Ray Milland, usually a light leading man, gave his career-best work in Billy Wilder’s then-daring drama of alcoholism. ‘I’m not a drinker,’ claims the protagonist, ‘I’m a drunk!’ Milland is charming enough to make it credible that people would stick by his character through endless disappointments, but has an unforgettable way of snarling with his fingers as he beckons bartender Howard da Silva to bend over and listen to another pointed anecdote.
Over the course of the film, one long weekend in New York, Birnam slides into the gutter, sponging off a bartender and a friendly streetwalker, desperately trying to pawn his typewriter to buy booze (it’s Yom Kippur and all the pawnbrokers are shut), getting caught trying to lift a purse in a crowded bar, effectively robbing a liquour store by browbeating the clerk, spending a night in the locked alcoholic ward half-way between prison and hospital where snide attendant Frank Faylen (as close to gay as a film character could be in 1945) jeers that this is bound to be the first of many visits, then contemplating suicide before a tentative redemption.
The early stretches are light intoxication, with a typically Wilderian streak of dark comedy, but the film darkens and becomes nightmarish, with composer Miklos Rosza mixing in the science fiction sound of the theremin to convey distorted perception. It ends with a note of hope, and Birnam typing away at his novel, but the horrors are harrowing enough to suggest the hero will always have a bottle on a string outside his window and a bed waiting for him in the ‘alkie ward’.