Irma La Douce (1963)

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By Scott Ross

Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond followed The Apartment with the riotous One, Two, Three. That one was no blockbuster, but this wild adaptation of the Paris, London and Broadway success (sans musical numbers) was a huge hit — the last the pair would ever have. Wilder later admitted that the movie isn’t nearly French enough, and it does feel like an American comedy with the occasional bit of Gallic street patois and European attitude tossed in. Of course, the Parisian milieu of mecs and poulles couldn’t work in any other social setting, particularly an American one, and part of the fun of this slightly overlong but immensely enjoyable farce is the matter-of-fact way prostitution is woven into the economic fabric of Les Halles, where the story is set. In brief, it involves an honest cop called Nestor (Jack Lemmon) who falls in with the sweet-natured whore of the title (Shirley MacLaine) and becomes her pimp. The joke is that he grows insanely jealous of her customers. To keep them both going — and himself from the loony bin — Nestor enacts a charade in which he pretends to be an impotent nitwit of a British lord (concocted from parts of all the English movies he’s ever seen) who becomes Irma’s sole client, while working himself to shreds at night in a variety of menial jobs. The trouble is, Nestor eventually becomes inflamed with jealousy against his own doppelganger!

Note Lemmon in three keys: As flic Patou, mec Nestor and Monsieur X.

The movie is a racy variation on the old Molnar comedy The Guardsman, and a fine example of Wilder’s self-appraisal of his work as a mix of Lubitsch and Von Stroheim. Lemmon and MacLaine are dead perfect, as is Lou Jacobi as the story’s compere (a role Wilder originally intended for Charles Laughton.) Alexander Trauner’s main set is a superb evocation of Les Halles, and Marguerite Monnot’s songs were beautifully adapted (and enlarged upon) in Andre Previn’s exquisite score. Irma was Wilder’s first color movie since The Spirit of St. Louis, and it’s exquisitely photographed (by longtime Wilder confederate Joseph La Shelle), the pastels cheerfully offsetting the narrative’s essential sordidness.

The combined TV viewing of this and The Great Race (made a year later) when I was 11 introduced me to Jack Lemmon and started a one-way love affair with that absolutely essential American actor that will likely continue the rest of my life.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

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