Joe Clay (Jack Lemmon) is a public relations man, a dedicated worker at a firm in San Francisco. He’s also a heavy drinker, even drinking on the job.
Joe meets Kirsten Arnesen (Lee Remick), a secretary for one of his clients — and a teetotaler. She prefers chocolate over liquor.
It may seem that Kirsten would be a good influence on Joe, but the opposite occurs. The two fall in love and marry, and Kirsten begins drinking with her husband, tipping back the bottle just as frequently as he does.
Mr. and Mrs. Clay fall on hard times, with Joe losing job after job. In attempt to improve their lives, they vow to give up alcohol, but sobriety is a great struggle for them both.
Blake Edwards directs 1962’s Days of Wine and Roses. The film marked a departure for Jack Lemmon from his usual comedic roles. It is a remake of a story originally aired on TV’s Playhouse 90, with Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie in the lead roles.
Days of Wine and Roses was, according to TCM, somewhat controversial at the time of its release. It handles the serious issue of alcoholism with honesty and realism, tracking the downward spiral of two perfectly average American people. Preview screening audiences walked out, apparently because they expected to see another Jack Lemmon comedy and instead found a much more somber picture.
Despite doubts over whether the film was too serious or had unusual casting choices, it was a success, receiving positive reviews from The New York Times (describing the film as “commanding”) and Variety (praising Lemmon’s “dynamic and chilling performance”).
None of this praise was undeserved: Days of Wine and Roses is a fantastic drama.
The performances of Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick are top-notch. Lemmon, in particular, is very impressive. There are quite a few moments in the film that would have been played for comedy in any other Jack Lemmon film. For example, once, while drunk, he runs into a glass door — a slapstick moment that would have been a laugh in any of his comedies. But here, these moments are just sad to watch. They evoke feelings of pity toward Joe rather than laughs, which is a testament to Lemmon’s talent and how he plays this character.
The script, which could have easily ventured into “after school special” territory since it is a cautionary tale, is very well-written. The story is a powerful one, and it is told believably. It seems very authentic, much different than the over-dramatic turns of events that we often see in films about alcoholism or drug use. Joe and Kirsten’s lives change for the worse, but they don’t end up in trouble with the mob or committing murder, for example.
Adding even more appeal to a well-scripted film with strong performances, Days of Wine and Roses is nicely shot. The cinematography is quite moody — a shadowy, black and white world. There are multiple scenes in which the faces of the two leads are obscured by the shadows of alcohol bottles, an obvious-but-significant symbol of the impact that alcoholism is having on their lives. (See an example above, in which Lee Remick’s face is shadowed by Jack Lemmon pouring a glass for her.)
Days of Wine and Roses is a heavy film, but very much worth watching. For the viewer, it’s the two-hour, cinematic equivalent of being the only sober person at a house party or a bar — not a fun experience, but an eye-opening one. The score: 4.5/5