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Irma La Douce

Irma La Douce
MGM Home Entertainment
1963 / color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 143 min. / Street Date July 15, 2003 / 14.95
Starring Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Lou Jacobi, Herschel Bernardi, Hope Holiday
Cinematography Joseph La Shelle
Art Direction Alexander Trauner
Film Editor Daniel Mandell
Original Music Marguerite Monnot, Andre Previn
Written by Billy Wilder & I.A.L. Diamond from a play by Alexandre Breffort
Produced by Edward L. Alperson, I.A.L. Diamond, Billy Wilder
Directed by Billy Wilder

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Also available in The Billy Wilder Collection Boxed set (129.96), with The Apartment, Avanti!, The Fortune Cookie, Kiss Me Stupid, One Two Three, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Some Like it Hot and Witness for the Prosecution.

Irma La Douce means well, and certainly brings a smile to one's lips, but it's one of Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond's least successful films. The production is remarkable and the color dazzling, but this time around the 'dirty Wilder fairy tale' outwits itself. Only so much humor can be mined from the basically sordid theme of prostitution and the characters are too cartoonish for the sentimental conclusion to take hold.


Innocent gendarme Nestor Patou (Jack Lemmon) is transferred to a notorious Rue Casanova, a narrow lane frequented by streetwalkers. When he arrests his chief along with the girls in a raid that goes against accepted 'understandings' between the pimps and the cops, he loses his job. But he's befriended by bartender-racounteur Moustache (Lou Jacobi) and adopted by #1 hooker Irma La Douce (Shirley MacLaine). Nestor defeats Irma's mec, or pimp, but refuses to become a pimp himself because he's too romantic to allow her to sleep with anyone else. To that end, he disguises himself as an English twit named Lord X, who monopolizes Irma and pays her a fortune just to play cards. But Nestor has to work night and day to raise the money to pay Irma so she can keep him ... and his absences make her suspect he's seeing one of the other girls - perhaps Kiki the Cossack (Star Trek's Grace Lee Whitney) or Lolita (Hope Holiday).

Jack Lemmon and Shirley Maclaine don't quite achieve the sure-thing pairing here that graced their superlative The Apartment three seasons before, and it's entirely the fault of their characters. The script makes the pair a comedy duo swapping dirty double entendres about sex, and we never warm up to them. Both have to play different types of dumb to make the jokes work. Irma, being arrested for soliciting, doesn't realize Nestor is referring to her dog, and not her when he says: "There are rules you know! You need to put it on a leash!"

Wilder is obviously taken with his notion of a Red Light district that operates like a candy store for carnal sin - the girls have outrageous names like Amazon Annie and Suzette Wong and are perfectly happy in their work, standing along the crooked rue hawking their wares. Their mecs are organized in a slyly-named association that boils down to the acronym M.P.A.A. (!), and the whole shebang looks like a color cartoon ripped from the pages of Playboy.

Irma La Douce had recently been a successful Broadway musical but Wilder went back to the original play and dropped the songs. Nestor starts as a naive medal winner for rescuing a kid in a playground and his rather depressing fall from grace is explained with a flippant 'way of all flesh' attitude. Neither his suffering nor the attractive French fantasy world he and Irma live in isn't all that pleasant, even with slapstick gags and funny fights breaking out nightly in Moustache's cafe. The final fun-killer is Nestor's 'Lord X' persona, a concept that may be from the original play but is a terribly dumb idea. Wilder tries to make him a composite of every English movie cliché going. Lemmon's fake teeth and eyepatch are terminally unfunny.

What doesn't work is Wilder's basic setup: Nestor loves a prostitute willing to sleep with other men in order to stay with him. He can't abide this so goes in disguise and pays her big sums not to sleep with anyone else. But he has to secretly work so hard to earn this money that she decides he's cheating on her and stops loving him. It's a one-liner joke expanded into an unworkable comedy. The only lesson from this is a smarmy "ya just can't win with females," which isn't enough. Wilder's Kiss Me, Stupid is far sleazier than this show but its farcical framework of mistaken identity and deception is an interesting examination of the convention of marriage. The pretzel-plot of Irma La Douce is not enough - although the story lumbers on for two hours and 23 minutes, it's really over when Nestor defeats Irma's pimp and takes her for his own.

The most bizarre thing about Irma La Douce is that the real M.P.A.A. didn't pounce on it like a sardine at a cat show. Besides breaking most of the rules, the movie flaunts its dirty jokes without a shred of enlightenment. One would have to think the grand cathedral wedding with the bride lurching about from labor pains would have dropped a flag with the Catholic Legion of Decency as well. Maybe they were all too flattered by the same year's The Cardinal and Wilder's film slipped by.

The more serious critics called Wilder's sex romp a stinker. I remember reading a review that slammed the film by dwelling on the scene where the bored-looking Irma showed off her new green underwear for Nestor. 1963 audiences probably thought the whole immature film was the height of sophistication - Irma La Douce became Wilder's biggest moneymaker of the 60s.

It's said that Liz Taylor was meant to be the original Irma and it would have been something to see her figure in the racy green underwear if Wilder could have pulled it off. A more established fact is that Charles Laughton was originally set as the loquacious bartender Moustache until sickness forced him to bow out - most Wilder bios have the director visiting the actor to read the script and laugh together, when both men knew Laughton was sinking fast.

The supporting cast provides some dividend pleasures. Joan Shawlee and the hilarious Hope Holiday return from The Apartment to play exaggerated hookers along with notable fleshpots Grace Lee Whitney of TV's Star Trek and Tura Satana, cult vixen of Faster, Pussycat, Kill! Kill! Very visible as customers on the Rue Casanova are TV star Bill Bixby, and a very young James Caan. Cliff Osmond and Howard McNear, both of Kiss, Me Stupid, are here as well.

MGM's DVD of Irma La Douce is 16:9 enhanced, but it was an earlier release (April 2, 2002) and, like The Apartment, didn't receive the optimum transfer that did some of its boxmates in last month's Wilder collection. The difference can only be seen on a large monitor where the difference in definition and apparent line structure becomes visible. Perhaps it's just the improvement in transfer technology?

Andre Previn's fine score won the film's only Oscar, and it sounds great here. There are also French and Spanish dub tracks, and a clever original trailer.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Irma La Douce rates:
Movie: Good -
Video: Good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 17, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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