Days of Wine and Roses (1962): Alcoholics Anonymous

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I had always heard Days of Wine and Roses was shown to members of AA. It’s no small coincidence the co-founder Bill Wilson served as a technical advisor. But I never realized how integral it is to the very integrity of the plot.

Jack Lemmon had the penchant for playing lovable losers — the corporate schmucks who are a bit sleazy but have just enough charm to make them relatively endearing. In this one, he’s Joe Clay, a public relations man who nevertheless finds himself to be “a eunuch in a harem” and a glorified pimp for businessmen.

To some, he may feel reminiscent to C.C. Baxter who was an ambitious fellow with a similar conundrum. Because he has a conscience in this callous corporate jungle. Clay likewise, is a character with a decent streak. He feels uncomfortable with certain duties thrust upon them.

He gets off on the wrong foot with the bosses secretary Kirst Armeson (Lee Remick), followed up by rejected peanut brittle offerings in an attempt to make amends. Though ultimately his persistence and a certain amount of candor straighten things out between him.

Getting along is not their main problem anyway. The issue which will become most troubling is his penchant for a little merriment after hours. In other words, he likes to drink. “Booze makes you feel good,” he says. Something to let off a bit of steam like any extracurricular. In a way, it’s kind of endearing when they’re standing on the water’s edge reminiscing together, Joe’s a bit tipsy.

From these moments onward, Days of Wine and Roses is capable of contending with some of Wilder’s comedies like The Apartment and The Fortune Cookie while being superior to Edward’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, despite being less well-known. It’s hardly going out on the limb to say this offering is his best work. Because whatever his plethora of comedies might say about him, beloved as they are, Days of Wine and Roses shows a capacity for completely different material. He does it justice juggling tones.

Maybe it’s a matter of how she carries herself or her hairstyle but Lee Remick never felt more mature and self-assured than in Days of Wine and Roses. It’s as if she has aged — still beautiful and alive — but there is something more to her now.

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She lives in “The Roach Kingdom” and begins a romance with Clay, which ends with marriage on the fly. She takes him home to her daddy (Charles Bickford) and he doesn’t approve exactly but he gives them the benefit of the doubt. They seem happy.

But you don’t cease to be your old self and suddenly become someone new once marriage is decided upon. As is the case in all scenarios, you bring your baggage along with you and it can either make you a more steadfast couple or be the millstone around your neck drowning you mercilessly.

If he is a flawed husband than he is a flawed father as well. Alcohol-fueled giggle fits are endearing at first but when they turn heated and verge on the uncontrollably violent the destructiveness of alcoholism becomes overpowering

Their daughter feels like a casualty as their parenting suffers. First, Joe comes home swacked one evening and wakes the baby in a fit. Then, slowly Kirst gets pulled down with him. Her own dive toward alcohol dependence ends in a house fire of her own creation.

The effectiveness of the storytelling has to do with the alcohol not being front and center as it insidiously moves in on a man’s life. Here are a man and a woman. This is a love story. But it goes horribly awry.

What follows is a horrifying cut to Jack Lemmon in a straitjacket. Grimace-inducing. We have gone far beyond a mere mealy-mouthed drama. We have reached the point of positively no return. No film thus far, not even The Lost Weekend has managed this low before, so it seems.

Unfortunately, it’s a result of countless appreciative viewings of  Some Like it Hot and The Odd Couple that causes me to often label Jack Lemmon a comedian rather than a “real” actor. But what an oversight that is. He is absolutely phenomenal without a shadow of a doubt. Like Peter Sellers, Robin Williams, and Jim Carrey, it does seem funnymen are often capable of extraordinary dramatic performances because it’s so true there is an inherent polarity between comedy and tragedy. Yet they are so closely tied together.

Jack Klugman (another future Odd Couple veteran) appears as an AA man who acts as Joe’s anchored lifeline providing tough love with pragmatic advice. “Just one more” is a lie. And assuming that we have enough willpower to overcome it is equally pernicious. Pretty soon we’re content to live in spiraling cycles.

