This Academy Award winning film offers a brief window into the life of a struggling New York writer as he tries to overcome his paralyzing addiction to liquor. Directed by Billy Wilder, The Lost Weekend has an impressive cast, starring Ray Milland, Howard da Silva, Doris Dowling, and Jane Wyman. It also features as a weirdly idiosyncratic performance by character-actor, Frank Faylen as “Bim,” the flamboyant gatekeeper at Bellevue’s alcoholic ward.

Although most of the principal photography took place in Hollywood, Wilder insisted on shooting at least part of the film on location —spending the first half of October, 1944 in New York City— in order to give The Lost Weekend a stark, unflinching, documentary feel. 


A Bottle Hanging Out the Window
The movie opens with a panning shot of the Midtown Manhattan skyline.
The camera ends on Don Birnam’s apartment window at 231 E. 55th Street with a bottle hanging on a string outside it. 


When I first decided to search for the location to this opening shot, I was able to get a general idea of it simply by studying the panning skyline. After identifying a couple of the taller buildings —like the Chrysler Building, the Waldorf Astoria and the G.E. Building— I determined that we were in the same vicinity of P.J. Clarke’s Restaurant and Bar, located on the corner of E 55th and 3rd Avenue.

By the looks of the scene, I figured the movie camera was mounted on a rooftop and panned over into Don’s apartment window which was either on a slightly taller adjacent building, or on a penthouse-like dwelling attached to the roof. With this in mind, I went to Google 3D Earth View to see if I could actually find a rooftop that matched the one in the film. But after scanning the area, I couldn’t find anything that resembled Don’s apartment building. But that didn’t surprise me, since most of that neighborhood has been completely redone with modern skyscrapers.

A little later, I asked my research partner, Blakeslee, where he thought this opening scene took place. He came up with the same conclusion as me to its general location, but added the caveat that the building would probably have to be at least 6-stories tall, since it was clearly higher than the nearby 4-story walk-ups seen in the shot.

Also, just for fun, Blakeslee decided to try see to how many buildings he could recognize from the opening shot. Over the next week or so, he would send me random texts, identifying different Midtown structures seen in that unfolding skyline, like Bloomingdale’s on E 59th or the El Morocco club on E 54th. And by doing this, he started to home in on where the scene took place.

Looking  southeast at El Morocco at 154 E 54th Street, circa 1940.

Then, with the aid of some newly-found aerial photos from 1951, Blakeslee concluded the apartment was at or near 235 E 55th Street, This estimate made sense and was consistent with information I found in Gene Phillips’ book, Some Like It Wilder: The Life and Controversial Films of Billy Wilder. In it, Phillips states that Charles Jackson, the author of the novel “Lost Weekend,” lived on E 55th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues and that the film crew took some shots of the building’s exteriors.

Now that Blakeslee and I were convinced they filmed on top of a building on  E 55th between 2nd and 3rd, we took a look at the block in a 1955 land book and found two likely candidates. One was the extant New York Telephone Building which runs from 55th to 56th, and the other was a warehouse building at 231 E 55th. Both were 7-stories tall (though the telephone building had floors added to it in the 1960s), which would be the right height to achieve the vantage point seen in the film.

Plate 85 from the 1955 edition of Bromley’s, Manhattan Land Book, showing the buildings along E 55th Street between Second and Third Avenues, with red lines indicating two possible candidates for the filming location.

However, the one thing that perplexed me was the heights of the neighboring buildings. According to the map, all of the adjacent buildings were significantly shorter than our two candidates, so it couldn’t be a situation where the camera was on a slightly shorter building next to Don’s apartment. I did, however, have a new theory — the “apartment building” was just a set built on top of the roof by the film production. I got the idea from Harold Lloyd’s film, Safety Last, where they built fake facades on top of other buildings to create a sense of extreme height.

A production still from one of Harold Lloyd’s films, showcasing a fake facade built on top of a roof.

