Monday, May 20, 2019

Billy Wilder's Irma la Douce

Irma and her dog Coquette.
After ill-advisedly arresting eighteen Parisian prostitutes, the well-meaning Nestor Patou (Jack Lemmon) is fired from his job as a policeman. He takes an interest in one of the streetwalkers, Irma la Douce (Shirley MacLaine), and defends her honor when her "manager" starts to get too rough. To everyone's surprise--including Nestor's--he wins a brawl against Irma's bad-mannered pimp.

Impressed with Nestor defending her honor, she takes him to her apartment and they become lovers. She also convinces Nestor to become her new manager. He's uncomfortable with the arrangement and considers getting a job, but Irma won't have it. She explains: "You don't want the other girls to think I can't support my man."

Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon.
Determined to find a way to keep Irma off the streets, Nestor and a friend hatch a scheme. Nestor disguises himself as a wealthy British client, known as Lord X, who pays Irma $500 to play cards with him for two nights a week. She is thrilled with the arrangement! Nestor is pleased with the outcome, but now has to work secretly to earn the money to pay Irma. As his friend tells him, this is not a "sustainable economic model."

Irma la Douce (1963) and The Apartment (1960) share the same stars (Lemmon and MacLaine), director (Billy Wilder), and screenwriters (Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond). Although Irma was based on a French play and a successful Broadway musical, Wilder no doubt saw it as a likely extension of The Apartment. In his earlier film, Jack Lemmon's insurance worker loans out his apartment to his business colleagues in hopes of getting a promotion. That's not the same as a pimp, but he indirectly uses sex for financial gain. He becomes displeased with the arrangement only after learning that a woman he likes (played by Shirley MacLaine) is having an affair with one of the executives using his apartment.

Lemmon as Lord X.
Yet, while The Apartment was a superb sophisticated comedy-drama, Irma la Douce is a broad comedy that works reasonably well. Lemmon and MacLaine are still magical together and the best scenes--such as when Irma casually invites Nestor to share her bed--are the ones in which they share the screen. She earned an Oscar nomination as the streetwalker with a penchant for green (even her underwear is green) and who considers her job a profession. (Amazingly, she was Wilder's third choice after Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor dropped out). As in Some Like It Hot, Jack Lemmon essentially gives two performances, as Nestor and as Lord X (he is virtually unrecognizable, in appearance and voice).

James Caan as a client.
Lou Jacobi headlines the supporting cast as Nestor's unlikely friend, a bartender with experiences in pretty much every field of work. Look quickly and you can also spot a number of now-familiar faces: Bill Bixby, James Caan, Howard McNear (Floyd on The Andy Griffith Show), and Grace Lee Whitney (Janet Rand on the original Star Trek TV series).

If the great Billy Wilder had a flaw as a director, it was editing his own screenplays. Like several of his later movies, Irma la Douce is inflated at a whopping 143 minutes. Wilder could have easily trimmed a half-hour without losing any plot or characterization.  It's also puzzling that he chose not to include the musical numbers from the Broadway hit--especially once the multitalented MacLaine was cast as the lead.

Of course, Shirley MacLaine did get a chance to show her singing and dancing chops six years later in Sweet Charity (1969). Although she played a dancer-for-hire (or taxi dancer), her character was based on the titular heroine of Federico Fellini's Nights of Cabiria--who was a prostitute.


  1. Lou Jacobi is my favourite thing about this movie. The "inflation" you mentioned did me in. I saw a production of the musical once, and the same thing. Just too much show.

    1. It's not Shirley and Jack's best movie, but it's watchable. I think a musical would have worked better!

  2. I didn't care for this when I saw it on its original run, and I recently tried to watch it again (Couldn't get very far), but I will second the opinion that Jacobi is really good in here. He's also very good in Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex.

  3. I never considered the similarities between The Apartment and Irma, other than the stars, but you are right on about it. No doubt, The Apartment is the better film, but Irma is a lot of fun, and yes it could have been shorten without damage. I saw the film back when it came out thanks to an older cousin who went to the ticket window and bought the tickets I got in. Back then the movie was consider for adults only.

  4. I have never made it all the way through this film. Even though there's much to admire about it, I lose interest despite the fabulous cast. You've convinced me to give it another go.