Just three years after earning Academy Awards for Best Picture and Director for 1960’s The Apartment, Billy Wilder re-teamed with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine for another look at love and relationships. But this time the drab New York insurance building was traded for the bawdy streets of Paris, and secretaries replaced with prostitutes. Once again, Wilder poked fun at the taboo subject of sex and again, his instincts paid off: Irma La Douce was Wilder’s biggest commercial success yet, and received three Academy Award nominations, winning one for Andre Previn’s lush score.
Irma La Douce (MacLaine) is the most popular “lady of the night” on the Rue Casanova, the red light district of Paris. With her green tights and French poodle, Irma has a prime hooking spot on the corner outside the Hotel Casanova. Nestor Patou (Lemmon) is the one honest cop patrolling this beat. Naïve in the ways of love, Nestor suspects what everyone else already knows—that sex is being bought and sold at the hotel. He promptly orders a raid. Unfortunately, one of the girl’s customers is Nestor’s boss, and he’s soon back on the street, but without a job. Nestor returns to the Rue Casanova and befriends Irma…
For fans of The Apartment, Irma La Douce is akin to that film’s redheaded stepchild. It cannot match its predecessor in terms of sheer brilliance and wit, pathos, and charm, but we love it nonetheless. For one thing, Irma La Douce gives us a chance to see yet again what Billy Wilder can do with the perfect comic foil, in this case Jack Lemmon. This was the duo’s third film together and their comfort level shows. Lemmon’s physical comedy in Irma La Douce is the best of his career (with the exception of Some Like It Hot) and in my mind ranks him among the best physical comedians. His early fight scene with Irma’s mec is a portrait of ineptitude. Later, his shyness in undressing in front of Irma is hilariously pathetic. When Nestor morphs into Lord X, Lemmon embraces the alter ego with as much energy as he did with Jerry/Daphne. The film also continues the on-screen relationship of Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, though here his love is requited, unlike in The Apartment. Wilder and writing partner I.A.L. Diamond remained at the top of their game with this picture. The story is clever and very risqué for its time, dealing with serious themes of sex, fidelity, and jealousy with trademarked barbs and one-liners. The film looks beautiful too, with art director Alexander Trauner wonderfully recreating the bustling Rue Casanova with glorious sets and vibrant colors.
Despite all of these terrific elements, Irma La Douce has flaws. Though the film was adapted from the stage musical of the same name, all of the songs have been cut. The film still maintains the look, feel, and whimsical illogic that audiences accept from a musical comedy. At times, it feels like the characters should break out into song, but they never have that release. For his part, Wilder felt that the songs got in the way of the story and I think (dare I say it) he was wrong. The pacing is uneven as well. The first hour of the film is the best, with Lemmon inhabiting the role of pathetic schnook that he plays so well. As Nestor gains confidence, the picture loses some momentum. It’s a robust two hours and 23 minutes and could’ve used a little trimming.
It’s interesting to hypothesize about what Irma La Douce might have been. Despite the horrible shooting experiences of The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot Wilder was anxious to give the role of Irma to Marilyn Monroe. Monroe would’ve brought innocence to the role that MacLaine lacks. One complaint about the movie is Irma is so easily duped about Lord X’s true identity. With Monroe, this might’ve been more believable. After Monroe and Wilder had a falling out, Elizabeth Taylor was signed for the part. When the film was pushed back in favor of Wilder’s One, Two, Three, Taylor had to drop out and MacLaine was in. Charles Laughton, Wilder’s star from Witness For The Prosecution, was intended for and interested in the role of Moustache. In his final days, Wilder even read lines with the ailing star, knowing that he’d never survive to make the film. Lou Jacobi is adequate in the role, and often quite funny (he’s the Dunkin Donuts guy from the old “time to make the donuts” ads), but a legend like Laughton would’ve made the film extra special.
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