Days of Wine and Roses

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via Warner Archive;
Warner;
Drama;
$21.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars 
Jack Lemmon, Lee Remick, Charles Bickford, Jack Klugman.

When I finally got around to seeing it for the first time maybe 25 years ago, the toughness of Days of Wine and Roses in its original “Playhouse 90” TV incarnation from 1958 really surprised me. And so much so that the Warner Bros. feature version, made four years later and new on Blu-ray, had tended to recede from my mind. My generally misplaced assumption was that despite having the same writer on both (J.P. Miller), the refashioning, on a fresh viewing, would prove to be too slick for the material. For one thing, there was that indelible but rather luxuriant Henry Mancini-Johnny Mercer title tune, which everyone but Walter Brennan seemed to have recorded at the time.

Yet within the confines of a December major studio release that was definitely not designed to lose an old and cranky Jack Warner too much money by depressing moviegoers, I can see from the Days-’62 Blu-ray that this isn’t really true — or that, to the extent that it is, in ways beneficial to its set-up. In terms of his overall career, this harrowing warning shot about how alcohol can destroy lives, livelihoods and families seems to have been a highly unusual project for Blake Edwards — substituting here for the TV original’s John Frankenheimer, who had directed Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie to great acclaim. But even Edwards’ participation — within two years, Hollywood’s most original comic director of his era this side of Auteur Jerry Lewis would be launching the Inspector Clouseau series — turned out to make more sense than it seemed.

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For this big-screen version, Edwards had Jack Lemmon (a longtime buddy from their Columbia Pictures’ apprenticeships) and Lee Remick — both eventually delivering performances that were successfully positioned for Oscar nominations they deserved by the movie’s limited L.A. release at year’s end. My 14-year-old self got on a downtown bus to see it during my own city’s first-run engagement the following spring, which shows you what a cultural farm my Al Roker neck of the woods was in those days. By that time, the Oscars had either taken place or were about to, and the award that many thought might have gone to Lemmon went to Gregory Peck’s can’t-fight-city-hall turn in To Kill a Mockingbird. Of course, nominated as well were Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, which has probably outlived all three voter choices, and Burt Lancaster in Birdman of Alcatraz, which I always thought pretty close to Burt’s career performance, or at least until Atlantic City. You can get a sense of why critic/historian Danny Peary, in his typically wonderful Alternate Oscars book, says that1962 was second only to 1967 for producing the volume of films that remain most beloved from that decade of mass change.

Set in and around San Francisco, the movie Days gives us a version of what Lemmon’s character in The Apartment might have become had he gone all to hell over his seamy work/romance situation in that Billy Wilder Oscar winner or had he had he inherited less booze-resistant genes. Working and occasionally even reluctantly pimping for clients in his public relations post, he’s a willing participant in the heavy drinking that went with that territory more than ever in those “Mad Men” days. When Lemmon meets and, at first, stormily courts a fresh-faced secretary (Remick) for one of the execs, he’s surprised to learn that she doesn’t drink. She’s a sucker, though, for chocolate, and he becomes the devil on her shoulder when he slips her a chocolate drink. Remick is really good in these early scenes because she projects a subtle dose of hard-to-read edginess that suggests she isn’t completely the Scandinavian straight-shooter/innocent raised by a gruff widowed father we kind of take her to be. Dad, by the way is Charles Bickford, expertly riffing on his prototypical screen self, the kind of no-nonsense studio head he played so well in the Garland-Mason A Star Is Born.

One thing leads to another, and the movie is especially good at showing how post-marriage boozing on both parties’ parts incrementally deep-sixes Lemmon’s work situation and (by extension) the quality of their living digs. The actor indulges his familiar gestures in the early part of the movie, but there are a couple set pieces in the second half that give you a Lemmon that audiences hadn’t previously seen and really didn’t again. Emmy-nominated Piper Laurie had an advantage in the TV version because she more naturally conveyed dissipation (think of The Hustler, not Son of Ali Baba); even late in the game when almost everything goes to hell, Edwards’ can’t fully camouflage that Remick is one of the most stunning actresses ever. But hers is quite some performance, and if you freeze the frame when the character hits her lowest point, the stuporous human wreckage it conveys is chilling.

