If The Apartment was the very apogee of the Billy Wilder–IAL Diamond–Jack Lemmon–Shirley MacLaine oeuvre, then what are we to make of Irma la Douce? To begin with it is totally different, being a light, frothy comedy – albeit a tad risqué for 1961 – based on a 1956 French stage musical of the same name, shot in colour and lacking the understated darkness and irony of the earlier smash hit.
It made money at the box office, as you would expect with the involvement of director and stars, and is unquestionably better than a thousand lame comedies you’ve seen before. The trouble is, Wilder, Lemmon and MacLaine set the bar pretty high with The Apartment, such that by comparison this is not quite the effervescent heart-gladdening romp it promises to be.
The plot relies on charm, since a comedy about prostitution is certainly more France than Hollywood. Compared with Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which in its day was equally a romcom that shocked for the same reasons, this is a soft approach, certainly not one to which anybody could take offence – or so you would think.
What happens is almost incidental, though it will remind you more of Feydeau farce with mistaken identify than anything else (see plot at the bottom, courtesy of Wikipedia.) The laughs are more slapstick than verbal, such as the drunken Nestor Patou’s fight with Hippolyte the pimp, and working the markets at Les Halles (and nice to see the narrator Louis Jourdan pronouncing it correctly as “lay ‘alles”) while dead on his feet while working all hours to keep his girl off the streets (note the still pic of a drowsy Lemmon alongside a string of pig heads.)
MacLaine won another Oscar nomination for her role as the streetwalking Irma, demonstrating what a capable and versatile actress she is, and all the more alluring for posing with a cute face and green bra. Irma la ever-so-douce she unquestionably achieves!
But Lemmon as Patou? It’s not that he does anything wrong, in fact he does a fine comic turn as an English gent, but frankly he looks out of sorts. Where the downtrodden company guy in The Apartment was Lemmon to a tee, here he is charming, but out of his comfort zone. Not that Patou is not downtrodden, but clearly he is not streetwise as a cop and lacks the nous or aggression to be a pimp, thus appealing to the ineffectual side of Lemmon’s screen persona. To an extent he plays the Norman Wisdom of his day, though his best acting uses verbal than physical cues – as witnessed in The Apartment.
Ah but despite all the shenanigans, you always get a happy ending and a warm glow to take home in a Wilder movie, and this is no exception. Everyone goes home satisfied… and Wilder went on to make many more movies – though it’s for past glories he will best be remembered, with good cause.
Irma la Douce [“Irma the Sweet”] tells the story of Nestor Patou (Jack Lemmon), an honest cop, who after being transferred from the park Bois de Boulogne to a more urban neighborhood in Paris, finds a street full of prostitutes working at the Hotel Casanova and proceeds to raid the place. The police inspector, who is Nestor’s superior, and the other policemen, have been aware of the prostitution, but tolerate it in exchange for bribes. The inspector, a client of the prostitutes himself, fires Nestor, who is accidentally framed for bribery.
Kicked off the force and humiliated, Nestor finds himself drawn to the very neighborhood that ended his career with the Paris police – returning to Chez Moustache, a popular hangout for prostitutes and their pimps. Down on his luck, Nestor befriends Irma La Douce (Shirley MacLaine), a popular prostitute. He also reluctantly accepts, as a confidant, the proprietor of Chez Moustache, a man known only as “Moustache.” In a running joke, Moustache (Lou Jacobi), a seemingly ordinary barkeep, tells of a storied prior life – claiming to have been, among other things, an attorney, a colonel, and a doctor, ending with the repeated line, “But that’s another story.” After Nestor defends Irma against her pimp boyfriend, Hippolyte, Nestor moves in with her, and he soon finds himself as Irma’s new pimp.
Jealous of the thought of Irma being with other men, Nestor comes up with a plan to stop Irma’s prostitution. But he soon finds out that it is not all that it is cracked up to be. He invents an alter-ego, “Lord X”, a British lord, who “becomes” Irma’s sole client. Nestor’s plans to keep Irma off the streets soon backfire and she becomes suspicious, since Nestor must work long and hard to earn the cash “Lord X” pays Irma. When Irma decides to leave Paris with the fictitious Lord X, Nestor decides to end the charade. Unaware he is being tailed by Hippolyte, he finds a secluded stretch along the river Seine and tosses his disguise into it. Hippolyte, not having seen Nestor change his clothes, sees “Lord X”‘s clothes floating in the water, and concludes Nestor murdered him. Before Nestor is arrested Moustache advises him not to reveal that Lord X was a fabrication. He tells him, “The jails are full of innocent people because they told the truth.” Nestor admits to having killed Lord X, but only because of his love for Irma.
Hauled off to jail, but with Irma in love with him, Nestor is sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor. Learning that Irma is pregnant Nestor escapes from prison, with Moustache’s help, and returns to Irma. He narrowly avoids being recaptured when the police search for him in Irma’s apartment, but donning his old uniform Nestor simply blends in with the other police. With the help of Hippolyte, Nestor arranges for the police to search for him along the Seine from which, dressed as Lord X, he emerges. Knowing he cannot be rearrested for a murder the police now know did not occur, Nestor rushes to the church, where he plans to marry Irma. As she walks down the aisle she begins to experience contractions and they continue during the wedding ceremony. Nestor and Irma barely make it through the ceremony before she goes into labor and delivers their baby. While Nestor and everyone else is occupied with Irma, Moustache notices one of the guests sitting alone at the front of the church. Rising from his seat and walking past Moustache, the guest is none other than Lord X! A clearly baffled Moustache looks at Lord X, and then at the audience. “But that’s another story,” he says.