Days of Wine and Roses (1962)

23 Oct

This adaptation of J.P. Miller’s teleplay is an intriguing anomaly in the career of Blake Edwards, a director renowned for helming lightweight fare like ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’, ‘The Pink Panther’ and ‘10’. Likewise, this marked something of a departure for its star, Jack Lemmon, who had carved out a niche playing lovable, befuddled everyman in the likes of ‘The Apartment’ and ‘Some Like It Hot’. ‘Days of Wine and Roses’ is an interesting film historically, marking something of a bridge between the production-line output of the old studio system and the daring, taboo-breaking new spirit that would emerge towards the end of the decade and reach its apotheosis with ‘Easy Rider’.

The film charts the courtship and marriage of Joe Clay (Lemmon) and Kirsten Arnesen (Lee Remick). Joe is a high-flying Public Relations man, which in reality involves little more than kowtowing to the egos of his upscale clients, whether it be procuring women or finagling flattering press coverage. Kirsten is the assistant to one of Joe’s top clients; a bookish young woman who prefers chocolate to Joe’s chosen vice. Joe eventually introduces Kirsten to the anaesthetizing joys of alcohol. Now with a child to care for, Kirsten and Joe descend into the hell of full-scale alcoholism, their hard-living lifestyles coming into conflict with their cosy domesticity.

‘Days of Wine and Roses’ is shot in downcast monochrome, Phil Lathrop’s photography noticeably darkens with the characters’ worsening circumstances, the expressionistic lighting patterns and slabs of shadow increasing as addiction’s grip tightens. Henry Mancini’s Oscar-winning score does much to articulate this slide into the depths of despair, with its doleful, jazzy tones. Edwards sticks to delicate pans and noncommittal medium shots for the most part, a decision that lends genuine significance to the few close-ups he uses – as when Kirsten’s father offers Joe a drink; his dilemma is etched all over Lemmon’s famously expressive face.

Lemmon is captivating as a world-weary cog in the machine; his impeccable comic and dramatic timing are equally in evidence here. He imbues an essentially unlovable character with much needed empathy and humanity, underscoring Joe’s misgivings about the ethical vacuum in which he operates. Kirsten’s decline is particularly heartrending, and Remick rises to the task of conveying this. She undergoes a startling physical transformation, beginning the film as a statuesque, insouciant beauty and ending it a haggard, crestfallen husk of a person. It comes as little surprise that both leads were nominated for Oscars. Though Lemmon and Remick provide the film’s core, ample support is provided by Charles Bickford as Kirsten’s redoubtable father, a man struggling to keep his daughter from following Joe down the path to self-destruction.

‘Days of Wine and Roses’ takes place at a time when America’s moral consensus was beginning to erode; when people began to question the values they’d been taught to believe in, when job security and the promise of advancement up the career ladder was no longer enough to pacify nagging doubts and frustrations. The film underlines this dysphoria. Kirsten is plagued by alarming reveries, using drink to blot out the grime she sees all around her – the world is dirty when she is sober. Jack despises the dark art of perception management, a world where integrity is an impediment to success, consumed by guilt for dragging Kirsten down with him. They are trapped in a mutually destructive union, bound by their need to seek solace in the bottle. The film’s final third occasionally falls prey to preachy moralizing in the form of Jack Klugman’s Alcoholics Anonymous leader, but any lapse into melodrama is offset by the strength of the performances.

‘Days of Wine and Roses’ is not a comic account of affable drunks or a mawkish cautionary tale – the most common approaches to the depiction of alcoholism – but an important progression in screen realism, comparing favourably to the yardstick, Billy Wilder’s ‘The Lost Weekend’. Jack Clay is up there with Harry Stoner in ‘Save the Tiger’ and Shelley Levine in ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ as a seminal role in Lemmon’s legendary career.

Why aren't movie posters this good anymore?

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One Response to “Days of Wine and Roses (1962)”

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  1. Days of Wine and Roses (1962) | Old Old Films - July 1, 2011

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