Months later, after we gave up on finding the exact location of this opening scene, I decided to get some exercise one chilly December evening and walk from my friends’ apartment on E 5th Street to the 59th Street Subway Station by way of Third Avenue. As I approached 55th Street, on a whim, I decided to take some photos of P.J. Clarke’s and send them to Blakeslee.

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A December 2017 photo of P.J. Clarke’s, looking north on Third Avenue.

I then cut over to E 56th Street to check out the telephone building to see if there was any evidence that it was the one used for Don’s apartment. I knew the building had floors added to it since 1945, so I wasn’t particularly confident I’d find anything useful. But it was still cool just to be there, mainly because it was a particularly cold and quiet evening, devoid of almost any foot traffic.

I guess my.sending these late night pics to Blakeslee inspired him to look at the scene one last time and see if he could find any more clues because about a half hour later, as I was riding the subway up to the Bronx, I got a series of texts from him, starting with one that simply said, “HOLY SHIT!”

Amazingly, Blakeslee was able to find a great resource to help us put the final piece of the puzzle in place. He found an essay by Anthony Slide, editor of “It’s the Pictures That Got Small,” who describes a few excerpts from co-screenwriter Charles Brackett’s diary. According to Brackett, this first shot of the skyline and the bottle outside of Don’s apartment was achieved by building a set “on the roof of Hahn’s Warehouse.”

This was very promising news because in our original research, one of the two likely building candidates was a warehouse. After a little digging around, we discovered the warehouse on 55th was, indeed, named Hahn’s. So, after months of research, we were finally satisfied that we had found the precise spot of Birnam’s New York apartment — even if it was just a false front built on a now-demolished building.

P.J. Clarke’s on the corner of E 55th and 3rd Avenue, circa 1940, with Hahn’s Warehouse (seen on the far right), where a partial set of Don’s apartment was built on its rooftop.


Ray Milland on the apartment set at Paramount Studios in California. 

When it came to the apartment set back in Hollywood, before the crew began construction, Wilder reportedly asked author Charles Jackson to draw a rudimentary diagram of his old Manhattan apartment so they could replicate it as close as possible. And coincidentally, when the art department was decorating the set, they put a random framed picture on the wall which happened to be the exact same print Jackson had in his New York apartment years ago.

Now, one last side story about the bar down the street from Birnam’s apartment.

While most film historians acknowledge that “Nat’s Bar” in The Lost Weekend was a studio set, most claim that it was based on P.J. Clarke’s on the corner of E 55th and Third Avenue in Manhattan. However, this appears to be only partly true.

It always bugged me that if Wilder had, in fact, instructed his team to build a set based on Clarke’s, why did it end up being a mid-block bar instead of a corner bar (like how the real P.J Clarke’s is)? And even though the inside does sort of resemble Clarke’s, it’s in no way an exact match. It basically looks like any generic blue-collar tavern in New York City from that era.

Billy Wilder watching a rehearsal on the “Nat’s Bar” set with Ray Milland and Doris Dowling.

The main reason everyone has assumed the bar in the film was based on P.J. Clarke’s is because Clarke’s was supposedly a favorite watering hole of the novelist, Charlie Jackson, as well as the bar he described in the novel. Billy Wilder is quoted as saying:

“We used P. J. Clarke’s bar at the corner of Third Avenue and Fifty-fifth Street because that is where Charles Jackson did his drinking; and that is where his friendly bartender, called Nat in the movie, worked.”

So Wilder seems to confirm this, but he also specified that Clarke’s was on a corner, while the bar in the movie is not. Changing the bar’s position on the block could have simply been an artistic choice on his part, or perhaps a mistake by the art department. Or it could have been for another reason — namely, that it wasn’t one-hundred percent based on Clarke’s.

While researching the apartment rooftop location, I found a book by Blake Bailey, titled, “Farther and Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson.” In it, there’s a quick footnote that seems to indicate that Jackson’s favorite place to imbibe wasn’t where we thought it was:

“Legend has it that Jackson was a great patron of P. J. Clarke’s on 55th and Third (the model for the bar in the movie), though in fact, as he wrote a friend, “my favorite joint (and the one described in The Lost Weekend) was Gus’s, between 55th and 56th on Second.”

