Screengem: The Remington Portable Typewriter in The Lost Weekend (Billy Wilder, 1945)

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Billy Wilder’s Oscar Winning picture, The Lost Weekend (1945) starring Ray Milland as a washed-up New York writer, is one of the more frank depictions of alcoholism on film; unusual in 1945 for its candid depiction of dissolution and for its unflinching portrayal of a self-indulgent and unsympathetic ‘hero’ driven to despair by frustrated ambition.

Milland plays Don Birnham, a struggling writer craving success, but also a hardened and determined drinker, constitutionally incapable of writing due to his reliance on whisky. A college drop-out with pretensions to literary grandeur, Birnham has taken to drink to drown his increasing self-doubt and the suspicion that he might not be up to the job of writing the great novel.

The emblem of this self-doubt and also the object of Birnham’s key relationship – a relationship which is more instructive than the strained romantic affiliation with the saintly Helen (Jane Wyman), because it explains his neurosis – is his Remington Portable Typewriter: an understated but cardinal presence in the film, and a potent and manifest symbol of ruined intent.  The typewriter is at once a concrete rebuke to Birnham’s dissolving moral character, and a silent chorus to the tragedy of his condition; its stark inanimacy acts as a caution against wrecked ambition in the way that Shelley’s colossus of Ozymandias acts as council against complacent pride.

In standard readings of the film, the typewriter acts as a device of hope: a lodestar by which Birnham might find his way. As its owner becomes increasingly inebriated the typewriter becomes remote from his psychological landscape, but it is still physically present: the first breadcrumb on the path back from despair.

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It appears, almost incidentally, as a prop to be leant on at the bar; tucked under an arm on a drunken trawl through the streets; then abandoned at the foot of the flight of stairs Birnham has fallen down after hitting on the good-time girl Gloria (Doris Dowling). For him, the typewriter is no longer the portal to a writing career: it is a bargaining chip and a means to a different end. It is notable that the moral low point of the parable comes when Birnham tries to pawn his typewriter for whisky money.

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About the author

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, I’m a researcher, marketer and writer living and working in Bristol. My film memory stretches back to trips to see Return of the Jedi and Jaws 3D in the early ‘80s, but I’ve only recently started to write about cinema; first for the sadly-departed subtitledonline.com and now for The Big Picture Magazine. Favourite directors include Lang, Chaplin, Keaton, Bergman, Chabrol, Malle, Polanski, Peckinpah, Eastwood and Scorcese, each of whom have reminded us in their different ways that cinema can be a beautiful, affirmative, transformative and intellectually astute artform. I’m currently working my way through Eureka’s excellent Master of Cinema series - an inspired exercise in preservation, restoration and presentation - which should provide me with a bountiful supply of new material for the magazine.

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