When one describes a romance film, it is normal to use the classic line, ‘Boy Meets Girl, Boy Loves Girl, Boy Loses Girl…” It would be easy to use that formula for any love story. But this is no ordinary love story. It’s tragic, it’s surprising, and above all, it feels so real. It’s not a story this cynical teenage film buff will forget anytime soon, if ever.
Joe Clay (the Great Jack Lemmon) is a public relations man who doesn’t really like his job; we see his boredom and frustration in the very first frame of the film, when he’s trying at the last minute to round up some call girls for a party. We also see how he deals with this by shouting to the bartender, “Hit me again!” multiple times. He soon meets Kirsten Arneson (the incredible and incredibly underrated Lee Remick) and they detest each other, but after a dinner and a walk around Fisherman’s Warf where they bare their souls, they soon fall in love, get married and have a beautiful baby girl. Everything seems perfect. But when Joe’s job puts added pressure on him, he feels the only way to relieve himself is to get drunk. In one sad and memorable scene, he comes home late and, because she cannot drink due to breast feeding, degrades Kirsten for not being fun anymore. The pain of the things Joe says stings both of them, and us as well, and before long Kirsten is taking up the bottle herself. Years later Joe really looks at himself and has a moment of clarity; They *have* to sober up, for both of them and we the viewers know it can only get worse unless someone does something. But when they both fall off the wagon multiple times, and it becomes clear that love will not conquer all, Joe is faced with the nightmarish decision to choose between sobriety and his love for Kirsten.
While I was watching this film, I kept on comparing it to other addiction films like Trainspotting, Requiem for a Dream and The Lost Weekend. While they are all great in their own right, they can’t really compare because the core of Days of Wine and Roses is the love story that quickly turns into a love triangle between Joe, Kirsten and booze. It’s the love story and the full realization of the characters that makes Days so heartbreaking. Another thing is that we know that Joe and Kirsten are both good people; After Joe accidentally mistakes Kirsten for a call girl, he is the one who brings a peace offering and tries to make ammends, and it is evident to the viewer that during their sobriety, they have a powerful love for their young daughter, which makes their drunken turns all the more powerful. Blake Edward’s direction is spot-on; This was his first big drama after being recognized for his comedic work, but he works wonders and gets brilliant–albeit unsurprisingly brilliant–performances out of Lee and Jack. Edwards also has the magical touch of reeling the viewer in, thinking this will be a breezy romantic comedy, then slowly revealing the destruction of two lost souls through the bottle. The luscious black and white cinematography was a great choice to make in a time when color was dazzling the audiences, for it works as a symbol for the darkness and bleak world of alcoholism. Henry Mancini’s music is minimalistic and affecting; in the old days of cinema, it was easy to overuse the strings for a dramatic scene, but the score was perfect and not once overdone. The chemistry between Jack and Lee was genius; I couldn’t believe they weren’t a married couple in real life. Great performances can get you far, but a love story loses half its power unless its two stars makes the love believable, and these two really did. And the audience can clearly see that the two are in love, drunk or sober, good times or bad. This makes the last scene all the more heartbreaking.
And I can’t praise the two lead actors enough. Jack Lemmon, like Edwards, was known more for his comedic work. Some have complained that he was too over-the-top in his performance, most notably the infamous greenhouse scene, but an actor deserves to be known and praised for his overall work, and in the long run, Jack deserved an Oscar for this role. Every move he makes he makes believable and gets deep into the head of an alcoholic. He makes Joe a sympathetic character, and he really makes you care for him. Jack once said when he was doing Glengarry Glen Ross that “You don’t have to like a character, but it’s an actor’s job to make you care about him.” I don’t think there’s a person on this site who didn’t care about Joe Clay. This is Jack’s role of a lifetime. And I’m ashamed to say I had never heard of Lee Remick before this film, but now she’s one of my favorite actresses. She was a very sharp actress and the camera loved her. Whether she was a smiling young secretary or a lonely drunk, you bought the transformation and every moment in between. She had a killing smile but she could break your heart with just a look of her eyes. When the alcohol reveals a vulnerability and a need to be loved she only thinks she can hide, Lee is there, making the performance believable and utterly heartbreaking. When the last scene comes around and Joe and Kirsten are faced with a life-changing decision, the two actors are so good and so into their roles you can easily forget that they’re both acting. The love is still there, but it’s changed so much. The last shot, like the whole film, will leave you breathless. One of the greatest films I’ve ever seen.