Was Wilder privy to this information? Did he switch the bar location to be in the middle of the block to match the lesser-know Gus’s? Or was it just a happy mistake? Who knows? Since I can only cite one reference that Gus’s was the actual inspiration for the bar described in the novel, I must take it with a grain of salt.

The one thing I do know is: if you want to see the actual exterior and a better reproduction of the interior of P.J. Clarke’s, check out 1950’s Side Street.


Looking For a Pawnshop
Don searches for a pawnshop to sell his typewriter for booze money. After running into several closed establishments, he stares vacantly into yet another gated shop.
Don turns to go investigate the pawnshop at 1880 3rd Avenue.
While crossing 3rd Avenue, he has to take a breather under the elevated tracks.
Don reaches the other side of the street where, once again, the pawnshop is closed.


Aside for the opening shot of the New York skyline, The Lost Weekend doesn’t use any actual New York locations until Ray Milland’s character begins his journey up Third Avenue, about two-thirds into the running time.

The location of this pawnshop was the first place I found from this walking montage. I found it by looking up the address of one of the stores appearing in the scene, either the A. Bloom Loan Office or the Spotless Store (I can’t remember which one). This was early into my “NYC in Film” project, so it was before I started using the phone directories at the 42nd Street Public Library as a reference, and relied on finding business addresses exclusively through online searches.

UPDATE: About a year after writing this post, the NYC Department of Records & Information Services finally released over 720,000 digitized images of the “1940 tax photos,” which were taken from 1939 to 1941 of nearly every block and lot in New York City. There are a few holes here and there, but it’s nearly exhaustive.

Once these digitized images were released, I was keen to check up on this scene to make sure I got it right. Granted, I was fairly confident I got the correct location, but since I couldn’t remember my original source of discovery, I wanted to find some more evidence to confirm it.

A comparison of Sacks Corsets as it appears in the 1945 film (left) and a 1940 tax photo of 1872 3rd Avenue (right).

I went to the NYC municipal archives and looked up the address 1880 3rd Avenue, hoping the pawn shop would be present. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a very good tax photo of building number 1880, but I did find an image of number 1872 featuring a Sacks Corsets shop, which matched one of the buildings seen the first shot.

corsets ad
A 1940 advertisement for Talon’s “Zippered Corset” girdle. 


Apparently, even in the mid-1940’s, the corset was still a popular method for women to create the “perfect hourglass shape.” Not sure when corsets finally disappeared from women’s fashion, but it seems the infamous whalebone and metal enforced corsets —which could permanently deform the wearer’s skeletal shape over time— had been discontinued by that point.

Nowadays, I guess we let Spanx do all the sly body-sculpting for us.



Passing Another Pawnshop

Continuing his walk, Don passes another closed pawnshop at 860 Eighth Avenue.


This brief tracking shot of the United Pledge Society got overlooked for a while after I began this film location project, mainly because it’s on-screen for only a couple seconds, and doesn’t include Ray Milland in it. But wanting to be a completist, I searched online for any information on the United Pledge Society and found a couple references to the pawnshop.

There was a transcript from a 1940 court case where a pawnbroker who worked at United Pledge Society was charged with five counts of “buying and receiving stolen goods.” There was also an article in the April 23, 1964 edition of The New York Times that told the story of a stolen violin valued at $15,000 being pawned at United for a mere $15.

Interestingly, each source listed a different address for the pawnshop. The the 1940 court records listed the shop at 843 Eighth Avenue, while the 1964 Times article listed it at 860. Turns out, the United Pledge Society was located at both addresses — first at 843, then across the street at 860. Since most of the buildings on both of these blocks have been replaced over the years, it took a little time to figure out which location was used in the film.