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Meanwhile, Kirsten balks about joining AA. She doesn’t want to degrade herself in front of a group of people. She deems herself better than that and goes on living the lie, getting by on willpower.

There comes a time in everyone’s life where the bottle is God. Joe is finally made to realize that but now his wife is so tainted. He pleads with her, “There’s just room for you and me, no threesome.” His wife proceeds to go out the door.

He looks out the window and watches her disappear into the night. Then, he looks out the window again and the street’s empty. The only thing there is a neon “Bar” sign flashing in the night. He looks at it grimly knowing that it took his wife away from him.

In a manner of speaking, they were unfaithful to one another. No, not with another person but another thing — an obsession that ripped apart their marriage with a canker that cannot be easily eradicated. Days of Wine and Roses manages to document it all with a harrowing lucidity hardly pulling a gut punch. It also conveniently forgets to tack on a happy ending.

Is it any wonder that Blake Edwards, Jack Lemmon, and Lee Remick, who had all struggled with excess alcoholism at a time, eventually all quit the habit? There is no more potent indicator. If it does its job, there will be at least several moments where your insides will squirm and you will be repulsed. For people so amiable, Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick do an astonishing job.

4.5/5 Stars

Wild River (1960): Elia Kazan and Monty Clift at Their Subtlest

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“You’re getting awful human aren’t you Chuck?” ~ Lee Remick as Carol

“I was always human, wasn’t I?” ~ Montgomery Clift as Chuck

With the mention of the Tennessee Valley Authority and what feels like Depression newsreel footage suggesting the work they are looking to do in the face of poverty, it becomes immediately apparent Elia Kazan’s Wild River feels very much like a docudrama.

Despite the raging water in the title, this is a surprisingly subdued picture especially given Kazan’s credentials. But there you have a dose of its enticement as a film that all but flies under the radar because it cannot be so easily attributed to the Method due to theatrics like a Streetcar Named Desire or East of Eden.

And yet there is no doubting the capabilities of a now weathered Montgomery Clift in this latter stage of his career. Fitting, as his name is linked, deservingly so, with the Brandos and the Deans for the jolt of newfound authenticity and masculinity they helped usher in within the Hollywood community.

However, unlike his compatriots, Clift was not a rising star partnering his talents with Kazan’s own intuitive handling of actors. He was a highly established and ceaselessly ingenious talent already. Clift never seems prone to histrionics but more crucially proves invested in emotional authenticity.

In this case, he is a man with an obvious task at hand. With a new TVA dam going in to provide electricity for the surrounding community, Chuck Glover is called upon to clear the area of all its occupants so the river valley can be completely flooded. The area has been all but vetted except for one lifelong unwavering inhabitant, Ella Garth (Jo Van Fleet) who lives on a solitary island with her grown sons and granddaughter.

She’s not too favorable toward TVA men and Glover’s predecessor gave up, finding the old lady unyielding. Still, the new man’s got to at least try because the Tenessee Valley Authority is intent on moving forward with progress.

As she showcased in everything from East of Eden and Cool Hand Luke, Jo Van Fleet could be a scene-stealer in her own right and she was consequently an adherent to a “Method” style, gelling with her director. Hence Kazan’s eagerness to cast her again. She doesn’t disappoint with her 45 years all but disappearing behind her performance filled with a resolute obstinacy, which is neither wholly bitter or overly pious.

One could situate Wild River as a Grapes of Wrath story from a sympathetic perspective.  The wheels of progress are more of a benevolent aid to the public rather than an unfeeling force bulldozing the old for the new. The delineation is purposeful even as it leads to obviously divergent conclusions.

Chuck does not want to use force and he is looking to understand the local inhabitants so he can help them the best he can. Though the eldest Garth rejects his initial inquiries, he does find a sympathetic spirit in Carol Garth Baldwin (Lee Remick) who raises two children following the premature death of her husband. As the story progresses and Chuck keeps on plugging away in his mission, he and Carol slowly grow closer even as their worlds seem so far apart. There’s a glint of Norma Rae in how they come together. What matters is people’s convictions rather than their environment.

