Joe Clay (Jack Lemmon) is an up-and-coming Public Relations agent in the era of the three-martini lunch and "drinks with the boys" following the workday. While providing a client with, literally, a boatload of girls, Joe meets receptionist Kirsten Arnesen (Lee Remick), a good girl from a stable country upbringing.
Joe introduces Kirsten to alcohol in the form of a Brandy Alexander, and before long the two fall in love and marry. Joe provides a good living for his wife and new baby daughter, but becomes depressed from the quiet family life and a baby that takes up all of his wife's attention. In a truly gut-wrenching scene, Joe berates and completely degrades Kirsten for not being any fun anymore, throwing a temper tantrum while drunk and demanding that she stop nursing her own baby (mammary envy) because its going to ruin her shape. A very poignant and heart braking scene.
Kirsten is deeply in love with Joe, and concedes to his demands to "loosen up a little and be fun again", which means having a couple of drinks with him. It isn't long before Kirsten is drinking all the time, and very common of women in the early sixties, Kirsten starts smoking (probably to help lose weight, though this isn't mentioned beyond Joe's comment about her shape).
Joe's career slides as his drinking increases, causing him to be late for work and upsetting his clients. His company assigns him to a lower-level client in far away Houston. While Joe tries to do his job there, Kirsten sets their apartment on fire from drinking and smoking. Joe is fired, and not long afterward Joe has an epiphany. He is a bum, and his wife is a bum, and they need to stop drinking.
Kirsten's father takes the struggling couple into his home where he runs a nursery. After a couple of months sober, Joe and Kirsten fall off the wagon together in a riotous binge in their room. A second very poignant incident follows where Joe trashes his father-in-law's nursery looking for the bottle he hid. This scene may seem overdone at first, but just tune into one episode of 'Cops' and you will see how well Jack Lemmon played this scene.
This time, Joe winds out in the hospital going through some overblown withdrawal symptoms, and it is here he meets Jim Hungerford (Jack Klugman) from Alcoholics Anonymous. Once in AA, Joe tries to fight his disease, while Kirsten remains in absolute denial of being an alcoholic. You must remember that this movie was made in 1962, and there was quite a stigma attached to being an alcoholic, the 60's version of a scarlet letter.
There is no happily-ever-after in this movie. Though made in 1962, it is still the best of the 'alcoholic' movies ever made. 'Leaving Las Vegas' certainly portrayed a down-and-out alcoholic, but the character Ben from that modern portrayal wanted to die. 'Days Of Wine And Roses' is the story of two people's struggle against alcoholism, not their submission to it.
There is nothing outdated about this movie except the fashion; times change, behaviors don't. Kirsten's confession that she "just wants things to look prettier than they are" rings so true to addiction in any form or from any era. This movie is about people and the disease, not the time-period, so it stands up to any of the modern day addiction stories.
'Days Of Wine And Roses' is a true classic, a timeless piece that is both sad and entertaining. Take a quick note of the fact that in Joe and Kirsten's first apartment, the bar was right outside the baby's room. I thought that was a bit ironic.
If you love addiction movies, modern pieces like 'Leaving Las Vegas', 'Requiem For A Dream', 'Spun', or 'Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas', you will love 'Days Of Wine And Roses'. Enjoy!