Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The R.I.P. Train (Lightning Round): Blake Edwards' DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES

(Blake Edwards has been considered one of the prestigious directors of film comedy, mostly through the Pink Panther series and a few others that more or less fared well like Breakfast at Tiffany's, The Party and 10, but I thought it would be more intriguing to check out one of his non-comedies, indeed a dark-and-dirty drama from the early 60's.  And here it is.  Smile, and drink up, Shriners!)

Sometimes the toughest thing is not to say 'no', but to get someone else to say 'no' with you.  Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend looked at one man's crippling, hallucinatory nightmare into alcohol abuse, but the strength morally for the characters in Blake Edwards' film in 1962, Days of Wine and Roses, and what makes it hold up for the most part today, is on two drinkers, a man and a wife, and how their love for booze is in stiff competition with the love for each other.

It's also a doomed pairing practically from the start as Lemmon's Joe Clay gives the impressionable and lovely Kirsten (Lee Remick) her first drink, brought on by her love for chocolate but her distaste for things alcoholic.  If you've ever wondered what it might be like to get your honey on the sauce, this movie will steer you clear, by Dog!

It's power dramatically is looking at these two characters, who by all accounts should be a happy couple of people but are in reality rather miserable in what they do- he a PR man pushed around by his superiors, and she a simple secretary putting herself through her own self-made college by reading the entire encyclopedia-dictionary-whatever- and the drink brings out the euphoria they eventually need to get by the day.  It would be one thing if just Joe was fighting the addiction, and eventually after a couple of missteps he conquers it, but it's his love for his wife and her lack to fight it that makes the story loaded with a tragic dimension.  We want to see these two be at least amicable in their daily affairs, to be able to take care of their child and have some "sober" happiness.  But can it happen when three- the third being alcohol- is a crowd?

Edwards' skills as a director of actors has often been in setting up a solid situation for his players to go to work in in the comedies.  In drama it's just as strong, and with a script by J.P. Miller that provides a lot of great one-on-one tension when sobered and harrowing escapism in the drunken state it seems more mature and grounded in a realism that one might expect in the period.  The one aspect that feels dated, by proxy of it being almost fifty years ago, is how it shows what happens to a major addict of booze as Joe Clay gets all but electro-shocked in a loony bin, straight-jacket and all, and freaks out to a rather insane degree in a couple of key scenes (one of which, involving a look-see through a greenhouse for a bottle he hid in a potted plant does gain great momentum by the wildness of the search, almost like everything has to be destroyed in true self-destruction).

Aside from that, Edwards gets a lot of really wonderful scenes and moments between his two leads, early on with a kind of absurd comedic touch when Joe tries to pursue Kirsten with an up-and-down-up-and-down slow chase in elevators, and then in an awkward first meeting with Kirsten's father in the middle of the night, which happens on a whim and is anchored by the rugged, no-bullshit face and mannerism of Charles Bickford as Mr. Arnesen.

This helps to give some breathing room early on to prepare for the heavier dramatic scenes later, but it should be known that this is a drama when one is watching early on; if there is a, not false but misleading, impression it's that this might be a light romance film.  Stick with it, and it'll reveal its true self in little moments, the great scene where Joe and Kirsten reveal their wants and problems in life by the water-side at night is one such (the lighting here is also especially good, not too heavy, just enough to give the scene a glow of bittersweet hope and terror, if that makes sense).

If nothing else, even if the idea of watching what sounds to be a preachy-don't-drink-go-to-AA movie doesn't sound to liking, the acting turns it around as something of a milestone for both actors.  It's not just their acting either, but Edwards' camera on them.  Late in the film as Joe has tried to sober up and has stuck with it for a while he loses Kirsten as she plunges deeper into alcoholic disarray, and he tracks her down to a motel.

The two have a confrontation, nothing that's loud but very emotional, draining on both sides, as she can't understand why Joe won't stay and drink with her, and Joe can't reconcile how to leave one or the other as they're intertwined.  It was said that Edwards hypnotized Remick to give the performance in that scene.  Fine, whatever.  It's still harrowing work, emphasized by how haunted everything is around her, the lights in the room kept off but light from outside pouring on to bedraggled face and teary, lost eyes.  It's the kind of scene that should be shown in any acting class to beginners, but also to lighting-for-actors as well.

Oh, and Lemmon: here is where one sees what is so special about him in latching on to another performer in the same scene, whether its the fun-leading-to-dark side of Remick, or the more workmanlike acting from Jack Klugman.  He's a receptive and generous actor, able to give so much in a scene and given the tough nature of this character- often drunk, and if not drunk a little on edge half the time- he has to look real even under some extraordinary personal circumstances.

He's able to be subtle but full of expression, like when he comes back to a dinner table after hearing on the phone that his wife set the apartment on fire.  How does a man react to something like that?  A quasi-smirk, just a few glances, another drink, a mix of bewilderment and sorrow, does just fine.  It has to rank with some of his best work, and Remick doesn't follow too far behind in a role that dives deeper into tragedy.


Bottoms up on a smashing-good drama!   Oh, and Henry Mancini's score, as the kids say, is made of WIN! (not too jazzy, but full of soul and remorse and high-tension and pain)

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