But to a slightly lesser degree, there’s the racial element as it seems like it would be ill-advised to draw up a story such as this without a certain enmity. Chuck just wants his job done and he’s ready to use black labor to do it. All the local southern white folks aren’t about that, much less equal wages.

He meets particular pushback from a local cotton plantation owner named Bailey (Albert Salmi) who doesn’t look on his presence too kindly. The same might be said of Walter Clark (Frank Overton) who has been Carol’s beau for some time. And yet their characters could not more starkly different. We get to understand them more deeply in due time.

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One of the greatest pleasures of Wild River is the opportunity to study the faces of our leads in-depth. Lee Remick’s performance alone abounds with the unspoken feelings behind her eyes.  It’s as if her eyes are the windows into her every emotion. Bright blue, at times pleading, other times aloof with a sadness we can only attempt to understand. But the film is made by its warmth and its subtleties, far more than any amount of blundering brutal magnetism. It comes out aging like a fine wine compared to some of its hothouse contemporaries.

The galvanizing moment comes when the local yokels try to scare Chuck off and have themselves a time goosestepping on the roof and ramming a truck into the side of a house; a shotgun even gets brought to the proceedings. The sheriff observes from a measured distance with mild amusement.

And yet when Chuck wanders out to face his perpetrators, there’s a resolve in his eyes. Surrounded by all these folks, he goes up to the spiteful man who is behind it all and proceeds to get wailed on. It’s almost pitiful. Our hero goes flailing, his girl starts climbing and clawing over the guy only to wind up in the mud right next to her lover.

It’s hardly a cinematic moment but it feels like a real one and the fact that our hero, Monty Clift, winds up so pitifully is a testament to this story. For the record, I’ve never gotten into a fist-fight. I’m a very flighty non-confrontational fellow but regardless, there’s something honest about how this one goes down.

One of the final shots is an equally fitting testament of what we have just witnessed. A solitary house on an island is set ablaze surrounded by water with an American flag dancing in the breeze. Maybe others feel the same emotion but the flag all but suggests this nation of ours has a complex relationship with progress. Where we must let go of the old to make way for the new. However, we must also reconcile each with the other.

Is it simply a part of life — the inevitable — or are there truly righteous and detrimental ways to go about it? The film is not forthcoming with its own answers. All we can do is sit back and ruminate. With a smile on our faces looking forward but nevertheless a lingering wistfulness for the past we left behind.

4/5 Stars

 

The Long, Hot Summer (1958)

The_Long,_Hot_SummerAs it turns out, Paul Newman’s a real barn burner. His family name is synonymous with conflagrations and it’s a great entry point for a character, in this case, a drifter named Ben Quick who’s run out of town by the local judge.

We never actually know if he was guilty of arson or not but we assume he must be. And so even with the audience, Quick carries that onus because the reputation seems to fit him. He’s a leering no-good, not to be trusted with money or women. It’s all speculation, mind you, though it cuts pretty close to the truth.

He receives some southern hospitality when a car screeches to a stop to pick him up. In the passenger’s seat is Eula (Lee Remick) with a coaxing sensuality accentuated by a sing-song twang that’s irresistible. More reserved is the driver, Clara (Joanne Woodward), who sees through Quick just like most people. She’s not about to be taken in by his animal magnetism.

This is just the beginning of a vast family drama and the names we have to thank are director Maritn Ritt, still trying to get his head above water after a blacklisting, and screenwriting stalwarts Irving Ravitch and Harriet Frank Jr.

Their tale was realized by weaving together three stories by William Faulkner that I have no prior knowledge of, matched with the atmospherics of a Tennessee Williams sweaty drama. In fact, it was released before a couple films that share more than superficial similarities, namely the well-remembered Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) also starring Newman, this time opposite Elizabeth Taylor and Burl Ives. Then, there was God’s Little Acre (1958) which was probably the quirkiest and most erratic of the trio starring Robert Ryan as the head of the family.

Arguably, there’s no larger-than-life figure than Orson Welles to take the part of the portly patriarch of the Varner clan, Will, a man who puts his stamp on the local town. After a stint in the hospital with ailments, he comes back in fashion, sirens howling, so everyone knows that the king has returned. First, it’s a visit to his mistress (Angela Lansbury) who’s anxious to get married so she can have more stability. His responses remain evasive.

