The Best Picture of 1945 has lost none of its bite or power in this uncompromising look at the devastating effects of alcoholism. Ironically, this brilliant Billy Wilder film was almost never released because of poor reaction by preview audiences unaccustomed to such stark realism from Hollywood, but the film has since gone on to be regarded as one of the all-time great dramas in movie history. Ray Milland's haunting portrayal of would-be writer's dissatisfaction with his life leads him on a self-destructive three-day binge.
Message in a Bottle
- The Lost Weekend review by Count Otto Black
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Considering it was made in 1945, this is an astonishingly frank portrayal of what it's like to be a hopeless alcoholic, and Ray Milland gives the performance of his life as the utterly wretched central character, right from the opening scene where, with twitchy desperation, he tries to convince his wearily skeptical brother that he really is staying on the wagon this time, a promise the audience knows he isn't even going to try to keep because the very first shot of the movie has shown us his cunningly concealed bottle.
The trouble is, it's very hard indeed to feel any sympathy for the person in whose company we spend almost every minute of the film. He's the reason why it's a terrible idea to go into a bar on your own; somebody like this will inevitably sit next to you and subject you to his "I coulda been a contender" monologue that all the regulars have heard a thousand times, and it will soon become obvious that he never coulda been anything except a pub bore. Our hero's personal tragedy is that his teenage ambition to be a Great Writer didn't work out, self-pity drove him to drink, and now he's got two things to feel sorry for himself about. He's 33 years old, he's been living on his brother's charity since dropping out of university, and he spends his days telling bored bartenders what a Great Writer he'd be if only he could remember all the purple prose booze inspires him to spout when he's sober enough to type.
He's a noisy, tedious drunk who does mean-spirited things and doesn't really seem to care about anyone except himself, and I didn't care whether he sobered up and wrote a Great Novel or staggered in front of a bus and died. I also found it completely implausible that a girl like the one played by Jane Wyman would have stuck with this whining wretch through three years of broken promises (oddly, there's another character in the film who seems far more likely to have put up with such behavior, but is wasted as the setup for a contrived plot point which ends up being all about our sozzled hero). There's some superb acting going on here, and as a pseudo-documentary about substance abuse it pulls very few punches, but my complete lack of empathy with the main character or concern about his fate left me feeling that I was watching a film which was technically great without really getting emotionally involved in it, to the point where, during moments that were supposed to be intensely dramatic, I found myself wondering how come an alcoholic who will sell anything he can get his hands on to buy his next drink lives in such a well-furnished flat.