Review: Days of Wine and Roses (1962)

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DOWAR

The trailer for the 1962 film ‘Days of Wine and Roses’ (link) has an unusual event halfway through as instead of the usual selection of scenes, it switches to star Jack Lemmon as himself says this was a role he wanted to play more than any other he’d played previously.

Considering he’d already had great roles in memorable films such as Mister Roberts, Some Like It Hot and The Apartment, it seems a surprising claim to make. But it’s only when you see the film and Lemmon’s performance you understand why Lemmon says this.

In DOWAR, Lemmon plays Joe Clay a PR man who largely hates his career and seems full of self-loathing, which only seems to be contained by his constant alcoholic drinking. One day during his work he meets Kirsten Arnesen (Lee Remick) and after a rocky beginning they fall in love and get married.  But Joe’s drinking and Kirsten’s non-drinking causes tension on their marriage which – instead of Joe becoming sober – sees Kirsten decide to drink with him… a decision that leads to disastrous long-term consequences.

Films about alcoholism haven’t been uncommon in cinema over the years but it’s doubtful that few of them have been as uncompromising  emotionally as DOWAR. When released in 1962, the level of its intensity would’ve been like a bolt of electricity to an American cinema

That DOWAR came from a TV play isn’t surprising as live US television dramatic productions was a significant provider of authentic realism (starting with 1955’s Marty) from the mid-1950s to early 1960s to an American cinema that was dominated by big budgets, safe subjects and conventional filmmaking.

There are several reasons for the film’s success and prime amongst them are the performances of Lemmon  and Remick. This film was a significant moment in Lemmon’s career as while he’d already produced a lot of great work, it was generally of the lighter, comedic variety and he always carried with him a level of charm and likability that made even flawed characters he played in ‘The Apartment’ appealing.

But Joe Clay is a different story. Here Lemmon’s charm has turned rotten and seedy so that Joe is always vaguely pathetic and self-loathing (although never unsympathetic) as his attempts to be likable seem rather desperate and needy. It was the first film that showed what Lemmon was capable of in straight dramatic roles and what he’d be capable of on occasion for the rest of his career. When he spoke in the trailer, Lemmon could clearly sense this.

Equally is good is Remick and she has arguably the more difficult role as she has to make Kirsten transition through various phases. In the early scenes she seems haughty and stuck-up, then becomes loving and considerate and then begins a path of self-destruction that is even more severe than Joe’s. It’s a highly challenging role and Remick (an underrated and underappreciated actress) handles it with aplomb.

Also deserving of credit are the writer JP Miller (who also wrote the 1958 original teleplay this is based on) and director Blake Edwards. In the context of Edwards’ long film career, DOWAR is certainly appears to be an atypical film as his career was littered with bold, brash, comedies. But he quite often displayed an adeptness for dramatic interplay between characters in films such as ‘10’ and he showcases throughout DOWAR.

As intense and emotional DOWAR is the film at times, it isn’t especially sensationalist or melodramatic.  Edwards has the confidence in Miller’s script to let scenes develop at their own pace and rhythm (and indeed the entire narrative itself) so that the climax has maximum impact. Take for example Joe’s breakdown into total hysteria in the greenhouse; the scene is actually quite a protracted one as at first it seems Joe is being his usual immature and reckless self. But gradually as see Joe’s increasingly desperate search for the hidden bottle of liquor the true horror of the situation is revealed before us and we see how much of an alcoholic wreck Joe is.

Edwards also is excellent at framing scenes so that what could easily have been conventional  two-character conversation scenes compelling and insightful. With the help of Phil Lathrop’s stylish cinematography, the film truly transcends the TV play it was based on and feels cinematic. Watching this, it’s regretful that Edwards didn’t direct more dramatic and suspense films during his career.

The film is largely flawless… but not quite. The final third of DOWAR is a shade weaker as once Joe going to Alcoholics Anonymous occurs, it goes from being an insightful socio-economic look at why Joe and Kirsten fall into the abyss, it becomes a rather abstract take that alcohol is the only factor in their downfall and not to bother looking into the reasons why people turn to alcohol. Not only does this weaken the film but it leads to some rather trite dialogue like, “You remember how it really was? You and me and booze – a threesome. You and I were a couple of drunks on the sea of booze, and the boat sank.”

As well, the title song with its syrupy lyrics seems jarring and out of place with the realism and intensity of the rest of the film. Naturally, that song was the only part of the film to win an Oscar.

Neverthless, despite these issues DOWAR is a significant triumph for Lemmon, Remick, Edwards and Miller and even over 50 years since its release has quite an impact. For once, a trailer was a viable guide to the film.

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