Saturday 10 September 2016

Movie Review: Irma La Douce (1963)

A grand comedy and romance, Irma La Douce delves into the business of working girls and finds good laughs while refreshingly avoiding any hints of moralizing.

In Paris, honest police officer Nestor Patou (Jack Lemmon) is newly assigned to the Casanova red light district, where prostitutes rule the street. The cafe run by the colourful Moustache (Lou Jacobi) is the local hangout for the girls and their pimps. Irma La Douce (Shirley MacLaine), famous for her green stockings and small pet dog, is the most popular of the girls, although she is treated roughly by her pimp Hippolyte (Bruce Yarnell).

The well-meaning but naive Nestor quickly gets himself into trouble by instigating a raid that disrupts the happy balance between the business of prostitution and police kick-backs. He is fired from the force, and after tangling with Hippolyte pursues a friendship with Irma that becomes a romance. But Nestor cannot stand the idea of his girl working as a prostitute, so with Moustache's help he adopts the secret disguise and persona of a wealthy British upper crust gentleman known only as Lord X, to richly pay for monopolizing Irma's time and eliminate the need for other customers. But Nestor is actually broke, so his already complex plan is bound to backfire in unexpected ways.

Directed by Billy Wilder, Irma La Douce is colourful and jovial, but also overlong and stretched too thin for the available material. The decision to strip the music out of the French stage musical while still aiming for 147 minutes of running time is curious. Wilder gets away with it thanks to a sharp script co-written with regular collaborator I.A.L Diamond, but a good 25 minutes could have been stripped off with no loss in quality.

This takes nothing away from what makes it onto the screen. The film is hugely enjoyable, with both Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine in fine form. The stars previously teamed with Wilder on The Apartment and quickly slip into a zone of comic comfort. Lemmon gets to play two roles as Nestor Patou and Lord X, and in the guise of the latter he gets an opportunity to finally drop the befuddled everyman routine and spreads his wings as the quirky made-up English Lord. To make the point that the hapless remain hapless in any disguise, Patou financially drowns into further debt as the Lord, before finding himself accused of an unlikely murder.

MacLaine is steady as Irma, a grounded prostitute with a pragmatic outlook on her lot in life. Neither a whore with a heart of gold nor a caustic messed-up fallen woman, Irma is a businesswoman who is good at what she does and looks for opportunities to maximize profit while improving work conditions and take-home benefits.

The big bonus surprise of Irma La Douce is Lou Jacobi. A reliable source of laughs, he handles all the heavy lifting in the main supporting role of Moustache. The cafe owner with a chequered life history featuring numerous other professions, Moustache keeps his tall tales to the point, and all his sharp recollections end with the trademark but that's another story. For a long film, the rest of the supporting cast is poorly defined and listless.

Wilder breaks away from stage constraints and keeps the action moving between several locations (all unfortunately in the studio). The sets include the street, the cafe, a Casanova hotel room, a police station, Irma's apartment, a bustling farmer's market and a walkway by the Seine.

Irma La Douce pushes the envelope of what was acceptable in 1963 in terms of portraying sexuality and eroticism in a big budget Hollywood production. The business of sex is presented as a natural part of Parisian society, and in addition to not judging the prostitutes, MacLaine (in a role originally intended for Marilyn Monroe) goes to bed naked and slips in and out of a succession of revealing outfits and lingerie. Lemmon is much more clumsy, but also gets to undress.

Humorous, vivid and just a tad overblown, Irma La Douce is an amusing romp through the hazards of an unlikely romance.

All Ace Black Movie Blog Reviews are here.

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