This compelling film illustrates the attitudes and obsessions of a young man battling alcoholism. The dialogue, soundtrack, and actions of the characters worked together to create a poignant portrait that was almost hard to watch at times. The film brought to light many of the private struggles within the alcoholic himself and between the alcoholic and those closest to him that most real alcoholics and their families keep very hidden out of embarrassment and pain. I often felt like I was watching a terrible diary entry come to life. However, I think one reason the film won the Academy Award Best Picture was precisely because of this painful peak at a reality that many people actually deal with. Alcoholism is probably something that many struggled with as they returned from WWII during this era, and is still absolutely relevant today.
The film opens in a scene where the main character, Don Burnham (Ray Milland) and his brother are packing for a weekend away. Anytime his brother’s back is turned, Burnham attempts to pull up a bottle of alcohol that he keeps on a string hanging out the window so he can detach it and put it in his suitcase. It is the audience’s first glimpse of Burnham’s desperation. Burnham’s girl (Helen) stops by to invite Burnham to an evening show before his train leaves for his weekend away. Burnham declines but insists, almost angrily, that his brother go in his stead and promises to meet him at the train station later. Helen, Burnham’s brother, and the audience know that Burnham is hiding something, but the two finally acquiesce and go to the show, leaving Burnham home alone. We soon learn that his brother keeps him on a very short leash by controlling his money. When Burnham manages to get his hands on $10 meant for the maid, we soon learn why.
During the course of the film, we learn about Burnham’s past, how he met Helen St. James, and see him in a variety of situations that starkly illustrate his physical and emotional battle with true alcoholism. He will literally do whatever it takes to get his hands around a bottle. The need for and attraction to alcohol is all-consuming for this man. It shapes his focus and his thoughts and drives his every action. His addiction is almost sexualized.
Burnham cannot make it through an opera performance without becoming hypnotized by the alcohol served on stage and hallucinating that all the singers have become wine glasses. It is at this opera, as the result of a coat mix-up, that Burnham first meets Helen. And he stops drinking. For about five minutes.
We learn that Burnham is a writer; in college he thought he was the next Hemingway. However, having suffered from writer’s block and alcoholism, he is now 33 and feels like a total failure, which simply adds to his emotional need for alcohol. He proclaims, “I will write! I will write!” But he cannot write without alcohol.
We see him grow increasingly desperate as the weekend progresses. He spends time in his favorite bar, demanding more shots from the bartender while lamenting the fact that bars aren’t open on Sundays. Burnham’s worst fear is waking up on Sunday mornings without a store of alcohol in his house and no access to bars. He tears his house apart in a rampage, looking for alcohol. He goes to buy alcohol, but has no money so he demands the alcohol from the shopkeeper and steals it. He attempts to pawn the typewriter his mother gave him but all the pawn stores are closed and his desperation morphs to panic. Finally, he goes to see a female friend to beg her for money. In the first of a few dramatic climaxes of the weekend, as he turns to leave her apartment, he tumbles down the stairs.
Burnham awakens in a psychiatric ward and shortly into his stay, he witnesses the hallucinogenic effects of alcohol withdrawl. He escapes. Right back into a desperate hunt for drink. In his apartment, Burnham himself suffers an attack of withdrawl, a gruesome hallucination of a bat attacking a mouse. Alcohol has driven this man certifiably crazy and I, the audience, want to look away, knowing he is a lost cause, but rooting for him nonetheless.
About this time, Helen comes to the apartment looking for her love. She says she will fight for him. He won’t have it. He grabs her coat, the one that brought them together at the Opera, and heads to a pawn shop. She follows and discovers he has pawned it, not for alcohol money, but for a gun. In the third of the dramatic climaxes, we witness an emotional battle between man, alcohol, gun, and love. As I watched the final scene unfold, I wasn’t sure which ending would be more satisfying. Suicide would be more realistic, but the promise of hope and life after alcohol would be more of a relief. I truly didn’t know which way it would go, and I think it’s best to leave you hanging too, reader.
Having never experienced life with an alcoholic, this movie was eye-opening and devastating. I wanted to fix Burnham, but every action and interaction in the film illustrated that alcoholism is intensely complex, reaching into the depths of body, mind, and soul.