Edwards almost never worked in black-and-white, but earlier in the same year, had used it when teaming with Remick for Experiment in Terror, a standout FBI-vs.-psych thriller that still holds up well. He worked a little more frequently in non-amamorphic processes throughout his career, including (noting films made around the same time) the humungous box office smash Operation Petticoat and the truly iconographic Breakfast at Tiffany’s — even though we think of him as a widescreen filmmaker, obviously aside from his TV work, Edwards shot Days in 1.85:1 and in black-and-white, which makes it close to unique in his career, permitting intimacy but also giving him room to block a horizontal image in a way close to approximating his familiar widescreen visual style. His talents as a comic director — and especially one behaves himself here, which he didn’t always do — serve him well here because without the light comic touch in the early going, two hours of solid tragedy might have been too much.

The unusually vintage Edwards commentary may put off some, but I found it fascinating. It begins weakly with long gaps of nothing, a personal admission that he’s not good at these kind of look-backs and that he’s seeing the film for the first time in years. But as it progresses, you can feel that Edwards is finding himself moved by the picture in ways that surprise him. Edwards tries making a case that his old “Richard Diamond” radio show and classic “Peter Gunn” TV shows were dramas, too — but they hardly dealt with material of this sort. What does hit is Edwards’s admission that he, too, was an alcoholic at one point before basically quitting cold turkey without too much help from Alcoholics Anonymous, though the portrayal here of AA seems at least “feels” authentic to my layman’s eye, with the performance by Jack Klugman as an AA sponsor memorably sympathetic.

Edwards opines that Days was a really good film for him to do on the heels of Tiffany’s (actually, Terror was in the middle), and certainly this lightning-in-a-bottle combo suggests an alternate direction his career might have taken. But he loved expensive pie fights, Herbert Lom meltdowns and World War I planes as big-screen playthings, and that was that. He was a complicated guy and one of my favorites, and yet without question, the source “Playhouse 90” (which was the live-drama series of all time, imho) demands a look as well. It’s on the Criterion DVD box devoted to Golden Age TV.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Days of Wine and Roses’ and ‘Charley Varrick’

Baby the Rain Must Fall

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via ScreenArchives.com;
Twilight Time;
Drama; $29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Lee Remick, Steve McQueen, Don Murray.

Despite a screen career that was then very much on the move, Steve McQueen didn’t have a film in current release throughout all of 1964 thanks to the sometimes oddball exigencies of theatrical distribution (or, hell, maybe the timing was just a fluke). That’s a long layoff in terms of career momentum, but there’d been three McQueen features in 1963, including two that stoked his rapid-fire ascendency in audience popularity.

Soldier in the Rain is the one that didn’t — though Jackie Gleason and Tuesday Weld, in particular, have always given me a soft spot for it. But compensating mightily was motorcyclist McQueen’s iconographic fence-jumping in The Great Escape (or, rather, his stunt double’s) and the actor’s potent year-end chemistry with Natalie Wood in Love With the Proper Stranger. The last is my favorite Robert Mulligan movie, which means I’ve always liked it a lot more than that filmmaker’s immediately preceding career-maker: To Kill a Mockingbird. As it turned out, Mulligan was also the director of the next screen feature McQueen made: Baby the Rain Must Fall, which Columbia plopped into the mid-January 1965 ghetto after apparently speculating that a Christmas ’64 release would be box office suicide.

