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Don Birnam (Ray Milland) is a struggling New York writer whose biggest battle is with the bottle. His watchful brother proposes a long weekend in the country to help dry him out, but Birnam is stuck in the bar when the train departs. Helen (Jane Wyman) hangs about, trying to help; Gloria (Doris Dowling) is there offering wanton support and Nat (Howard Da Silva) is behind the bar dispensing a mixture of sympathy and pity. When things get truly desperate, when Birnam is denied credit and loses all respect, he will beg, borrow and steal for one last drink. Finally, he can think of only one way to put an end to the misery of that lost weekend.

Review by Keith Lofthouse:
It was billed as "The Picture That Dares To Bare A Man's Soul," and yet nobody but Billy Wilder wanted to make it. When it was finished the studio thought they had hatched a turkey and shelved it for 12 months, but fearing the film might trigger a return to the Prohibition era, America's liquor lobby offered $5 million for the negative and all the prints, which they would destroy. Finally, the head of Paramount decided to release it. "I don't make pictures to throw down the toilet," he barked, and that year the first film to seriously examine the scourge of alcoholism was named Best Picture.

Wilder won Oscars for direction and screenplay and Ray Milland won Best Actor, though John Huston sagely observed that even W. C. Fields "would have won" had he landed such a part. Having made his name in debonair lightweight roles, Milland was unsure of his credentials and isn't all that convincing...especially in the early scenes, his googly-eyes darting furtively about, aware of that sly bottle he is hoping to hide from the woman who unreasonably loves him.

Here, there is no subtlety in his mugging and no reality either. Original choice Josť Ferrer had missed out because he lacked his successor's good looks, but one suspects he might have made a better fist of things when the plot turns inexorably to guns and melodrama. Milland's cold performance, his perfect diction barely blurred by a slur, is only partly sustained by the brilliant business of Wilder and Brackett, who wrote from bitter experience...Brackett's wife (due to her insobriety) hardly left the house. Milland might have been more effective if the script had not been hog-tied by Hollywood's strict production code.

In his novel, Jackson had written that Birnam's battle with the bottle stemmed not from a severe bout of writers' block but from repressed homosexuality, hence his indifference to Helen's love and Gloria's desire. Still, there are memorable moments as Birnam begs, borrows and steals for his booze. After being caught red-handed with a woman's handbag in a downtown bar, a pianist plays "Somebody Stole My Gal" but leads patrons into a humiliating chorus of "somebody stole her purse." Banged up in a "hangover" hostel, a sadistic male nurse (Frank Faylen) tells Birnam of the delirium that awaits him and during a brutal bout of the D.Ts, Birnam is tormented by bats bombarding a rodent, leaving a trail of blood on the wall.

For the most part, Birnam's plunge into the abyss of alcoholism is grim, gruelling and given the sense of a real bender by Miklos Rozsa's head-spinning score. Rozsa was first to use the theremin, an electronic gizmo that emitted a strange whirling sound which later became a staple of science fiction quickies. The overall impact is softened by Birnam's all too sudden and expedient redemption, but it remains an important film for rattling Tinseltown's perennial penchant for depicting drunks as harmless and jovial buffoons in the mould of W.C.Fields. For most of those afflicted, the nagging need to tipple is nailed by barman Nat who, in refusing Birnam "one last drink," reminds him how "one's too many and a hundred's not enough."

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(US, 1945)

CAST: Ray Milland, Jane Wyman, Howard Da Silva

DIRECTOR: Billy Wilder

SCRIPT: Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett (based on the novel by Charles R. Jackson)

RUNNING TIME: 121 minutes




DVD RELEASE: March 23, 2005

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