Wilder: Irma La Douce (1963) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Wilder: Irma La Douce (1963)

Comedy about a Parisian policeman (Jack Lemmon) who becomes the lover (and unwilling pimp) of a carefree street-walker (Shirley Maclaine). After falling in love with her, the officer conspires to limit her occupation by taking on an alter-ego, "Lord X", (Jack Lemmon) to serve as her sole client. Adapted from a successful musical.

Danny no longer writes for Can't Stop the Movies, and can be reached at his fantastic site Pre-Code.com


Wilder tried. I think that's the worst you can say about Irma La Douce, which is kind of like Amelie for the Mad Men generation. There's a definite seediness that radiates throughout the movie, as we watch a hapless sap of a police man go from naivete personified to full blown pimp. The film's attempts to morally justify this radiate with bad taste, and you get the feeling that Wilder may not have any idea where to pull back on the harness.

It's colorful-- I read one review that said it was a musical in every sense except that there are no songs-- and the emotions are big and goofy. There are some fantastic gags, and, once again, imagining anyone but Jack Lemmon as the poor schlub, is almost unthinkable; MacLaine, too, sells Irma's belief in the wonders of prostitution to a brilliant degree.

What it also feels like is that Wilder wanted the opportunity to go back and redo Love in the Afternoon. We even get the same sort of opening, babbling on about the romance of France, up to and including the suggestive street cleaning vehicle. There are other interesting reversals as well, since this one involves Lemmon's disguise that destroys his life rather than save it, like in Some Like it Hot. There's so many things Wilder is trying to upend it gets completely ludicrous after a while, which at least fits in with the film's tone.

Which, again, is both smutty and extremely silly. The film goes off the wheels so quietly its hard to notice, which is almost genius. Eventually the film's unreality folds in on itself, giving us one of the funniest endings I think Wilder ever managed to pull off. It's an extraordinarily well made movie, I just think its veneer of fiction overtakes it and robs it of any real emotion.

Ryan, that brings me to the big question for you: I know how much you love The Apartment. Did it cheer you up to see Lemmon and MacLaine conspicuously copulate this go around?

Irma2Ryan COMMENTARY w/o Rating

They finally did the deed but yet the pair still seemed to play cards together on the bed more than use it for other reasons. Color me surprised with this movie because I actually enjoyed it. While it isn't another Some Like it Hot I did find the movie to be charming. I know that this film was originally a musical and I am very glad that Wilder decided to go another way this film because no one needed another Emperor Waltz.

I didn't have good feelings about the film when as you stated it started exactly like Love in the Afternoon, which I find to be merely OK. Then McClaine and Lemmon show up and the movie becomes a fun little picture. The two have great chemistry together and actually elevate the movie in my eyes, which I find funny because many times I think Wilder's writing elevates the actors role, look no further than A Foreign Affair for this.

There have been a few movies where I would have LOVED to see Wilder's original casting like Cary Grant in Love in the Afternoon or Walter Matthau in Seven Year Itch but I am glad how Irma's casting came about because McClaine was fun as the "hooker with a heart of gold" and Lou Jacobi as Moustache was 100% a Wilder role and I wouldn't want to see it any other way. What about you Danny, would you have rather of seen Marilyn Monroe and Charles Laughton in the film if they would not have died before cameras rolled?


I'd heard the Monroe rumor, but Laughton? Jeez, that's a little hard to buy. I think Lemmon and Monroe may have worked, simply because she'd be ditzy enough, but I don't know if she could have sold Irma's diehard belief in prostitution with as much sincerity.It's kind of hard to pin down what the message Irma La Douce is getting across besides falling down on the negative side of jealousy. While there's a lot of pageantry and noise throughout the picture, and while it's enjoyable, it doesn't seem to add up to a whole lot. I do give Wilder credit for one thing though: this is the first Parisan comedy he's done where it doesn't feel like Lubitsch is slathered all over the frame.

Irma is still a funny little movie, but watching it, I can't shake the feeling that Wilder is slipping. It's well made and has great stars, but the film's content delves into the seedy, and it bounces around so much that it's hard to get a handle on. I think if I knew something better was coming along I could regard this as a mere hiccup, but I know that's not the case. By this time, the heavily restrictive Production Code is vanishing, and Wilder finally is getting a chance to make films without censorship in the way. Unfortunately, to me, it always seemed like instead of giving him ample opportunity to take on interesting subject matters, he instead just uses it to goose up his films, taking them from dirty jokes to dirty jokes with an extra eyebrow wiggle at the end.

What do you think, Ryan-- do you think the censorship of films in the previous three decades made Wilder look good by rewarding cleverness? Or do you think the man was just getting old?

Irma5Ryan COMMENTARY w/o Rating

I could see Laughton for Mustache but Jacobi was really good so it worked out in the end. I think what you are seeing with Wilder is a combination of the two things you mentioned. Hollywood was changing and Wilder was either too old or stubborn to change with them. He always called himself a studio director even though he had a level of control that was not very common at the time and wasn't prepared for the changing of the culture.

Wilder was perfect at getting through jokes that were dirty but clever in their double meaning but when the collar of the production code was off from around his neck he turned into a dirty old man. The first instances of this was in the awful Seven Year Itch were many of the men are horny jokes fell REAL flat for me and we saw it more with the Russians in One, Two, Three. With Irma La Douce, I didn't see it as much as you because Irma is very up front with her sexuality and Nestor was too smitten that the women are never leered at in this movie like some Wilder's others.

One more thing I wanted to ask you about, and something that surprisingly bothered me was the lack of accents in this film. I have read that Wilder was bugged by the fact all of the French characters had American accents but I just chuckled thinking that it was Wilder still sore about a self-perceived creative (but not financial) misfire of his. Then I watched the film and could not imagine a movie that felt less like Paris than this film. It was obviously filmed on a sound stage and starred two very popular actors with their own accents. There was nothing that gave it a French flare and that was something Wilder got right not 10 years before with Love in the Afternoon.

Do you think that Lemmon and McClaine should have done their best Pepe Le Pew accents to at least try to make it seem like Paris? Should Wilder of just conceded the fact and set it in New York like The Apartment? This really did bug me in the film, but hey, at least it is the first color picture Wilder has made that I enjoyed.

Well, one out of three ain't bad, right? No, I see what you're saying with the accents and the sound stage. The movie is so deliberately set in a fictional construct of Paris anyway that I didn't really mind the lack of real Paris. It's so fake it turns into fairy tale fake, where the Parisians are New Yorkers and pimping is a fine career for a young man to go into.Setting it in New York may have removed that, as the whole movie is predicated on being the silliest trifle in the world. It's hard to make New York silly.

But, as it is, Irma La Douce is a goofy little farce, even if it's as deep as a puddle. Before we wrap this up, Ryan, do you have a favorite scene from the picture? The final two appearances of Lord X are probably the funniest, Irma dancing on the pool table the sweetest, but, for my money, the best is Nestor's escape from prison, which is done in the most deadpan manner and pays off brilliantly.

Irma4Ryan COMMENTARY w/o Rating
The break out scene and the apartment search were both directed and acted superbly but the thing that made me chuckle the most was every time Mustache said "but that is another story". I always knew it was coming but it always worked thanks to the delivery. I also enjoyed the scene where Irma is stripping and Nestor is furiously hanging newspapers as fake blinds, good god could Lemmon sell those scenes so well. I will try to remember these good thoughts and moments as we move into the next movie because if memory serves, there isn't too much about Kiss me Stupid to look back on fondly.

The Films of Billy Wilder

Posted by Danny

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