Available via Warner Archive;
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’