IRMA LA DOUCE: Blu-ray (United Artists, 1963) Kino Lorber
The films of Billy Wilder are rife in the director’s particular brand of razorback cynicism, infused with a robust nurturing of stark – even cruel – irony. In his time Wilder, as with all truly great directors of any generation, was dismissively – even begrudgingly – praised, then pitched from pillar to post as the critic’s favorite piñata. His clear-eyed and uncompromising stance on humanity, as variants from either the ‘schemer’ or ‘fool’s ilk have been crudely misrepresented in critical discourse ad nauseam and ever since as grotesque miscalculations, lacking the clout of psychoanalysis his indifferent, if vigilant, style mandates. Indeed, in many retrospectives on his life and career, Wilder’s Irma La Douce (1963) never gets mentioned, or, at best, is indifferently glossed over as a footnote. Yet arguably, it remains the pinnacle of Wilder’s daring to challenge the dying, though not quite as yet dead, status quo. Relying heavily on the award-winning chemistry of his partnership with stars, Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine (the two having made magical music together in Wilder’s Oscar-worthy, The Apartment (1960), Irma La Douce takes director, Susan Seidelman’s rank assessment of what all romantic comedy should be about – “You introduce the man and the woman…then you complicate things” – to its absolute extreme. MacLaine, herein gets cast as the thoroughly misguided and unrepentant prostitute of the title, while Lemmon, mugs over-the-top as a pair of Lochinvars; disgraced Sûreté nationale officer cum Irma’s unlikely pimp/lover, Nestor Patou, and, conversely, her best customer, Brit-born aristocrat, Lord X.
Irma La Douce is very loosely based on Marguerite Monnot and Alexandre Breffort’s French stage musical of the same name that debuted in 1956. Wilder and his longtime collaborator, I.A.L. Diamond have masterfully reworked the material here as an astringent comedy of errors, conspirators on their most abrasive and satirical souffle to date. Our Irma is unabashedly a whore, manipulating clientele out of their last dollar (she even accepts traveler’s checks) and working the Parisian red light district from sunset to sun-up in order to satisfy the expensive tastes of her rather brutish handler, Hippolyte (Bruce Yarnell). A word about Yarnell, a thoroughly enigmatic performer in this film, whose career on Broadway and even the opera as a rich baritone was cut short by a plane crash in 1973. He was only 37 years old. Irma La Douce would be lesser a picture without Yarnell’s slick and stylish hood – a real villain we can love to hate and, in tandem, laugh at when his comeuppance is due.
Jack Lemmon is cast as Irma’s soulmate…sort of; a good cop ejected from the force, fallen hard for this gal of easy virtue. Nobly having defended Irma’s honor, Lemmon is working against type as the generally good sport with a venial mean streak of jealousy. This distrust drives Nestor to wild distraction and manifests itself in a deliciously devious plot, conceived for Irma to work the streets for just one wealthy client – as she absolutely refuses to give up ‘the life’ for anyone, even the man she professes to love. So, Nestor fabricates the elusive English ham, Lord X as a viable alter ego, in search – not for sex – but 500 francs-worth of meaningful conversation and card-playing in an upstairs bedroom. To earn the cash to support this habit, Nestor borrows heavily from Moustache (the divine Lou Jacobi in a part originally slated for Charles Laughton); a well-intended jack-of-all trades (master of none), managing the local watering hole where Irma, her cohorts and their pimps meet between turning tricks.
As with all of Wilder’s effervescent gems, on the surface at least, Irma La Douce unfolds as a lithe little tale about a girl and boy. The fact one happens to be working in the world’s oldest profession while the other staunchly refuses to accept her charity as an opportunistic lover provides the basis for some truly raucous miscommunication. I suspect Wilder’s chief fascination is with the strain generated from all this misdirection. Undeniably, finding devilish ways to titillate and charm in tandem is his métier and a real boost for this rom/com. Nowhere else in Wilder’s catalog do the lovers in question suffer as greatly, both ‘in’ and ‘for’ their artful subterfuge. At times, it is, in fact, quite heartrending to observe the inelegance of this couple’s severely flawed grand amour, further interrupted by Nestor’s incarceration for a murder he did not commit. Irma La Douce was originally begun by Wilder and Diamond with Marilyn Monroe in mind; Wilder, having worked with Monroe on the iconic, Some Like It Hot (1959). Despite setbacks incurred on the set of that picture (Wilder later recalling Monroe’s epic lack of concentration, shooting upwards of 52 takes to get her to say one line, “It’s me, Sugar.”), he clearly recognized Monroe’s cache as both a box office sexpot and grand comedienne. Alas, Monroe’s untimely passing in ’62 necessitated a change of plans, as did the death of Charles Laughton, originally slated to play the barkeeper, Moustache. And thus, MacLaine (much later to quip she had played more loose women than Hollywood madam, Heidi Fleiss had in her employ) was primed for the part. It goes without saying MacLaine is a gifted actress. Indeed, I suspect this to be the heft of our accepting her as a prostitute. She even adopts Monroe’s trademark hip swivel to ascend the stairs of a seedy hotel.