The Louisianna heat is no fluke and Welles is perpetually perspiring. He lends an earthiness to the proceedings that undoubtedly takes some cues from Ritt. Will Varner laughs boisterously at the catcalls of young boys directed towards his daughter-in-law, just as he conspires to get his other daughter hitched up so grandchildren can start popping out. In this regard, he’s very pragmatic (if not misogynistic). He wants heirs to maintain the family name because his gutless son certainly isn’t going to be the one to do it.

While important to the stability of the picture, by all accounts, Welles was a terror to work with for everyone on set. There are multiple indications of why this might have been. It’s all too probable he felt pressured and slightly insecure with the young upstarts coming on the scene from the Actor’s Studio, including Marlon Brando and his current co-star Paul Newman. Alternatively, with Welles being the renowned directorial power that he was, there was probably some dissatisfaction on his part because he couldn’t pull all the strings and have total control like he was normally accustomed to.

However,  put him together in a room with Paul Newman and you have two men in front of you as crooked as a barrel of fish hooks. Varner’s perceptive daughter puts it aptly, “One wolf recognizes another.” Soon they strike up a mutually beneficial deal throwing other people and lives around like they were pawns in a chess match to solely serve the two of them.

Varner wants a form of southern immortality. Males to bear his name and people to sing his praises and tame the land in a sprawling estate with spoils to match what he has accumulated over his lifetime. Quick, why, he just wants money and land and whatever else he can finagle out of the old man. What unites them is they’re both out for number one.

Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward go on their first cinematic date together and it’s a picnic in the park that ends prematurely. In real life, they would get married soon after principal photography wrapped and as they say, the rest was history. They stayed married for another 50 years until Newman’s passing in 2008. For a Hollywood marriage, this has to be some kind of record.

But regardless of what was going outside the frame, what is within the confines of the space is just as enchanting for the simple reason that they make some amount of palpable magic together. There’s a tension between them but then a certain attraction and pull that leads to oscillation back and forth in a continuous orbit of gravitation and then distaste.

In real life, it’s not what leads to stable romance but in film, it’s what dreams are made of because every sequence has an intangible undercurrent of spiritedness. It’s in the eyes twinkling. The unspoken words along with the spoken ones. Maybe it’s a lot of making something out of nothing but I would like to think it isn’t. They have something electric together.

Just as the film opened with fire, it’s another barn burning that ends the picture and gets the town in a tizzy. The irony is the very event that looks to be a dramatic firecracker actually reconciles a father and son. That’s the thing about The Long Hot Summer; it has the guts — some might say the gall — to end on an optimistic note without plunging into the throes of deep dark tragedy. Sometimes the 50s dramas take it too far. It’s almost as if they forget some of the greatest dramas historically were as much comedy as they were tragedy.

With so much talent, I’m inclined to like this one and since it all but led the pack coming out of the gates, it deserves some kudos. But best of all, the partnership between Martin Ritt, Ravitch, Frank, and Newman was just beginning, not to mention a marriage for the ages. It’s part of the reason why one can come away from The Long Hot Summer with a smile as wide as Will Varner’s.

3.5/5 Stars

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

251e0-anatomymurder2Starring Jimmy Stewart, George C. Scott, Lee Remick, and a cast of others, the film follows a small town lawyer (Stewart) as he defends a man who has committed murder. The whole case is complicated by the fact that the Lieutenant’s beautiful wife was supposedly raped by the murdered man. Now Stewart must battle it out in court using every strategy he knows in order to save his client. With the help of witnesses and evidence both sides have substantial cases. However, Stewart finds the topper in the dead man’s daughter, hoping this will save his client’s life. Despite the valiant effort of the prosecuting attorney and Stewart, everything is in the hands of the jury so now all they can do is wait. With an interesting score, a methodical story, and a great cast, this movie was a good one. The judge especially made this film enjoyable for me and you certainly cannot beat Stewart. It should also be noted that this film has one of the most famous movie posters of all time which was designed by Saul Bass.

4.5/5 Stars