At this point, co-star Lee Remick rated top billing, and it’s her picture all the way — this more of a comment on how great she is here than any McQueen shortcomings, though truth to tell, nearly every McQueen performance of the middle 1960s is more interesting. Remick is the reason to see the movie, along with Ernest Lazslo’s cinematography (this was in the waning years of black-and white, a loss from which the movies have never recovered), though music enthusiasts will be attracted to Elmer Bernstein’s era-evocative scoring. Otherwise, this tweaking of playwright Horton Foote’s The Traveling Lady commenced a period in which that he must have felt a bit snakebitten at Columbia Pictures. Just a year later, the studio released Arthur Penn’s The Chase — a Foote book/play that Lillian Hellman and about a million other screenwriters almost exactly a year later to megaflop reaction. Though in this case, the result eventually gained some qualified chops as a major cult movie a few years down the Texas road.

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Ahhhhhh, but Remick, who’s cast in Baby as a young mother with daughter in tow (the production’s “find” of a satisfyingly natural one-shot child actress, Kimberley Block). We begin with their bus trip to Southeastern Texas in search of a wayward husband/father (McQueen), who’s part of a weird-to-me parole agreement that’ll spring him from prison on the mandate that he attend night school to learn a trade. Nonetheless, Remick loves him for reasons that aren’t as explicable as the camera’s love for its lead actress, and Laszlo is smart enough to allow his camera to take its time lingering over Remick’s subtly expressed emotions. Elia Kazan did something similar with her in Wild River, the best movie Remick ever made, possibly excluding Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (talk about a challenging academic argument, given the contrast in those directors’ individual styles).

McQueen plays a hothead when he’s not being contrite or even affable, with a tinderbox personality that contributed to his imprisonment in the first place. The seeds for this were planted by the now bedridden harridan who ended up raising and taking a belt to him, and this prune’s still palpable presence hangs over the picture to such a degree that Baby all but veers into enters Southern-Gothic-land, Texas setting or not. The timing wasn’t the best on this count because Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte had just come out and rendered that form of stylization borderline risible. Even so, this plot detail dovetails not uninterestingly with the actor’s real-life history in a correctional institute after scrapes with the law and his endurance (barely) of a physically abusive stepfather.

Currently the recipient of a single-room live-in residence as a friendly couple’s handyman, McQueen’s character isn’t really the night-school type — choosing instead to pursue the Elvis dream in roadside joints singing compositions he’s penned and dealing more with hecklers a lot more than screaming women. One gets the sense that even if a little career lightning strikes, he won’t advance much above this station, though Glenn Yarbrough’s recording of the title tune whose lyrics McQueen mouths became one of the catchiest MOR hits during the British Invasion, when even Freddie & the Dreamers could manage to rate groupies.

The trouble is that — and this was mentioned a lot at the time — the vocal matchup between actor McQueen and his voice double is among the most jarring in movie history. A simpatico match on this kind if thing is not easy to achieve, though I noticed that the voice doubling for Veronica Lake on the recent This Gun for Hire Blu-ray was exceptional. Here, the differential is so pronounced that it takes you out of the picture.

Baby begins promisingly enough to sustain good will throughout a lot of its running time, and the opening bus sequence is one of the best in the film (given The Trip to Bountiful, Foote must have ridden a lot of rural Texas buses in his formative years). As a widowed local deputy and childhood friend of McQueen’s (which seems a stretch), Don Murray is about what he always was on screen: easygoing, likable and rather colorless. The movie seems to be setting him up to be a fallback romantic option in case McQueen self-immolates, but either because a) it doesn’t want to seem clichéd; or b) can’t make up its mind (either in conception or the editing room), this possibility is never realized.

Despite its shortcomings, Baby is still a rewarding view for pure historical perspective if you love, as I do, to follow career trajectories (though Remick doesn’t even need that qualification). The days of major studios bankrolling major-league leads in small-scale movies about real humans and their day-to-day economic fears went out with push-button driving. In today’s movie market, McQueen and Remick would be knocking off small-town Texas banks, even if the screenwriter had to jump through hoops to determine what to do with their daughter. This said, the picture could use a little more “event,” if only in moderation. But the Blu-ray is generally handsome except for some bleached-out exteriors, including one that I’m surprised got by (either originally in theaters or via this release). Overall, I’m glad I took a look after anticipating this release as heavily as I did. I’m not sure I’d seen since it since ’65 when I caught it at a nearly empty campus theater.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Big Clock’ and ‘Baby the Rain Must Fall’

A Face in the Crowd

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Criterion;
Drama;
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau, Anthony Franciosa, Lee Remick.