In past representations of prostitution at the movies (even, a good many from more recent times), such characters are ascribed traits severely skewed to infer the proverbial ‘heart of gold’. That Wilder should deprive Irma of as much – she is, in fact, entrenched in a thoughtless self-serving, and, thoroughly misguided motivations, at times with unrelieved nastiness and contempt for all things noble (including Nestor, who she blindly suspects of diddling the competition behind her back) – should normally cause the audience to shift its empathies to Jack Lemmon’s put-upon prisoner-of-war in this ‘love takes all’ dramedy. Except that Lemmon’s Nestor Patou is hardly as pure as the driven snow either; faulted by a sanctimonious conscience and a streak of perverted over-protectiveness, increasingly to cloud his better judgement and obscure a morality he so clearly professes to aspire to live by.
After an exuberant prologue, set to Andre Previn’s Oscar-winning underscore, and, illustrating Irma’s manipulative nature with her clientele (she tells each a different sob story about her supposedly troubled youth and reasons she has ‘fallen’ to a life of prostitution – incurring the client’s guilt and more money left behind on the bureau), Irma La Douce (Irma – the sweet) begins in earnest with Nestor’s police transfer from the Bois de Boulogne to Paris’ seedier market square district. There, Nestor unearths an enclave of hookers openly working the Hotel Casanova. Stricken with what he perceives to be his moral obligation, Nestor raids the Casanova and has everyone taken into custody. Police Inspector Lefevre (Hershel Bernardi), Nestor's superior, is well aware of the vices operating in the market district. They have been allowed to go on with his complicity, as Lefevre is not only flush with bribes to keep these whores a growing concern, but also has been a very good client at the Casanova in the not-so-distant past. Unable to quantify his reasons – without reprisals – Lefevre dismisses Nestor and later, frames him for bribery.
Disgraced, Nestor returns to the red-light district and Chez Moustache, the corner tavern where the whores and their slick pimps convene. Demoralized, Nestor is nevertheless befriended by Irma La Douce, the district’s most popular working girl. Inadvertently, he also makes rather a bad enemy of Irma’s flashy handler, Hippolyte. Although hopelessly outclassed in both muscle and youth, Nestor’s feistiness rises to a valiant defense of Irma’s honor, after Hippolyte abuses her in public. This confrontation ends with Nestor’s victory. Smitten, Irma immediately dumps Hippolyte and escorts Nestor back to her tiny flat to show her appreciation. Nestor need never worry about money again. She will work the streets day and night if necessary, to keep him in a manner to which he will most certainly never become accustomed. Outfitted in dandy duds as a common flesh trader, Nestor reluctantly befriends the tavern’s barkeeper, known only as ‘Moustache’; a real bon vivant who relays his storied life of extraordinary experiences as a one-time attorney, colonel, and, doctor…always prematurely concluding with the running tag, ‘But that's another story.’
From the outset, Nestor’s management of Irma is flawed. He cannot abide a woman who would think nothing of selling her body to other men while coming home to lay next to him. After all, Nestor loves Irma far too much to share her with anyone. So, after some nerve-jangling jealousy pushes this cocky rooster too far, Nestor lights upon an idea to prevent Irma from squandering her ‘talents’ on other clientele. He will disguise himself as a British aristocrat whose frequent business dealing in Paris allows him to hire Irma for just one evening a week, but at a hefty price of 500 francs; enough cool cash for Irma to refuse other clients. Moustache thinks the plan total absurd, but reluctantly affords Nestor 500 francs and the use of his basement for quick changes to become the infamous Lord X. Having squandered the first 500 francs lent to him by Moustache but returned to Nestor after Irma’s first encounter with Lord X (follow that?), Nestor’s plan to maintain his revolving line of credit with Moustache backfires. Nestor is forced to go to work. Although he is not averse to hard labor, Nestor must sneak away from Irma’s flat after midnight, working the market square as a meat cutter, fruit seller, and street janitor to maintain the pretense of Lord X’s lavish lifestyle. At first, Irma does not suspect a thing. Nestor is back in bed – only moments before she stirs from her restful slumber. Regrettably, Nestor’s midnight moonlighting takes its toll on his body. He needs to sleep by day, just as Irma wants to do other things with her lover.
