Irma la Douce

US (1963) Dir. Billy Wilder

Okay, so you meet a nice girl and think she is the one, except she has a job that isn’t so nice and you’d rather she gave it up, but she doesn’t want to because it is her way of life. So, how do you go about changing her mind – tell her straight up how you feel or concoct an elaborate plan to manipulate how she feels?

In a small Paris suburb the most profitable business is the world’s oldest profession to which the police look the other way when not partaking themselves. New police officer Nestor Patou (Jack Lemmon) arrives and is honest as the day is long, shocked to find the pretty young lady Irma (Shirley MacLaine) he was chatting to is one of the prostitutes he arrests when he leads a raid on the Hotel Casanova.

Unfortunately for Nestor, his superior Inspector Lefevre (Herschel Bernardi) was one of the clients at the hotel and fires him. Taking pity on Nestor, Irma invites him to move in with her. They fall in love and Nestor wants Irma to give up working and be only his but she refuses as she earns big money. On the advice of bistro owner Moustache (Lou Jacobi), Nestor invents a wealthy English client Lord X, to wean Irma off other men.

Billy Wilder was a genius of cinema but even he couldn’t make this adaptation of a French stage musical into a big screen classic. Irma La Douce by Marguerite Monnot and Alexandre Breffort might have worked as a musical if someone like Gene Kelly taken the reins, and whilst enjoyable, Wilder and collaborator I.A.L Diamond made it into a tidy but plodding farce.

Running close to 2 ½ hours, this is one of Wilder’s longer films, making one wonder how long the musical was with the songs in place. The story holds up well enough for the duration albeit subject to excessive padding, with the farcical nature of the comedy and the spirited performances proving a solid anchor for the audience’s interest.

The film kicks off by introducing Irma in her trademark green top, black skirt, and green stockings, and her little alcoholic dog, entertaining clients at the hotel. Each time, when a client asks why she is in this profession, Irma spins a different yarn to squeeze more money out of them – a former classical pianist who broke her hand, an orphan helping to rebuild her old home, or a sick sister in need of an operation.

Most of her money goes to her abusive pimp, the burly Hippolyte (Bruce Yarnell), the top guy in the area because of Irma’s popularity. Nestor’s incorruptible virtue means an immediate personality clash; when Hippolyte bullies Irma, Nestor stands up for her and in true comic fashion after a one-sided beating, scores an unlikely a victory over the big guy, earning Irma’s love and the respect of the other pimps.

Considering this was made in 1963, the idea a Hollywood film would in effect be pushing prostitution as an acceptable profession and not demonising its workers in the process feels rather surreal. We know France is far more laissez-faire about this but the Hays Code was still in effect at this point, and whilst nothing sexual or raunchy is shown, the women are all bold characters, vivacious and unashamed of their work.  

Perhaps that was the point – to encourage discussion about the merits of this as job and portray the woman as people who need to put food on the table like anyone else. Irma justifies her ire at being asked to get a better job by pointing out one her clients is a mortician. There is also an interesting twist in gender politics as Nestor wants to get a job, and Irma is distraught she’ll look bad if her man had to work as that is her role.

Nestor is forced to get a job – many jobs in fact – to fund his ruse as English gent Lord X, a “what ho” type caricature with pin stripe suit, bowler hat and umbrella, 400 acre land with a 96 bedroom castle in Yorkshire. He visits Irma once a week and pays her 500 francs to be exclusive to her, allowing Irma to spend time with Nestor, except he is sneaking out at night to earn the money to pay Irma!

As expected, this will backfire badly but there are still some twists left, if only things had moved a lot quicker. The Lord X ruse doesn’t begin until over an hour into the film and the result is rushed denouement. A huge chunk of the middle portion could have been trimmed to keep things moving, instead in meanders despite the material being intrinsic to the plot, a rare misstep by Wilder.

Wilder at least had the foresight to reunite Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine for this film following the Oscar wining success of The Apartment, the duo’s onscreen chemistry working its magic once again. Lemmon may have had the more adventurous role in doing double duty but it was MacLaine who won the Best Actress Oscar for playing Irma in what is a personable and insightful performance.

Backing them up is Lou Jacobi as Moustache, a man with a thousand stories about his past life, having dabbled in everything from the military to the medical and in between, whose catchphrase “That’s another story” is another classic Wilder last line. A quick note that one of Irma’s clients was a young Bill Bixby, who Nestor pushes over a table – it was weird to see Bixby take a fall and not have his eyes turn green…

Irma La Douce is a good hugely fun film with a sharp, witty script, great visuals, and top performances that began with the promise of being another Wilder classic but sadly fell short due to the bloated presentation. Would Wilder make a comeback from this? Well, that’s another story…

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