Don Birnam has one constant in his life: his girlfriend Helen. In the end, her steadfastness saves Don from himself.
In the 1945 film “Lost Weekend”, Don (Ray Milland) goes on a several day bender. He’s fixated on alcohol. Like any addict, he seeks to deceive his brother, Helen (Jane Wyman) and others. But they know. Don has a reputation as a lush.
A writer, his alcoholism is rooted in his failure to publish. Not only is Don a loser as a writer, but he is also broke and living with his brother Wick.
Don’s drinking just compounds his inability to develop his longtime desire to write a novel. His spree from one Thursday all the way through to the following Tuesday reveals that his major focus has become getting another drink, not formulating prose.
On Friday of his ordeal, Don is criticized by his bartender Nat for how he treats Helen after he agrees to go out with a floozy at the pub. In a flashback scene Don explains to Nat how he met his girlfriend. Their first encounter came about over a mixup over coats at a restaurant. Don ended up with Helen’s fancy wrap. Soon she discovers his problem with the bubbly, but sticks with him anyway.
Returning to the present day, by Tuesday even Helen is ready to dump him. She had spent Monday nursing him despite Don telling her to “go away”. She even spent the night on the couch in Wick’s apartment. But n the morning hesneaks off to a pawn shop to hock her precious coat, a symbol of their love.
Ostensibly, Don is seeking money for booze, but Helen discovers that he actually has traded it in for a gun. She rushes back to his apartment because she realizes he intends to kill himself.
After wrestling with Don over the gun and losing, Helen tells him that he seems determined to kill himself so she won’t stop him. She only wants to know why he intends to commit suicide.
Their ensuing dialogue is a jewel in a film which won several Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The discussion shows the mindset of a person who has reached the end of their rope.
Don tells Helen that he is already dead. He “died over the weekend.” When she asks him the cause of death Don replies,”Oh, a lot of things. Of alcohol, of moral anemia, of fear, of shame, of DTs (my note: the confusion caused by withdrawal from alcohol).”
In characteristic fashion, Helen sticks with Don and counters his faulty arguments. She tells him he can stop drinking. When he says that only people with a purpose can do that, she reminds him that he has talent and ambition.
“That’s dead long ago,” he answers.
“It’s not. You still have it,” she says.
Helen seeks to give Don hope. She that he will get well when he tells her how he can’t sit at a typewriter and write because his brain lacks clarity and he’s scared. She also tells him he has experienced a miracle. During their talk Nat has shown up with Don’s typewriter, which got lost in the shuffle of the lost weekend.
“What will I write about,” Don asks.
“What you always wanted to write,” Helen replies. She points to the title page about a novel called “The Bottle”.
“What was that going to be,” she asks.
“About a messed up life,” Don says. “A man, a woman, and a bottle. Nightmares, horrors, humiliations, things I want to forget.”
Helen argues, “Put them on paper. Get rid of them that way. Tell it all, to whom it may concern. It concerns so many people, Don.”
The suicidal writer pushes a cigarette into a glass of whiskey and sits down to write, and tells Helen about the people to whom he will send the finished work. Don is on his way to healing, thanks to his girl.
We all need a Helen in our lives. Life is not possible without one.
We also need to be that kind of person as well.
In American culture we tend to not get involved when people struggle. This seemingly indifferent pose comes from our individualism. We don’t want to interfere and violate a person’s independence.
I do recall having a friend like Helen. I used to call him “The Hound of Heaven”, the title of a poem by Francis Thompson.
This writer portrays God as a “hound”, chasing His “prey” over the course of years. The source of the author’s problems is His refusal to end the pursuit by submitting to God.
“Lo, All things fly thee for thou fliest Me,” Thompson writes.
As Nat restored Don’s lost typewriter, God is shown in this poem as the ONE who gives back to us what has been taken from us when we seek those things through Him.
We need caring friends combined with a loving God to meet us where we are and help us to recover from our losses
As Helen pursued the failed writer Don, Jesus kept after an even greater flop: His disciple Peter, a fisherman who had denied His friend at His crucifixion.
Peter knew His weakness even before his colossal defeat. Early in the ministry of Jesus, He performed a miracle by providing Peter and his colleagues a huge catch. “Get away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man,” said Peter after He witnessed Jesus’ intervention. Peter knew He couldn’t meet the expectations of such a Person and He didn’t.
However, after He rose from the dead Jesus prepared a meal of fish on the shore as Peter was out to sea on a boat. Knowing that the chef on the beach was Jesus, Peter jumped into the water and swam to Him.
It was during this event that Jesus restored Peter. Like Don and Helen, the two have a sterling dialogue in which the Lord exhorts his disciple to fish for men.
Peter went on to become the leader of the church (some think he was the first Pope) and the author of some of the New Testament. If it had not been for the persistence of His friend and His God, Peter may have had a fate similar to the one Don was headed for.
In “September 1, 1939” W.H. Auden writes of people in a dive bar:
“Lost in a haunted wood, children afraid of the night, who have never been happy or good.”
Stuart Briscoe writes of how the faces in this bar reflect their owners. They are full of worry. Briscoe notes that the biblical King David had such an expression until He went to God for forgiveness and relief from his shame. Expounding on David’s message in Psalm 34, Briscoe says:
The faces along the bar of life belong to people looking for solace in their pain, longing for friendship in their loneliness, hoping for joy in the midst of their disappointments. They need a smile, a touch, a message of encouragement. Who better to bring it than the man who can say with conviction, “Taste and see that the Lord is good”.
I continue to need such men in my life and hope I can be one to others. Perhaps people of this ilk can be an antidote to a society currently stained by the poison spread by a lack of love.