Worse, Irma has begun to harbor genuine empathy toward Lord X. Could she ascend to the aristocracy as the mistress of a great house? Stranger things have happened…or rather, are about to in Wilder’s wild ride. Indeed, Lord X never exploits Irma for her body. Instead, he fills her mind with lurid stories of a ‘fabricated’ unhappy marriage, and his extreme boredom with fictional wealth that has not brought him true happiness. Irma kisses Lord X on the cheek, leaving behind a red lipstick stain as her souvenir. Alas, when later she meets up with Nestor at the tavern, Irma mistakes the fresh smudge as having come from another hooker, Lolita (Hope Holiday) who is flirting with Nestor right under her nose. Accusing Nestor of cheating, Irma retreats to another rendezvous with Lord X. She discusses her leaving France to come live with him at one of his castles in Britain. Unable to come up with a viable reason why this arrangement would never work, Nestor decides to take Lord X’s cane, bowler, clothes and briefcase and submerge them in the Seine. Unaware he is being followed by Hippolyte, Nestor tosses these ‘remains’ into the water, declaring a fond farewell to his alter ego. Already having experienced his adversary’s temper, and now, mistaking this incident for the crime of murder, Hippolyte calls the Sûreté. As a result, Nestor is promptly arrested by Lefevre.
Moustache quietly promises Nestor everything will turn out right in the end, owing to his one-time prowess in the courtroom. Regrettably, Nestor is instead sentenced to life in prison. Moustache visits him in jail, sneaking in multiple pantyhose he encourages Nestor to tie together and use to climb from his third-story cell to his waiting car. Fooling one of the guards outside, who briefly informs Moustache he cannot park there, Nestor and Moustache stage a daring escape. Nestor arrives at Irma’s flat only to discover she is with child. He offers to marry her. But she informs him the child is not his but (wait for it) Lord X’s. Overjoyed, as the baby is still his, Nestor and Irma’s renewed pledge of devotion is short-lived as Lefevre and a small army of officers arrive on the scene. Cleverly, Nestor disguises himself in his old policeman’s uniform and proceeds, along with the other officers, to investigate the apartment without anyone suspecting his presence.
Deliberately engaging Hippolyte for the next part of his ruse, Nestor arranges to have Lefevre and his men scour the banks of the Seine for him. Instead, Nestor rises from the waters bedecked as the elusive Lord X. Startled by his reappearance, Lefevre has no choice but to dismiss the charges of murder against Nestor. He cannot be charged twice for a crime that never occurred. Determined to make an honest woman of Irma, Nestor is late arriving at the church. The bride is walked down the aisle by Moustache as a small contingent of onlookers, mostly populated by Irma’s fellow working girls and their clientele gather for the celebration. Irma’s water breaks in the middle of their nuptials. She is hurriedly escorted to a nearby vestibule where she delivers a healthy baby girl. As everyone is much too busy celebrating the marriage and birth, Moustache perplexedly observes as a Brit-born aristocrat, bearing an uncanny resemblance to the fictional Lord X, quietly rises from his pew and strolls out of the cathedral. Unable to qualify what has just happened, Moustache addresses the camera with his ‘catch-all’ line, “But that’s another story.”
Ostensibly, the ending to Irma La Douce makes absolutely no sense. Clearly, Billy Wilder is going for the shock value alone; also, and quite likely to have anticipated the comic impact previously extracted from the likes of Joe E. Brown’s ‘Nobody’s perfect’ zinger, that capped off Some Like It Hot, or Shirley MacLaine’s more deliciously subdued ‘Shut up and deal’ repartee that concluded – but also typified the relationship between her Fran Kublick and Lemmon’s C.C. Baxter in The Apartment. Even so, the appearance of another Lord X in Irma La Douce is a bit of a red herring, rather cheaply tacked on to confound instead of conclude on a highly clever note. Regardless, Irma La Douce was Billy Wilder’s best received comedy to date, out-grossing even The Apartment (arguably, his best comedy) with $25,246,588 domestically, on a budget of barely $5 million. In a year that saw the release of Cleopatra, Hitchcock’s The Birds, Charade, The Great Escape, It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World, The Pink Panther, Hud, and the Oscar-winning Tom Jones, among many others, Irma La Douce ranked #5 in the heady list of bell-ringers for the year. And although Irma La Douce’s worldwide rentals would add another $15 million to this kitty, due to profit participation from Wilder and his co-stars, United Artists’ initial profit margin was a measly $440,000.