Finally, I was able to determine the location to be on the east side of Eighth Avenue at no. 860. The big clue was the reflection in the store’s window, which showed the extant corner building at no. 871. Once I figured out the angle of reflection, I was able to get the approximate location of the former pawn shop. (You can see the reflection of no. 871 in the “before/after” picture above.)

Months later, I found a picture of 860 Eighth Avenue from the recently released 1940 tax photos archive. The United Pledge Society wasn’t in the retail space at the time the photo was taken (they were still at no. 843), but there were still a few details that matched the scene in the film.
A still from the film (above), compared to a 1940 tax photo (below).

And as an added bonus — when I was grabbing a still from the film to compare it with the tax photo, I discovered for the first time that you can actually see an address on the adjacent building. And sure enough, it was the number 858.


Walking to Yet Another Pawnshop
A desperate Don walks by a funeral home at 1641 1st Avenue.
Don continues on his quest to find a pawn shop walking south on First Avenue (opposed to north on Third Avenue, as implied in the film).


The interesting thing about this extended montage of Don looking for a pawn shop is that Billy Wilder implemented several techniques to achieve the result he wanted. Wilder insisted on filming at least partially on location in New York City to capture the gritty landscape of an urban alcoholic. But filming Ray Milland, a well-known star at the time, on the streets of New York proved difficult, as it would quickly attract large crowds of curious onlookers.

According to several sources, the production team had to hide movie cameras inside boxes or in the back of delivery trucks so they could film undetected by passersby. But this ended up being a limited solution. So Wilder was forced to complete this montage back in Hollywood — either using rear projection process shots (where the actors stand in front of a screen while a projector casts background images from behind) or building “New York” street sets on a soundstage.

Ray Milland being filmed at an actual New York location, near 104th St and Third Avenue.


Ray Milland on a “fake” New York Street set at Paramount Studios in Hollywood, CA.

My job was to separate the Hollywood bits from the New York bits, and I thought this quick shot of Don walking by a funeral parlor was filmed on a set back in California. This was due to the generic “FUNERAL SERVICE Corporation,” insomuch I thought it looked a little fake. But upon closer inspection, I noticed that the shadows looked too harsh to be on an indoor set and I became certain that this scene was shot outdoors. Granted, it still could have been shot on a studio backlot using natural light, but I felt it was worth a little more exploring.

First thing I did was look up “funeral service corporation” in the 1944 Manhattan phone book at the library, and to my surprise, I found a listing with that exact same wording. And even though it wasn’t on Third Avenue as it’s implied in the film, it was on nearby First. Knowing production was using hidden cameras (which meant little to no set-up), it was completely plausible for them to jump around from one avenue to another. A quick look on Google Street View confirmed I found the right location, with matching trim around the doors still in place.

Street Clock
After trudging up 3rd Avenue, Don ends up in front of 1501 3rd Avenue where he finally gets the news that all the pawnshops are closed because it’s Yom Kipper.
As Don staggers away, the camera pans up to the street clock baring three balls, the traditional symbol of a pawnshop.


While I could tell most of this scene was shot on a Hollywood set, I was curious to find where the rear projection footage of the clock and elevated tracks was taken.

I eventually found the location by doing a general internet search for NYC street clocks, and found a page on Forgotten-NY dedicated to this former practice of displaying large timepieces. After searching through the website, I found an entry that looked like it matched the film — The Yorkville Clock, which has been on Third Avenue between E 84th and 85th Streets for over a 100 years. And it recently received a complete restoration, so it seems like it will be sticking around for the foreseeable future.

lost-clock 1940tax
A photo of 1499-1501 Third Avenue, circa 1940, with the Yorkville Clock in front of Albert Sterns pawn shop. 

Since there are very few street clocks remaining from this era, it was great to find out that the one from The Lost Weekend was still standing. There are still a few others floating around here and there, one of which was featured in the 1950 noir, Side Street.

