Boy, that movie The Lost Weekend (1945, directed by Billy Wilder), is a hard one to watch these days. I just saw it again on Turner Classic Movies and by the end I really needed a drink. The real problem, I think, is Ray Milland as the hero Don Birnam (I think that’s a reference to Macbeth – author of the novel on which the movie was based - Charles Jackson - was nothing if not high-toned). Milland’s pereformance is all sweaty, eye-rolling, scenery-chewing hamminess. Naturally, he won an Oscar for best actor (he might certainly have won for most acting).
Another, insurmountable, problem is the premise that the hero’s drinking problems stem from writer’s block, from the fact that he’s a failed writer, a man who can barely start, much less finish a project. At the end of the movie it appears he’s going to get his act together and knuckle down and complete his novel. Oh yeah, that’ll solve all his problems.
Still, the movie does have various localized pleasures, not least the scene when Birnam takes a long, desperate walk through Manhattan, trying to find a place to pawn his typewriter for cash.
We know from internal evidence in the movie that Birnam lives within easy walking distance of PJ Clarke’s Saloon on Third Avenue at East 55th Street, a real location, still in existence when I last heard, although they had to build a replica in Hollywood to complete the film.
He walks north, and we see a sign for Third Avenue and 75th Street
Then 3rd and 90th.
He certainly walks further than that though the movie isn’t absolutely clear how far, but eventually he gets the news that all the pawn shops are closed – it’s Yom Kippur – a Jewish holiday and the Irish pawn shows are closed too, in solidarity. The Jewish pawn shops reciprocate by closing on St Patrick’s Day.
Birnam then walks back down through the city ,eventually returning to the bar, many hours later, where the bartender gives him just one free drink then kicks him out.
I found myself turning to the book of The Lost Weekend, which I read so long ago I’d pretty much forgotten everything about it. It seems that the movie is about as faithful as any movie ever is. Our hero is a man of the crowd, “How many mornings such as this, mornings in other cities as well as New York, had he taken such walks? Mornings when he truly didn’t know if he was going to give way in a faint after the next step, much less before he reached his destination – liquor store, pawnshop, bar, bed. Mornings of preposterous, inexplicable panic …”
The walk to pawn the typewriter is in there, and it’s a really showy, literary walking/psychogeography setpiece, though it’s different from the movie in several ways – not least in that Birnam walks up 2nd Avenue, not 3rd. Did Jackson know something pan shops that Billy Wilder didn’t, or vice versa? And he goes as far as 120th Street before retuning via First Avenue. As in the movie somebody does explain to him that it’s Yom Kippur, but the joke about the Irish pawn brokers isn’t there.
Jackson really pulls out all the stops as he describes the New York street scenes, “The cigars, the glass shops, the hamburger joints, the cafeterias, the news-stands, the dishes in bushel baskets, dishes for sale; the Ruppert brewery stretching from 92nd to 93rd, looking timeless and European, like something you checked in the Baedeker and went around to see; the hardware, the framers, the upholsterers, the haberdashers, the key shops (Keys Made), the moving and trucking, the Soda and Candy, the dairies; the stockings set up on the sidewalks (the tables and tables of boxes and boxes of stockings); the chi-chi horror of the flea-markets; the milk-bars, the orange-juice stands, the weighing-machines, the gaping, smelly dead fish ..” It goes on and on.
Charles Jackson was described by Donna Rifkind in the New York Times as “one of the most successful failures in American letters.” It was in her review of Farther and Wilder, a biography of Jackson by Blake Bailey’s. She describes how Jackson blamed his mother for his alcoholism, and also for his homosexuality. His mother said of his early work, “I don’t see anything so wonderful about it, it all happened, all you had to do is write it down.” Thanks mom. That doesn’t sound like the very best reason for drinking, but I can see how it might be a reason to have writer’s block.