ON DVD & BLU-RAY
Irma La Douce (1963) dir: Billy Wilder Blu Ray (Eureka!)
An officer and a hooker
Shirley MacLaine plays the titular Irma La Douce, a Parisian prostitute with a notable reputation amongst her clientele. One day, she is busted by a handsome but naive flic (cop) named Nestor Patou (Jack Lemmon). Unbeknown to him, however, his boss Inspector Lefevre (Herschel Bernardi) is in a corrupt arrangement with the local pimps whereby his officers are supposed to look the other way in exchange for a hatful of francs. When Nestor fails to do so, he gets thrown off the force.
Walking his way back through the neighbourhood - this time without his navy blue uniform - he once more bumps into Irma at the bar across the street from where she works. He discovers that she is being kept under the thumb of a brute of a boyfriend named Hippolyte (Bruce Yarnell). When he manages to beat the latter by fluke in a bar fight, Irma falls in love with him, thus availing him with the opportunity to earn money anew in the absence of getting it via the straight-and-narrow route. There’s only one problem: Nestor doesn’t like her working the streets. Thus, he decides to enlist the help of a worldly-wise barman named Moustache (Lou Jacobi) in order to instigate a madcap scheme whereby he disguises himself as a wealthy old English eccentric who is willing to buy her time and use it to play card games with her. Various farcical romantic complications ensue.
Watch a trailer:
An unfairly maligned Billy Wilder comedy
After the major critical and commercial success of The Apartment (1960), writer-director Billy Wilder reunited with co-writer I.A.L. Diamond and stars Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine for Irma La Douce. It’s an adaptation of a stage play by Alexandre Breffort. However, leaving aside the transition from board-treading to big screen, there is one other notable difference: while the earlier version was a musical, this one drops the singing and (with the exception of one scene) dancing in order to concentrate on the comedic interactions between its two leads. Once more, the resulting film struck gold at the box office but, despite garnering three Oscar nominations (including one win in the Best Music, Scoring of Music, Adaptation or Treatment category for André Previn), has gone down in history as a lesser Wilder.
It is fairly understandable why this has been the case. After all, The Apartment is widely considered to be not only one of the writer-director’s best films but is also frequently ranked amongst the best films ever made full stop - thus, inevitably, making just about anything else suffer by comparison. Irma La Douce’s dubious premise doesn’t help either: a romantic comedy set amid the unsavoury milieu of prostitution. Nonetheless, once you get past these undeniable concerns, it still offers much to enjoy as a second-tier entry in his filmography.
That witty Wilder-Diamond dialogue is still present and correct, as is the undeniable chemistry between neurotic everyman Jack Lemmon and the brassy, earthy Shirley MacLaine. However, while these aspects remain enjoyable throughout, they are noticeably working against averse circumstances. For one thing, the character of Nestor Patou is something of a possessive and occasionally mean-spirited individual who is only made remotely likeable thanks to Lemmon’s considerable charm. For another, the script is rather laboured and long-winded in terms of setting up its humorous payoffs.
Thankfully, once the laughs do arrive, they are certainly worth the wait. Lemmon is particularly hilarious when he’s hiding behind his near-unrecognisable disguise as English aristocrat Lord X. His hokey, blatantly fictional claims about taking part in various historical events through the centuries - ranging from the Mutiny on the Bounty to the sinking of the Bismarck - get plenty of laughs, as do those about his estate being populated with peacocks and unicorns. Lou Jacobi is another highlight as Moustache, the bartender who becomes the film’s fountain of supposed wisdom due to his improbably diverse range of alleged previous occupations.
There are also a few aspects here which are of particular interest to film buffs. The film’s lively, Technicolor-drenched Parisian setting has a certain fairytale air about it which is effectively established via an opening montage established by Louis Jourdan. Wilder was famously reluctant to shoot in colour so it’s notable not only that he did so here, but that he did so with such flair. While the film’s content seems fairly mild nowadays, it actually pushed boundaries for a Hollywood production of this period due to its clear references to prostitution and sex, not to mention numerous shots featuring women in states of implied and semi nudity.
Irma La Douce may be on the overlong and overelaborate side but it’s certainly more interesting and entertaining than its dismissive reputation suggests. Definitely take a look - and do also keep an eye out for Tura Satana playing a prostitute and James Caan as an American soldier. Both of them made their feature film debuts here.
Runtime: 143 mins
Dir: Billy Wilder
Script: Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond, based on a play by Alexandre Breffort
Starring: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Lou Jacobi, Bruce Yarnell, Herschel Bernardi, Hope Holiday, Tura Satana, James Caan, Louis Jourdan (narration only)
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
This looks and sounds like a dream. The vivid Technicolor has been almost flawlessly restored and the welter of background details are immensely savourable. I particularly loved Shirley MacLaine’s character’s sultry dresses and the garish paisley wallpaper in her boudoir!
Audio Commentary Tracks
There are 2 different commentaries here: one by Kat Ellinger (the editor of Diabolique Magazine) and one by Joseph McBride (a film historian at San Francisco State University). For this review, I went for the Kat Ellinger track.
In typical Ellinger style, it plays out more as an audio essay than a scene-by-scene account. She’s a self-confessed major fan of Billy Wilder’s work and talks extensively about this film in relation to his wider body of work as both writer and director. She particularly notes that he liked to push the boundaries of Hollywood’s puritanical “Hays Code” whose influence was diminishing during the 1960s. In the case of Irma La Douce, the mere insinuation of prostitution would have been a no-no just a few years’ earlier. By 1963, he was able to get it past the Motion Picture Association of America with just a couple of cuts. Even then, however, a number of critics called it “crass” and “degrading”, whereas veteran Hollywood producer Hal Wallis wrote a furious letter to the MPAA accusing them of being too lenient on it.
Wilder decided to turn the musical stage version into a non-musical film version because, according to interviews, they just weren’t his thing. However, Ellinger notes that he did indeed direct one earlier in his career: The Emperor Waltz (1948). Marilyn Monroe was originally cast as Irma but ultimately decided to drop out. While there are conflicting stories as to her reasons, it is likely that the friction which occurred between herself and Wilder during the filming of Some Like It Hot (1959) resulted in her having second thoughts. In any case, she would have been unable to participate due to her unfortunate passing away in 1962.
Neil Sinyard Interview
Another fascinating interview with Neil Sinyard, Professor of Film Studies at the University of Hull. He notes that Billy Wilder felt that Irma La Douce didn’t work because it was too broad - something that puzzles him as he has seen an audience enjoy it and be carried along with it.
He also discusses the film’s casting. Charles Laughton was the original choice for the role of Moustache. Sadly, however, he died of cancer in 1962. After Marilyn Monroe dropped out, Brigitte Bardot and Elizabeth Taylor were considered for the role Irma before it finally went to Shirley MacLaine. Interestingly, MacLaine carried out a lot of research on prostitutes and included some of these findings in her performance.
The list of extras is completed by a trailer and collector’s booklet.
Irma La Douce isn’t amongst Billy Wilder’s absolute best but it’s still worthy of something of a positive reevaluation. The 4K restoration here is fabulous.