Lucking out with a good fourth-row seat in mid-auditorium, I was there for 1971’s opening showing at the Museum of Modern Art’s Elia Kazan retrospective, when the director who’d made an unbroken 1954-69 string of movies that I love introduced his personal pick for the launch. It was 1957’s A Face in the Crowd, which Kazan’s On the Waterfront colleague Budd Schulberg had adapted from one of his own short stories, a script to which its eventual director gave co-equal status. And it was an interesting choice because the picture had been a flop at the time, both with critics and public, though even in ’71, you could feel that the tide had already turned in favor of this warning shot about how broadcast mass media might soon be able to “package” political candidates the way Madison Avenue had done for antacid TV spots.

Richard Nixon, whose name rates a brief mention in Crowd, was already president — and though Nixon was about as much of a television natural as (on a contrasting decibel level) William Jennings Bryan, the conceit that you could jerry-build a presidential timber out of a TV background had gained ground. Mother of God and father of Ivanka, has it ever.

As a result, either Crowd or Network (and for not dissimilar reasons) is the most prescient of all American movies, though that’s an adjective critic April Wolfe actively shies away from in an outstanding Criterion essay because, as she notes, America had long seen a mingling of entertainers with the political class. Think of, for one, Will Rogers — who was one of the acknowledged influences on Crowd’s “Lonesome Rhodes” character, though I’ve always had a tough time reconciling the Rhodes malevolence here with the droll senior of easygoing John Ford comedies.

But with a dash of Elvis thrown in — due exclusively to the manner in which teenaged girls go into sexual frenzy over Lonesome’s guitar strumming — the subject most vividly brings to mind is the once ubiquitous workhorse Arthur Godfrey. Now almost totally forgotten, Godfrey was a Hall of Fame carbuncle and anti-semite who at one time hosted two primetime TV shows and a weekday radio/TV simulcast when he wasn’t firing talent demeaningly referred to by him as “Little Godfrey’s.” There’s also a dash here, in Lonesome’s ability to manufacture headlines, of real-life newscaster Walter Winchell — another windy Big Shot who eventually fell from grace, though any roman a clef linkage is defused some by Winchell’s cameo as himself in this movie.

So the deal is this. A rarely better Patricia Neal plays an outwardly mature young woman who left rural Arkansas to attend Sarah Lawrence and then came back to work for her uncle’s radio station in, from outer appearances, a burg largely populated by dogs. One guesses that she must have a really interesting backstory, but the story concentrates on her discovery of a rough gem in the local hoosegow (Andy Griffith). Tape-recording the mostly harmless hoboes behind bars for a human-interest story, she discovers Griffith’s Rhodes character presumably sleeping one off in what looks like the oversized cell’s drunk-and-disorderly nook. And despite these unlikely origins, Lonesome is full of aggressively spouted cornpone homilies, knows how to fake “pickin’” and has a sexual magnetism a lot of women find attractive — something that’s going to get Neal in trouble down the road. One can’t say enough about the actress’s characterization here (which was ignored by the Academy) and the way that Neal can go from borderline plain to sexy practically from scene to scene.

This was Griffith’s screen debut feature — he made surprisingly few big-screen appearances — and he gives one of the two performances from Kazan’s screen prime (the other is Pat Hingle in Splendor in the Grass) that I always thought the director might have toned down some. Overall, though, time has caught up with it almost as much as it has with the picture, and you can now make a case that the Griffith/Rhodes broadness is no more extreme than what we see coming out of the White House everyday. First-timers to Crowd may find it a bit disconcerting to see the Pride of Mayberry from “The Andy Griffith Show” as a demagogue. It’s a little like seeing visual proof that Aunt Bea once worked the red-light district.

