Holding such a reliable leading man in the form of Jack Lemmon, Days of Wine and Roses can immediately leap into its pragmatic concerns. Alcoholism and substance abuse in film walks a fine line between understanding addiction and playing it up to conform to a three-act structure. Blending these difficult narrative points with the chirpy charms of Lemmon seems like an odd mixture, but the capable hands of director Blake Edwards craft a stylish display of 60s brilliance. Adapting the obvious style and charisma of Lemmon to a darker setting of debauched actions and self-indulgence, Days of Wine and Roses makes for a tantalising watch and an effective musing on those in the throes of alcohol misuse.
Seeing Lemmon as the seedy sleazebag that takes an innocent young woman deep into the depths of alcohol is agonising, and does extremely well to remove the idea that he could only play the awkward hero struggling to get the girl. Here, he capitalises on his endearing charms and turns into a sinister beast, dominating the screen as Joe Clay, an alcoholic, borderline sociopath who drags his newlywed Kirsten (Lee Remick) into the stark horrors of his predilection for a pint. It is not a fast spiral into acceptance of substance, but a slow burn that lasts several years. Emotionally charged masterpieces are hard to come by, yet Lemmon seems to be at the heart of so many of those great, memorable pieces. His work here is a strong highlight for his career, a necessary watch for any fan of the Oscar winner’s craft.
Edwards and his leading cast do well to bring alcoholism to the screen. That first, deadly sip and the glittery eyes of someone in love with a new substance, Days of Wine and Roses captures that with brutal efficiency. A lingering horror hangs over Remick’s performance, which acts as the mouthpiece for the anti-substance statements. How easy it is to fall prey to liquor, enslaved by the need for more and more. It is a tightrope many walk without realising, and to some degree, that is the message found rather frequently throughout Days of Wine and Roses. One man takes someone down to his level, realises the errors of his ways, and tries to clean his act up. The road to recovery is rocky, but it is a startlingly large hurdle to mount considering how despondent and devoid of morality this character is before he heads toward rehabilitation.
Whether or not an audience feels remorse for Clay and his realisation is entirely up to the type of person. His manipulation is fuelled by drink, but so are his antics and persuasive abilities. Edwards manages to blur fear with freedom thanks to two leading performances that have such grip and perspective on the impact booze has. Lemmon gives a performance seemingly overshadowed by The Apartment but the versatility and range on display here, and how he incorporates the deeper, darker themes offered to him, gives him that extra edge. Strong writing is portrayed with effective emotion, yielding a story of alcoholism and the tricky first step of accepting reality. Days of Wine and Roses engages with this extremely well, providing a detailed, well-crafted narrative relying on the regrettable actions of troubled leads.