated, the madness begins. Moaning, banging, screaming. Don watches in horror as the man across from him is slapping wildly at his body as if he’s covered in invisible insects. Soon a nurse and doctor enter and Don is fascinated but not so much by the wild scene in front of him. It’s the coat that the doctor has placed on the chair right near his bed. As the ward now goes wild with excitement, Don slowly and carefully picks up the coat, then slowly and very so quietly exits the hospital and walks quickly into the night.
Now back in his neighborhood, Don lingers in the doorway of a church waiting for the liquor store to open for business. The second he sees the shopkeeper opening its doors, Don runs in, boldly demanding a quart of whisky and just as boldly, he leaves without paying. Back at home, Don collapses in his favorite chair, reaches for his favorite glass and pours himself a tall one.
Monday – The Mouse and The Bat
“Little animals. It’s always little animals. That’s what Bim said.”
Once again, Bim is right. Passed out in his chair, Don’s eyes slowly flutter open. He gets the feeling he’s being watched. And he is…staring right at him is a mouse with its tiny head peering out from a hole in the plaster. Mesmerized by its cuteness, Don is then horrified when a bat swoops down over his head and makes a clear run for the mouse, severing its body in half! Don watches in terror as a spurt of blood appears behind the bat’s wings! (Thank you Mr. Wilder, for invading my nightmares every time I watch this scene!)
Crying out in horror, Don draws the attention of his nosy but well-meaning landlady, Mrs. Deveridge. Upon hearing Don’s blood-curdling screams, Mrs. Deveridge calls Helen telling her that Don is home.
Within minutes, Helen is banging on Don’s locked door, calling his name. Desperate to get in, Helen runs back downstairs and gets Mrs. Deveridge to use her key.
Once inside, Helen turns on the light but Don recoils in horror. He screams about the mouse and the bat and of course, Helen has no idea what he’s talking about.
Tuesday – The Bottle
While Helen is fast asleep on the sofa, Don sneakily grabs Helen’s leopard skin coat and heads to the pawnbroker. As the door closes however, Helen is awakened and follows him. Being faster than her, she loses him but when she finally catches up with him, he has just left the pawnbroker but without the coat. She berates him for pawning her coat…THE coat that brought them together but Don is in no mood for the scene. Neither is Helen–all she wants is her coat back. As Don walks away, Helen heads into the pawnshop asking for the coat and how much he got for it. The pawnbroker says that Don didn’t want any money–he traded it in …for a gun!
Terrified, Helen runs back to the apartment and enters just as he’s finished writing a suicide note. He tries to get her to leave, but Helen refuses. She keeps moving about the apartment, looking for the gun. Finally, she spots it in the reflection in the bathroom mirror over the sink. Helen makes a dash for the gun and tries to throw it out the window but Don grabs it from her. Helen tries to convince Don not to go through with it; to instead put this whole sordid weekend on paper. But Don argues he doesn’t have the energy to write anymore. “Helen, I couldn’t write. What do you expect, a miracle?”
Well Don, miracles do happen. And it’s in the form of Nat who shows up just in time with Don’s typewriter that was broken when he had his accident. Nat, the bartender with a heart of gold, was kind enough to fix it!
Helen now believes that God kept Don alive and brought him back his typewriter just so he could write about this weekend. Slowly Helen is making progress on Don. She tells him that he couldn’t write the book earlier because he didn’t know the ending. Now he knows how the story ends! Suddenly, Don sees the light. He agrees to write the novel and says he’ll send a copy to Bim, Nat and the doctor that “lent” him the coat.
And so the movie ends just the way it began–Don saying how when he was packing his suitcase four days ago, he really wasn’t thinking about packing. His mind was attached to the string that hung just outside his window…
As much as I love this story, what really seals the deal for me is the great use of 1940’s New York City sidewalks. Yes, it’s all about location, location, location!
P.J. Clarke’s – 55th Street and Third Avenue
First and foremost, is Nat’s where Don spends most of his time. The scenes at Nat’s were actually filmed at P.J Clarke’s (which still proudly stands today).
Interestingly enough, though many scenes were filmed at P.J’s, thanks to the rumble of the old Third Avenue elevated subway, many of those scenes had to be re-shot in a detailed recreation of the bar in a Los Angeles studio.
The bar, which stands out thanks to all the skyscrapers surrounding it, was established in 1884 and was originally owned by a Mr. Duneen who hired an Irish emigrant named Patrick J. Clarke. After ten years of working for him, Clarke bought the bar and changed the name.
Legend has it that P.J. Clarke’s was chosen as the location for Nat’s as Charles R. Jackson, the author of the novel upon which the movie was based, was a regular at P. J’s.