Of course, like I mentioned above, most of the scene was shot on a Hollywood stage, using a rear-projection screen. I normally don’t bother tracking down rear-projection footage, but Billy Wilder and cinematographer John F. Seitz executed this technique so well (panning the camera up on the Hollywood set to match the vertical movement of the footage shot in New York), I decided to include it in my research.

Besides, you have to appreciate the fact that the clock is still around and still tickin’!


Bellevue Hospital

Don manages to escape the drunk ward at Bellevue hospital.


He slips out through the gate at 400 E 30th Street.


Don then walks east on 30th towards 1st Avenue.


This was a fairly easy location to find, since it’s clearly indicated that Don is at Bellevue Hospital on First Avenue. I sought out this particular location in the early stages of this “NYC in Film” project, so I was still a little inexperienced. This would account for my initial disorientation as to where precisely the action took place.

Originally, I thought Milland exited the hospital onto First Avenue, simply because I’ve always thought of that as the main entrance. It wasn’t until a few months later that I realized the placement of the Empire State Building in the background was all wrong. If he was supposedly on First, the building wouldn’t be in the shot. That’s when I figured he had to be heading east on a side street. A few clicks later, I was able to nail the exact location on 30th Street.

Ray Milland and Frank Faylen as ‘Bim,’ the ward nurse, inside Bellevue Hospital.

In addition to the exteriors, production actually got permission to film inside Bellevue’s alcoholic ward. To prepare for the scene, Ray Milland claims Wilder arranged with some resident doctors to let him check into the “booze tank” as a patient. He described the unpleasant ordeal in his autobiography, Wide-Eyed in Babylon:

“The place was a multitude of smells, but the dominant one was that of a cesspool. And there were the sounds of moaning, and quiet crying. One man talked incessantly, just gibberish, and two of the inmates were under restraint, strapped to their beds.”

When the experience became too unbearable, Milland was able to sneak out of the hospital, only to be snagged by a street cop who recognized the Bellevue terrycloth robe he was wearing. Eventually, Milland was able to convince the hospital administrators to call the film production to verify he was simply an actor doing research for a role.

After The Lost Weekend was released in 1945, the administrators of Bellevue were so upset with the negative depiction of their hospital, that they vowed never to cooperate with Hollywood again. This even included 1947’s family-friendly, Miracle on 34th Street. In fact, director George Seaton said that when he tried to get permission to film inside, “The hospital manager practically threw me out because he was still mad at himself for having given Wilder permission to shoot at the hospital.”

Liquor Store

After escaping from Bellevue Hospital during the early morning hours, Don gets on the El train, entering from the northeast corner of Third Avenue and E 28th Street.
He then gets off the train and stumbles his way to a liquor store at E 43rd and 3rd Avenue.
With the store closed, Don can only gaze longingly into the window.


The locations to this sequence weren’t terribly difficult to find, since both were somewhere along the Third Avenue El.

Ray Milland looking a little like james Dean in a promotional photo taken at the liquor store location.

I first focused on finding the liquor store, and without any street signs or storefronts, the one big clue I had to work on (aside from the El train) was the church across from the liquor store. Knowing that most of the buildings along Third have been razed, I was still somewhat hopeful that the church (being a revered edifice) would still be around. So I started looking for any churches that were roughly one or two lots in from Third Avenue.

Having already identified another location from the film up on 104th Street, I began my search at 125th and worked my way down Third. I found several churches along the way, but none of them matched the one in the film. Then, when I finally reached 43rd Street and discovered the Church of St. Agnes, I momentarily got excited, but that soon waned.

A 1929 photo of the original Church of St. Agnes.

The church (Est. 1873) seemed to be the right distance from Third, but it didn’t match what was in the film. However, there was something about it that made me think it was the correct location. The church’s facade was clearly different, but its size and orientation were similar to what appeared in the film.

Then, after doing some research, I discovered that the Church of St. Agnes suffered a massive fire in December of 1992, and was rebuilt in 1998, but retained two surviving towers from the original structure. With this news, I tracked down a photo of the original building, and sure enough, it matched the one in the film.

