Thursday, February 21, 2013

"This Particular Kind of Thirsty Man" - Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend (Billy Wilder, 1945)

I don't see how the drunkard's first experience of the d. t.'s could be improved on by any means except possibly a dragging-out and brutalization of its climax. Frank Faylen's performance as a male nurse is fully as right and powerful; so is a shrieking free-for-all in an alcoholic ward—which is fought, however, by an incredibly mistaken use of "background" music. Ray Milland's performance as the alcoholic Don Birnam is debatable at first, but so absorbed and persuasive as the picture moves along that he all but wins the picture and the doubters over. There are also some first-rate re-creations of place and atmosphere—a soft-leather, soft-noised cocktail lounge, and a perfect setting of the Birnam apartment, and some shots of New York streets and times of day. At best there is a purity of tone and an acuteness about a city and the people in it which belong high in the movies' great classical strain of unforced, naturalistic poetry. While you watch it, it entirely holds you.

Thinking it over, though, there are curious and disappointing things about the picture. Good as he is, Milland is too robust for the best interests of his role; and in the earlier reels, when he is still sober enough to be assessed as a normal human being, it seems clear that neither he nor the director happens to know very much about the particular kind of provincially born, genteelly bred failed artist Milland is supposed to be playing. None of the other players seem thoroughly at home, either, in the commonplace yet extremely specialized kind of apartment they use, though Philip Terry's gentle performance as the brother is of itself good, and Jane Wyman is knowingly cast as a Time researcher. Howard de Silva plays the ambiguous bartender well and with force, but the force and his face, in this context, turn it into ambiguity for little tots. The players miscast as Miss Wyman's ultra-bourgeois parents are probably not to blame, but they turn a sequence where intelligence and restraint would have been particularly gratifying into heavy caricature.

The causes of Don Birnam's alcoholism were not thoroughly controlled or understood, I thought, in the novel. In the movie they hardly exist. It may have been the better part of valor not to try to tackle them, and not to dabble in streams of consciousness, but when you add to this the fact that Mr. Milland cannot convincingly put before you this particular kind of thirsty man, you can see that the picture is bound to lack certain important kinds of depth, warmth, and intensity, not to mention plain dramatic interest. It becomes, too much of the time, just a virtuoso piece about a handsome, practically unidentified maniac. In one or two scenes you get with some force the terrible humiliation which is one of the drunkard's experiences; but considering the over-all quality of the film, it is remarkable how much you seem to have been given, and how little you actually get. There is very little appreciation, for instance, of the many and subtle moods possible in drunkenness; almost no registration of the workings of the several minds inside a drinker's brain; hardly a trace of the narcissism arid self-deceit which are so indispensable or of the self-loathing and self-pity which are so invariable; hardly a hint, except through abrupt action, of the desperation of thirst; no hint at all of the many colorings possible in the desperation. The hangovers lack the weakness, sickness, and horrible distortions of time-sense which they need.

-- James Agee, On Film (1958)

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