Irma la Douce (1963)


(director/writer: Billy Wilder; screenwriters: from the play by Alexandre Breffort/I.A.L. Diamond; cinematographer: Joseph La Shelle; editor: Daniel Mandell; music: Andre Previn; cast: Jack Lemmon (Nestor Patou/Lord X), Shirley MacLaine (Irma La Douce), Lou Jacobi (Moustache), Bruce Yarnell (Hippolyte), Herschel Bernardi (Inspector Lefevre), Hope Holiday (Lolita), Grace Lee Whitney (Kiki the Cossack), Tura Satana (Suzette Wong), Bill Bixby (Tattooed Sailor), Herb Jones (Casablanca Charlie), Louis Jourdan (Narrator); Runtime: 143; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Billy Wilder; MGM/UA Home Entertainment; 1963)

“Though the saucy French soufflé has a few tasty moments it mostly sinks into being tasteless fare.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Billy Wilder (“Sunset Boulevard”/”The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes”/”The Fortune Cookie”) directs this mostly unfunny, minor, one-tracked, silly, dated romantic-comedy about Gallic naughtiness that has little redeeming social value, lots of sentimentality, and a caustic humor that’s done in by its soft-hearted cynicism. It’s based on the popular 1956 French stage musical by Alexandre Breffort (the songs are removed, later Broadway returned them for its hit show with a Brit cast) and cowritten by Wilder and his regular collaborator I.A.L. Diamond. Andre Previn won the Oscar for Best Music Score. This stinker became Wilder’s biggest grossing film of the 1960s, and the film itself was the fourth biggest grossing film of 1963. The exterior shots were filmed in Paris but all the interior shots were filmed on the Sam Goldwyn lot in Hollywood, where Alexander Trauner designed an authentic Parisian red-light district.

It has naive beat policeman Nestor Patou (Jack Lemmon), a medal recipient for rescuing a child in a playground, transferred to the Paris meatmarket area known for its red-light district. In his exuberance Nestor raids a block full of prostitutes that results in the arrests of his chief; this results in his getting kicked off the force. Fortunately he’s befriended by the cunning owner and bartender of the Cafe Moustache (Lou Jacobi) and by the feisty streetwalker with the ‘heart of gold’ Irma La Douce (Shirley MacLaine). When he defeats her bullying pimp (Bruce Yarnell) in a fight, he’s asked to replace the pimp and becomes her “mec.” The jealous romantic falls for her and gets around that pimp assignment by getting outside work in the nearby Les Halles foodmarket to make enough dough so he can disguise himself as a wealthy English lord, sporting buck-teeth and an eyepatch, and becomes her sole customer paying her a large sum of money for her favors–such as playing cards. Unfortunately while he works and is always absent, she becomes jealous that he’s two-timing her with one of the other streetwalkers like Lolita (Hope Holiday).

The barbs against “bourgeois hypocrisy” had no punch, all the brashness is reduced to worthless clichés, and though the saucy French soufflé has a few tasty moments it mostly sinks into being tasteless fare served up as an American touristy version of what a Paris tart is supposed to be like. Why such a thin story had to be so long and thought of as so important, is also something that Wilder had trouble figuring out with some of his later films that also turned out to be mediocre. Lemon and MacLaine collaborated before in the 1960 The Apartment.