As for the rest of a hand-picked cast, Anthony Franciosa’s congenital oiliness is better suited to his on-the-make agent here than in, say, The Long, Hot Summer from the same period; Walter Matthau is a reflective intellectual (“Vanderbilt, ’44” — with a pipe) and not the sardonic scowl he later became; and Lee Remick (her screen debut) is a majorette who captures Lonesome’s eye enough to become his wife despite an ex all ready to go to Confidential magazine to spill old marital beans if our boy doesn’t come through with a payoff after becoming a network sensation. The Neal character can’t help herself from falling for Lonesome herself and spends a lot of lonely nights on the road promoting his professional cause — except for the times he “drops in” when he can’t find anyone else. He’s insecure enough to know that on some level, he needs her.

The movie’s satirical high point, then and now, is the uproarious New York “agency” material — crasser than anything in “Mad Men” but also (and accurately) dealing with a caliber of TV commercial that were already pretty risible as early as 1960 and likely would have been too crude for much of the “MM” era, which more or less came in with JFK. Owned by a Koch Brother type known as “The General,” Lonesome’s sponsor is something called Vitajex — caffeine-heavy snake oil that brings to mind Geritol, which sponsored the infamous quiz show “Twenty-One” and “The Lawrence Welk Show.” But whereas Welk promised little more than perhaps a little more pop in your polka, Vitajex all but promises you more sexual partners than Wilt Chamberlain.

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These scenes are crucial because they segue into The General’s promoting of a nondescript white-haired old California senator into a presidential run. It is here that Rhodes, brought in as a consultant, mandates using Madison Avenue techniques to “sell” the product on the star’s TV show, a faux cracker-barrel affair where so-called plain folks sit around and jawbone about current events between chaws. Like everything and almost everyone involved in this phony enterprise, you can all but hear the actors counting down the time until the cameras go off so that they can finally ask, “Where are the broads?” The senator, by the way, is played by silent filmmaker Marshall Neilan (a year before his death) following years in limbo after torching his career by making an enemy of Louis B. Mayer. (Gotta love him for that.) I don’t know who got the brainstorm to cast Neilan, but he is bullseye here.

The Criterion bonus extras are illuminating, as they especially need to be on a movie like this, and do not shy away from Kazan’s somewhat delayed pariah status from having not only named names to the House Committee on Un-American Activities but then took an ad out in the New York Times defending the action. Schulberg cooperated as well but didn’t rub people’s faces in it as much, though there’s a part of me that admires — probably against my better judgment — the way Kazan held a decades-long grudge against his perceived artistic inferiors in the Communist Party who were trying to horn in his work. It brings to mind Humphrey Bogart’s comment about how the greatest thing about being successful is that you can tell people you don’t like to go to hell.

In any event, interviewed historian Ron Briley (The Ambivalent Legacy of Elia Kazan) strengthens the undeniable case that Kazan’s work got better and more committed after the HUAC blow-up, while an excellent 2005 featurette doc is carried over from the old Warner DVD release, which this 4K transfer puts very much in the shade. (Though I wouldn’t rate Crowd as one of the more interestingly shot movies of Kazan’s career). In addition to Wolfe’s beauty of an essay, there’s a lengthy excerpt from Kazan’s introduction to the published Crowd screenplay from 1957, as well as the same year’s New York Times profile on Griffith. Also interviewed on camera is Griffith biographer Evan Dalton Smith (as personable as Briley), whose biographical backgrounding intensifies the oft-told stories of just how much this project took out of a performer who’s previously been a kind of standup comic monologuist. Griffith used to say that it took three months to shoot Crowd and four for him to get over it, but I have a feeling that the latter period was longer.

Mike’s Picks: ‘A Face in the Crowd’ and ‘Tarantula’