Monday 7 October 2019

Movie Review: Days Of Wine And Roses (1962)

A grim drama about the perils of alcoholism, Days Of Wine And Roses traces the agony of a middle class professional couple as they sink to the bottom of the bottle.

In San Francisco, Joe Clay (Jack Lemmon) works in public relations and easily reaches for a drink while schmoozing clients and fulfilling their unsavoury whims. He meets and quickly falls in love with Kirsten Arnesen (Lee Remick), the secretary of one of his clients. Kirsten is initially a non-drinker, but Joe introduces her to the pleasures of alcohol and soon they are both drinking heavily.

They get married and have a daughter, but his constant heavy drinking starts to take a toll on work performance. Joe is eventually re-assigned to a small account based in Houston and is forced to spend long stretches away from home, driving Kirsten to drink ever more heavily to combat loneliness. They both succumb to full-blown alcoholism and their lives enter an uncontrolled downward spiral. They reach out for help from Kirsten's father Ellis (Charles Bickford), a salt-of-the-earth landscape businessman, but any road to recovery will be treacherous.

While 1945's The Lost Weekend was about a struggling writer surrendering to his alcoholism, Days Of Wine And Roses brings the disease into mainstream living rooms. Here Joe and Kirsten are attractive, successful and respected young professionals with good careers and excellent future prospects. They have everything to lose and they test the boundaries of losing everything, their story a sobering tale of how quickly and easily the American dream can dissolve into an alcohol-saturated nightmare.

JP Miller adapted his own teleplay, while director Blake Edwards and star Jack Lemmon accepted the challenge of embracing full-on drama without a hint of the humour or even pathos that made them both famous. The result is a relentlessly bleak romance doubling down on tragedy, two lives all but destroyed as the couple enable each other's behaviour.

Whether they can recover a semblance of balance and normalcy is the subject of the film's second half, and Edwards painfully portrays the many false attempts at drying up. Each becomes ever more agonizing, the next spark of hope extinguished by succumbing to the singular first drink, months of progress dashed in an instant. Presented as one pathway out of the gutter, Alcoholics Anonymous received a real-life boost, here represented by Jack Klugman as a recovering alcoholic who reaches out to Joe at one of his low points.

Early in the film Edwards allows a few of the scenes to run longer than they need to, the initial courtship particularly laborious. And overall the script is robust but rarely finds a memorably cutting edge or poignant lyricism.

The two lead actors provide a boost whenever one is needed, as Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick embrace their roles with fearsome commitment. Both had actual struggles with alcohol, and here their performances are almost physically hard to watch. Whether rationalizing their drinking, wallowing in the happy haze of drunkenness or arguing loudly, Lemmon and Remick drive for the gritty realism of self-delusion rather than sympathy.

The film plays out to a soulful Henry Mancini soundtrack featuring judicious use of the award-winning title song, with lyrics by Johnny Mercer. Days Of Wine And Roses sounds like an idyllic romance, but as it turns out, it's either the wine, or the roses.

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