Original release: June 5th, 1963
Running time: 147 minutes
Director: Billy Wilder
Writers: Billy Wilder, I. A. L. Diamond, Alexandre Breffort
Cast: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine
The closing entry of what could be unofficially titled Billy Wilder’s ‘Love and Deception’ trilogy is also the least well regarded. Starring Jack Lemmon, who also appeared in the trilogy’s other two chapters Some Like It Hot and The Apartment, Irma La Douce tells the story of Nestor Patou, a straight-laced Parisian policeman who plays pimp to the titular Irma (Shirley MacLaine), Paris’s most popular prostitute.
Despite its lowly position in comparison with its brother films, Irma La Douce is one of the Wilder’s most commercially successful films, and on the surface at least, it’s not hard to see why. A big, broad comedy, Irma La Douce’s laughs are less subtle and guilty than The Apartment’s and its visuals brighter and bolder than the black-and-white Some Like It Hot.
The film is based on the same-titled musical by Marguerite Monnot and Alexandre Breffort and while Irma itself contains no music beyond Andre Previn’s booming score, the obviously false set design calls to mind the delightfully artificial look of many of Hollywood’s biggest musical hits of the 60s. This is a film that looks and sounds like easy escapism.
However, beneath the exterior, there lies a very serious heart that’s illuminated by a scene between Nestor and Moustache (Lou Jacobi), owner of the local bistro and the film’s quasi-Jiminy Cricket. Nestor, eager to stamp out prostitution at this early point in the film, insists he’s going to clean up the streets of Paris and imprison the prostitutes and their clients. He’s soon put in his place.
“Love is illegal – but not hate,” Moustache says, condemning Nestor’s “petty bourgeois” attitude to prostitution.
“That you can do anywhere, anytime, to anybody. But if you want a little warmth, a little tenderness, a shoulder to cry on, a smile to cuddle up with, you have to hide in dark corners, like a criminal!”
Some Like It Hot poked fun at gender roles and The Apartment condemned the men who indulge in affairs, but Irma La Douce does something arguably more complicated. Through lines like the above, Wilder explicitly attacks those who seek to hide love, and by turning the film into a farce, he brilliantly mocks this attitude, revealing it to be utterly ridiculous.
As the film goes on, Nestor becomes jealous of the men who spend time with Irma and instead of coming clean with his feelings, he poses as a rich English gentleman (Lord X) to get close to her. Living a double life takes its toll though and, this being a farce, Nestor ends up ‘killing’ Lord X and going to jail for his ‘crime’.
Beyond 1965’s The Great Race, Irma La Douce is arguably Lemmon’s wackiest role and he enjoys playing the ham. His ridiculous English accent rivals Tony Curtis’s spot on take on Cary Grant from Some Like It Hot as one of Wilder’s funniest moments and there’s a wonderful extended sequence that riffs on My Fair Lady’s famous ‘Rain in Spain’ scene as we see Nestor stumble into the identity of Lord X.
Opposite Lemmon, MacLaine performs admirably with an under-written character. Without the raw drama of The Apartment ‘s Fran Kubelick to play off, she produces a similar performance to the one turned in in many of her other 60s films (see, for example, What A Way To Go! ); in other words, it’s feisty and fun, but you wish Wilder and co-writer IAL Diamond had imbued Irma with something more.
It’s telling (and perhaps appropriate for a film about love) that Irma’s most memorable scene comes with Lemmon. Early on, she invites Nestor to her apartment, a run-down bedsit once owned by a ‘starving artist who cut off his ear’. “Van Gogh?” Nestor asks setting up another classic Wilder one-liner. “No, I think his name was Schwartz,” Irma answers.
Irma begins to undress and Nestor bashfully turns away, covering the windows with newspaper to spare Irma’s modesty. Funny and charming, this is not only a classic Wilder/Diamond ‘meet-cute’, but a perfect encapsulation of the film’s core theme. Why is Nestor so bashful? Why cover the window? Why hide his and Irma’s burgeoning love in dark corners?!
Such subtext was ignored by critics at the time and the film remains overlooked now. Irma La Douce is widely considered to be the beginning of the end for Wilder; from here on in, there’d be only a collection of curios (The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes), romantic comedy re-treads (the Lemmon-starring Avanti! ) and out-and-out flops (Buddy, Buddy). The latter would be the great director’s final film.
What he left behind though is a collection of films that constitutes arguably the most diverse of any Hollywood director. It may still have a low critical profile, but Irma La Douce fits perfectly into that collection and provides a delightful conclusion to his ‘Love and Deception’ trilogy.
Paul fell in love with cinema when dinosaurs ruled the Earth. A childhood viewing of Jurassic Park introduced him to the power and wonder of the silver screen, and after his dreams of directing were shattered by crumbling papier-mâché sets, disobedient action figure actors and a total lack of talent, he quickly turned to writing, thus proving that life does indeed find a way.
When not citing scripture from the apostle Ian Malcolm, Paul also enjoys the films of Billy Wilder, Paul Thomas Anderson, Stanley Kubrick, Frank Capra, Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog. His favourite film is The Apartment and his favourite apartments are in films. They're much cleaner than his.