However, all this research involving the church could have been avoided if I simply focused on the corner building instead, which I assumed had been demolished like all the other residential walk-ups in the area. But after confirming the church address, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the building next to it is still around today.

As to the liquor store itself, I originally thought it was a just a single wall put up by the filmmakers, similar to what they did in the opening shot of Birnam’s apartment. I got that idea after I found a 1940 tax photo of what I thought was the location of the liquor store and saw nothing but an open parking lot.

A circa 1940 tax photo looking at the west end of 144-150 E 43rd Street which was an open parking space.

But I believe I was off when I first calculated the liquor store address. Upon closer inspection, I’m pretty sure it was located in the rear of the corner building at 676 Third Avenue. Of course, the reverse shot of Milland entering the store was most certainly a Hollywood set.

Circa 1940, looking at the the southwest corner of Third Avenue and E 43rd Street where the liquor store from this scene was likely located (indicated with red arrow).

Once I had the liquor store location all figured out, I went in search of the Third Avenue El station Milland went to after escaping from the hospital. Based on the Chrysler Building that appears in the background, I guessed they were somewhere on Third between 14th and 34th Streets.

The first place I considered was the 28th Street Station since that is the closest to Bellevue Hospital. But it wasn’t until the 1940s tax photos were released a year later that I was able to find the definitive proof that 28th was the station they used.

A cropped-in still from the 1945 film (left) compared to a c 1940 tax photo of W 28th Street and Third Avenue (right) with red arrows indicating a matching sign,

Once I confirmed the location of that El train station,  my search for every filming location from The Lost Weekend was finally complete.

Ray Milland and Jane Wyman in a promotional photo for The Lost Weekend.

When I decided to start this “NYC in Film” website, I knew the first movie I wanted to write a post about was Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend. It’s long been my favorite Wilder film, even though I know it’s not as well known as some of his other efforts, such as Sunset Boulevard or Double Indemnity.

For me, it’s one of those films I know by heart, but I’ve never gotten bored watching it. And funny enough, even though the movie is supposed to be a condemnation of alcohol abuse, whenever I watch it, I immediately feel like going to a bar.

Ray Milland sitting in a cafe with a cup of coffee during a break from filming ‘The Lost Weekend.

My only quibble with the film is that I wished they used a little more real New York footage in the final cut. However, the fact that a film from 1945 did any principal photography on location is pretty exceptional. And from that point forward, whenever Wilder made a movie taking place in NYC, he would always do at least a portion of the filming on location, then rely on studio recreations to fill in the gaps.

Ray Milland on the Paramount lot as he’s thrown out of the fictional Harry & Joe’s Bar.

Like I mentioned earlier, Nat’s Bar was a set, and so were several of the street scenes during Don’s walk up Third Avenue. In addition, both the interior and exterior of Harry and Joe’s Bar where “somebody stole a purse” was a set, and it’s clear the exterior of the old Metropolitan Opera House was also a set.

Archive footage from 1938 of the old Metropolitan Opera House on Broadway and 39th (left) compared to a still from the 1945 film, supposedly taking place at the Met (right).

According to notes on the AFI website, production shot outside the real Met on Broadway, but I believe that that is either an error or the footage was never used. What appears in the film doesn’t quite match the real place, and the sound quality is that of a studio, not a New York street. (For the inside of the theater, Wilder did use a real location — the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles.)

If you haven’t seen this 1945 film, it’s definitely worth checking out. While a bit fantastical and melodramatic at times, it all manages to work with the material. This particular story of alcoholism is from the perspective of a writer, so an underlying feeling of frenetic fantasy (enhanced with an otherworldly theremin-led soundtrack) is a perfect compliment.

In fact, I think that the slightly over-the-top style of The Lost Weekend makes what would normally be a devastating subject, something that is, dare I say, entertaining.

To be sure, The Lost Weekend doesn’t attempt to sugarcoat Don’s dark descent into alcoholism, but it somehow manages to make us fully understand why a man might choose to take that destructive path.