Days of Wine and Roses Review

Made at a time when his subtlety hadn’t completely deserted him (i.e. before 1983) and his dramatic handling hadn’t been subsumed by too many Pink Panther revivals, Days of Wine and Roses forms the centrepiece in a trio of Blake Edwards’ most lasting works. Situated between Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Experiment in Terror, it’s the heavier of the three, less tied down by comedic or generic concerns and also dealing with a major theme. Each decade produces its own big important Hollywood movies on alcoholism – the forties had The Lost Weekend and Smash Up: The Story of a Woman most prominently - Days of Wine and Roses being the sixties’ contribution.

Interestingly this means that we find Jack Lemmon occupying the lead role. Hitherto known for his comic performances – his debut has been opposite Judy Holliday in It Should Happen to You, then there were the beginnings of his lengthy series of collaborations with Billy Wilder, of course – he’d begun to move away from potential typecasting with The Apartment two years previous. That film’s bittersweet edge (though it is still effectively a comedy) and Days of Wine and Roses may only have represented initial steps, yet they began a line which can traced through to Save the Tiger (and a Best Actor Oscar win), The China Syndrome, Glengarry Glen Ross and Short Cuts; seemingly as his characters grew older, the more twitchy and ultimately pathetic they became.

Yet in prefiguring these roles Days of Wine and Roses is able to utilise Lemmon’s presence in an interesting way. Given the black and white photography and his comparative youthfulness, it’s hard to remove the actor from his early comic persona and therefore take his alcoholism with the utmost seriousness. At first it never seems a problem simply because we believe we’re seeing the Lemmon of Mister Roberts, say, or The Wackiest Ship in the Navy - and when he drinks in those kind of films it’s nothing serious, merely a night off. Indeed, it’s really only by the time that the character himself accepts his alcoholism that we notice there’s a genuine problem. Essentially we become complicit in the drinking – and the same thing goes with regards to Lee Remick, who plays Lemmon’s wife - as we don’t recognise the importance until too late and are therefore dealt a dramatic sucker punch.

Certainly, it provides some suitably jarring moments and Days of Wine and Roses isn’t afraid to display some brittle edges. In one respect the film could be read as Hollywood romance: Lemmon wins over Remick, they marry and have a child. Yet the drink gets in the way, of course, and makes this increasingly difficult. Their late night meeting with her father, played by Charles Bickford, is a superbly pointed encounter, for example, whilst the little detail of having Lemmon introduce Remick to drink for the first time (courtesy of some brandy alexanders) is particular nice touch and demonstrates just how the film refuses to take things too easily. Indeed, Days of Wine and Roses isn’t afraid to pick holes in its characters, whilst the Hollywood gloss inherent in its production makes for an unexpectedly tough dimension. We get the impression that if the alcoholic element were removed then the film could simply be another happy comic-romance with tidy ending. Yet because of the pair’s problem this is never going to happen; it seems so close, though ultimately unobtainable.

There is a problem, however, inasmuch as these subtleties aren’t to be had all of the time. The burden of being an “issue” movie weighs down on the film and as such it doesn’t lend itself to continual displays of such nuance. The narrative pulse may be the unending ups and downs of the couple’s addictions – the indistinct passage of time being nicely handled and often discernable solely through their child’s age – but this doesn’t prevent the film from dealing in self-consciously “big” scenes. It’s as though the social illness dimension has to be loudly proclaimed and as a result it now seems alien alongside more recent, and far subtler forays into such territory: Mike Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas, of course, but also Ken Loach’s My Name is Joe. We’re forced to put up with Lemmon in a straight-jacket and padded cell as well as the Alcoholics Anonymous meets which is so overwrought and so obvious in its symbolism that we could in fact be watching a Jack Lemmon comedy…

That said, perhaps such an approach was necessary and ultimately tied down to the period in which Days of Wine and Roses was made. Compared to the previous big Hollywood movies on the subject, The Lost Weekend say, it makes huge progressions and contains a more palatable dramatic weight (not to denigrate Billy Wilder’s efforts, however). Yet we also shouldn’t expect these progressions to be too big, but rather see the film as part of a chain. Indeed, the next link was to come only a year later when the nouvelle vague tried their hand with Louis Malle’s Le Feu Follet; the next big influence on what was to come, but surely Days of Wine and Roses played a part in its production.

The Disc

Days of Wine and Roses gets a fine DVD treatment courtesy of Warner Bros, its superb presentation nicely complemented by a pair of interesting extras. As you’d expect the film comes in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, anamorphically enhanced of course, though perhaps not quite as good as we find it here. The print itself is almost wholly free from damage and the level of clarity little short of excellent. The contrast levels are equally superb and the only real complaint is that edge halos appear on occasion. Certainly nothing major, however, and by no means a distraction. The soundtrack is in similarly fine condition and presented here as its original one-channel mono. Again, there are no major technical problems to speak of, all of which means a truly commendable presentation.

As for the extras here we find a commentary by Edwards and a contemporaneous interview with Lemmon totalling six minutes. Sadly, the commentary track is a little disappointing. Edwards admits that he’s “not very good at this” and punctuates his reminiscences with immense pauses, but if you do have the patience then much of what he has to say is interesting. To be honest, a 25-minute or so interview would have been preferable under the circumstances, but it would churlish to complain too much. The Lemmon interview, however, is quite different and really quite bizarre. Conducted over the telephone we only hear Lemmon’s voice, a gimmicky device and one which demonstrates that this isn’t a piece to be taken too seriously. Indeed, it’s lightweight and fun – more a curiosity than anything else but nonetheless welcome. Rounding off the package we also have a pair of theatrical trailers, again from the time of the film’s original release.

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Last updated: 18/06/2018 16:10:50

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