Viewed today, Irma La Douce represents Billy Wilder at his most audacious. Ironically, Shirley MacLaine did not think much of it, referring to the script as ‘crass and clumsy’. She had, in fact, agreed to do the movie before even reading its screenplay; her decision based solely on her equitable working relationship with Wilder and Lemmon in The Apartment. Fair enough, Hollywood’s Code of Ethics had relaxed some by the time the picture was released, although there was still enough residual clout in the Code to prevent Wilder from showing ‘everything’ on the screen. Even so, Irma La Douce packs a potent and politically incorrect wallop. Throughout the making of the movie, the MPPA repeatedly gave Wilder a hard time. So, I suspect it is no coincidence that the pimp’s union is nicknamed the ‘Mec’s Paris Protective Association (or MPPA) – Wilder’s less than subtle snub back at them. With the exception of some utterly ravishing establishing shots photographed on location in Paris by cinematographer extraordinaire, Joseph LaShelle, virtually all of Irma La Douce was made on sound stages in Hollywood, the sprawling Rue Casanova, built in forced perspective with scenically receding false fronts at a cost of $350,000 on the Goldwyn back lot, down to the last detail over three months. In total, 48 facades were laid out on three converging streets. For an air of authenticity, Production Designer Alexander Trauner had mullioned window glass, street lamps, door latches, fire hydrants, and other accoutrements, imported from Paris, incorporated into the set design.
It is perhaps interesting to consider what Irma La Douce might have been had the original Monnot/Breffort score survived the transition from stage to screen. As a musical show, Irma La Douce ran an impressive 524 performances and was even Tony-nominated for Best Original Musical. For decades thereafter, the official reason given for the alteration from stage to screen was Monnot’s songs were not all that memorable and Wilder felt they slowed down the plot. In reality, the lovely ballad ‘Our Language of Love’ survived, and, became the centerpiece of André Previn’s underscore, interpolated with other original orchestrations written by Previn that, nevertheless, intermittently paid homage to the original stagecraft with cues faintly reminiscent of the Broadway show. In reality, Wilder felt quite uncomfortable doing a musical, decidedly not his forte. Furthermore, he had Joshua Logan’s Fanny (1961) to turn to if anyone gave him grief; Fanny, an even more startling example of a hit musical that came to the screen as a serious melodrama instead. In the final analysis, Irma La Douce is enjoyable – and highly suggestive –a la the acerbic genius of Billy Wilder. Wilder and Diamond’s prickly dialogue pulls no punches. The characters are vintage Wilder too, at times – highly unlikable in their own right. And, while Wilder plays a mean game of tug-o-war with the audiences’ affections for Irma and Nestor, ultimately, it is Lemmon’s harried and harangued ‘mostly’ good guy who garners our empathy. Live ‘em. Leave ‘em. Love ‘em. You simply must!
Irma La Douce comes to Blu-ray via a sparkling new 4K remaster on Blu-ray via Kino Lorber. We give it to MGM/Fox when they decide to do good work. The quality shows. Irma La Douce’s original camera negative was in remarkably good shape. With the exception of minute dirt and scratches, the occasional speck and a few other anomalies baked in, what is here yields to a superior and thoroughly vibrant palette of colors, married to exceptional contrast and a modicum of film grain looking quite indigenous to its source. Could MGM/Fox have paid a bit more effort to remove the age-related stuff for a thoroughly pristine 1080p offering? Probably. Has their shortsightedness impacted our overall viewing pleasure? Not inordinately. Best to say the imperfections are present and accounted for without ever becoming distracting.
The audio is another matter entirely. Irma La Douce was never released theatrically in stereo but in mono Westrex. So, we really cannot fault MGM/Fox for not going the extra step to do a re-channeled stereo mix. The 2.0 mono DTS, however, suffers from some fairly glaring reverb. Andre Previn’s score, in particular, sounds tinny in spots, and scratchy and distorted in others, with slightly dupey and garbled dialogue scattered throughout. It’s not a great mix, I’ll grant you, but passable, I suppose, given source materials. We get two audio commentaries; the first, newly recorded by Kat Ellinger; the latter by Joseph McBride. I believe McBride’s was part of MGM/Fox’s DVD incarnation from some years ago. Personally, I prefer McBride’s commentary over Ellinger’s. He just seems better informed and offers a more diverse reading of the film. We also get theatrical trailers for other Kino Lorber product. Bottom line: very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)