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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Irma la Douce (Blu-ray)
Irma la Douce (Blu-ray)
Kl Studio Classics // Unrated // July 17, 2018 // Region A
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted August 2, 2018 | E-mail the Author
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It's a bit ironic that Irma la Douce (1963), one of director Billy Wilder's weaker films, would prove to be his greatest commercial success by far, earning more than $25 million against a $5 million budget. It's pleasant enough, with a lot of witty lines, fine performances, many clever little touches throughout, but after a reasonably strong first act it begins to run out of steam, aimlessly meandering along with a lot of broad comedy and not much of the razor-sharp wit and observations about human behavior that made Wilder's films (in collaboration with co-writer and associate producer I.A.L. Diamond) of this period so remarkable: Some Like It Hot (1958) and The Apartment (1960) but especially One, Two, Three (1961) and Kiss Me, Stupid (1964). If it had been made by anyone other than Wilder and Diamond Irma la Douce would be regarded as a way-above-average picture but, by their standards, it's disappointing. With their movies one expects to be dazzled by the script, but Irma la Douce's single outstanding feature, and outstanding it is indeed, is its incredible production design, soundstage exteriors of Paris's red-light district.

The prostitutes working out of the Hotel Casanova have a good thing going until honest policeman Nestor Patou (Jack Lemmon) is transferred there. Unaware of the kickbacks and personal services they provide the local police force, Nestor orders a raid on the hotel. Nestor's superior officer, Inspector Lefevre (Herschel Bernardi) is among the johns.

He loses his job, but he and streetwalker Irma la Douce ("Irma the Sweet") have already hit it off and she invites him to move into her apartment. Further, he having beaten up Irma's abusive pimp, Hippolyte (Bruce Yarnell), she now wants Nestor to replace him. He goes along with this for a while but, increasingly jealous of the men she sleeps with, begins masquerading as "Lord X," an eccentric, filthy-rich Englishmen who becomes her sole client. Unfortunately, to pay for Irma's services, Nestor has to work nights and, in his exhaustion, becomes insanely jealous of the character he's created.

The next Wilder-Diamond movie, Kiss Me, Stupid, is in some respects the flip side of the same basic concept (pimping out one's lover), yet done much better, though that picture was at the time as much a critical and commercial disaster as Irma was a great success. On the surface, Irma is such a Technicolor confection that it could nearly pass for a Disney film, and audiences were primed for a feel-good reteaming of the writers and stars of The Apartment. Most Americans who saw it incredibly didn't notice or care about its peculiar story of pimping, prostituting, and uncharacteristic (for Wilder and Diamond) broad comedy and syrupy sentimentality. By the end one can only surrender to its total lack of credibility (complete with WTF twist at the end) and enjoy it like cotton candy, much like the alarmingly unreal, even disturbing fantasy that is Pretty Woman (1990).

Kiss Me, Stupid was raked over the coals by critics and ignored by audiences, yet its approach to similar material is entirely different, it having a sleazy surface but an almost profoundly sweet soul. Perhaps inspired by Marilyn Monroe's infamous nude scene in the unfinished Something's Got to Give (1962), in Irma Wilder teases his audience with myriad shots of semi-nude Irma, pushing the Production Code beyond any mainstream Hollywood feature up to that point, yet with far more skin than is ever glimpsed of Kim Novak in Kiss Me, Stupid. In short, Irma la Douce has an underbelly of sleaze beneath its wholesome veneer while the superficially sleazy Kiss Me, Stupid is, at once, more honest and believable and, by the end, it's almost reassuringly loving if not exactly wholesome.

In Kiss Me, Stupid, Ray Walston's jealous music teacher becomes increasingly protective of the woman (Novak) he's hired to masquerade as his wife and sleep with celebrity crooner Dino (Dean Martin). His involuntary protectiveness works because every action is motivated by the character Wilder and Diamond have carefully established in that film's first act. When Jack Lemmon, stretching credibility as a proto-Inspector Clouseau in Irma's early scenes, pretends to be English twit credibility doesn't go out the window: it hasn't entered the room. Though preferable to Lemmon's outrageous villain in Blake Edwards's The Great Race and occasionally funny, broad characterizations was never the otherwise fine actor's strong suit. It's impossible to imagine anyone other than Jack Lemmon playing the bitter, sanctimonious lead in Wilder's Avanti!, a rich, challenging role for the actor. In Irma, Lemmon is playing something close to cardboard.

Wilder had wanted Charles Laughton for the pivotal role of bistro proprietor Moustache, whose function in Irma was much like Maurice Chevalier's had been in Wilder's Love in the Afternoon. But Laughton died shortly before filming, and Wilder replaced him with a much younger (if equally fat) Lou Jacobi, who all too obviously projects none of the magic Laughton would have given the part. (In an interview with Stephen Bowie, actor Cliff Osmond, who has a small but juicy role as a policeman, speculates Wilder may have considered firing Jacobi and replacing him with Osmond.)

Except for a funny, vividly descriptive opening montage of Paris at 5:00 am, and a brief scene near the end, all of Irma la Douce was shot on soundstages, most of it on a single, gargantuan set which, through the courtesy of forced perspective, has three Parisian backstreets joining one another. Many of its details imported from France, the set is far more realistic than anything in An American in Paris, yet also exaggerated and romanticized: an American's imagined Paris. So complete is production designer Alexandre Trauner's illusion that it's difficult to tell the sets from the location work; one hardly notices it in the cutting, and it's criminal that his work wasn't even nominated for an Academy Award. (Cleopatra won.)

Video & Audio

Kino's Blu-ray, licensed from MGM, presents Irma la Douce in its original 2.35:1 Panavision (original prints by Technicolor). The image is impressively sharp but it's the bright primary colors that really pop. Supported by optional English subtitles, the mono audio is also very strong on this region "A" encoded disc.

Extra Features

Supplements consist of two separate audio commentaries, an excellent one by film scholar Joseph McBride, and a pretty good one by Kat Ellinger that for the most part doesn't duplicate McBride's observations. A trailer (narrated by Paul Frees; Louis Jourdan narrates the film proper) is also included.

Parting Thoughts

Lesser Wilder but still worthwhile, especially in this fine Blu-ray presentation, Irma la Douce is Recommended.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian largely absent from reviewing these days while he restores a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.

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