And though I haven’t been there lately, I can definitely vouch that it serves some of the best hamburgers in NYC and is known for its simple, non-fussy atmosphere.
In 1945, New York City was the beacon of the world. NYC survived the war years virtually unscathed, most of the city’s most famous landmarks were still relatively new and though there were plenty of skyscrapers, there was still just enough sky to appreciate each and every one of them. And I love it all!
In his opening sequence of the film, Wilder has a terrific panning shot that took advantage of all of it. We then travel into the Birnam apartment where we’ll watch this one life among eight million unfold.
Bellevue Hospital – 27th Street and First Avenue
Though its name was never mentioned, it was a pretty well-known fact that Don’s stay at the “Hangover Plaza” was actually modeled on Bellevue Hospital. While Bellevue was in the forefront of many major medical inventions, chief among them the first ambulance and first city morgue, it became less known for these discoveries than for its disturbing psychiatric ward which opened in 1931.
While Wilder was able to film the harrowing scene in the actual ward, he was only able to accomplish this by submitting a completely different scene to Bellevue’s administration in order to acquire a filming permit.
An interesting side note–according to his autobiography, Wide-Eyed in Babylon, Milland actually spent a night at Bellevue in preparation for his role. And just like his character in the film, Milland found the experience so traumatizing he also escaped at 3am still clad in his Bellevue pj’s! Unlike his character however, Milland couldn’t make a clean getaway. He was stopped by a police officer who didn’t recognize him and took him right back to the hospital. I guess we can safely assume Milland eventually made it out okay.
And as can you see from the above picture, Bellevue Hospital and the Norman Bates house had quite a lot in common!
St. Agnes Church-143 E 43rd Street on Third Avenue
After his escape from the alcoholics ward, it is on the door step of St. Agnes’ Church that Don takes refuge while waiting for the liquor store to open.
Located just steps from some of New York City’s most iconic landmarks such as Grand Central Station and the Chrysler Building, St. Agnes was established in 1873 to serve the laborers constructing the nearby Grand Central Terminal.
I currently live near this church and while it is a religious sanctuary for local residents business people and commuters, it is also a safe haven for many people down on their luck, people much like Don Birnam.
Third Avenue – 58th Street to 120th Street
And so I saved the best for last! As I said earlier, Don’s mad trek up Third Avenue was a gem of a scene. We see long gone pawn shops going by the names of Kelly’s and Bloom’s. In the background, we get quick glimpses of New York City life on Third Avenue circa 1945. And thanks to Billy Wilder’s genius camera work, we get sucked into Don Birnam’s desperation as the Third Avenue subway looms menacingly overhead.
To film this scene, Wilder and his camera man hid in a bakery truck while Milland walked the streets as Don Birnam. They also shot the scene on a Sunday in order to cut down on public interference.
(For those of you who would like a glimpse back into this world, here is a fabulous 1950’s short film directed and produced by Carson Davidson. Among the highlights–a derelict who very well could be a Don Birnam in real life.)
While Ray Milland and Billy Wilder were geniuses at their respective crafts, it was composer Miklós Rózsa‘s , astounding music (especially his use of the Theremin) that helped create just the right amount of eerie tension in several scenes.
Written by Charles Jackson, the novel has a decidedly darker tone with its undercurrents of closeted homosexuality which some believe was autobiographical in nature.
Also, possibly autobiographical in nature, is Don’s alcoholism. Though he would never admit it, it was known that Jackson had problems with alcohol and was only able to write the novel after several years of recovery. He was so successful in his recovery that he became the spokesperson for Alcoholics Anonymous.
The major difference from novel to film however, is the book’s sad ending. While the film ends on a high note where Don seems to almost magically turn away from alcohol and write his novel, the book ends with Don holed up in his apartment preparing for another bender.
For Wilder, his inspiration to turn the novel into a film was his experience working with Raymond Chandler during the making of Double Indemnity. Apparently, Chandler was so inebriated and troubled during filming, that after reading The Lost Weekend, Wilder felt he had to tackle the story as a way “to explain Raymond Chandler to himself”.
As for Jackson, his life, just as the book version of Don Birnam, had a sad ending. Though he was married with two daughters, Jackson lived most of his adult life as a closeted bisexual, turning to alcohol and pills to numb his pain. Eventually he divorced his wife and went on to write five books but none of them achieved the success of his singular masterpiece.
Finally succumbing to a life of drugs and drink, Jackson died of a Seconal overdose in 1968 at the famed New York City Chelsea Hotel where he had been living for three years.
At the 1946 Academy Awards, The Lost Weekend won four Oscars: