March 17, 2006
Irma la Douce (1963)
Grade: 61/100

Director: Billy Wilder
Stars: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Lou Jacobi

What it's about. Jack Lemmon becomes Shirley MacLaine's pimp, then prevents her from seeing other men by impersonating a wealthy client. His cause is aided by resourceful bartender Lou Jacobi.

How others will see it. This entertaining comedy is never credible throughout, but it's doubtful that anyone watching will care. Lemmon and MacLaine not only re-create their screen chemistry from another Wilder film, The Apartment, but improve upon it, probably because the issues of morality and corruption are celebrated rather than condemned.

This is possible because the setting is changed from The Apartment's New York City to France, a mythical country where everyone wears bright clothing and acts with style.

Indeed, the most curious thing about Irma la Douce is its relative obscurity. Heralded director Wilder's upbeat sex comedy is little-seen, and the story is better known as a stage musical than as a movie.

Perhaps Irma la Douce was wrong for its era. Although more risque than Guys and Dolls, it has a similar fifties flavor. True, the defining events of the sixties, such as the Kennedy assassination and the Vietnam War, were yet to come. Still, Irma la Douce has the feel of a colorful fifties musical. It doesn't fit with the best films of the time, which tended to be dark comedies and dramas filmed in black and white, such as Dr. Strangelove and The Hustler. If Irma la Douce is out of time, that shouldn't be held against it critically. But it may explain its cultural obsolescence.

How I felt about it. The characters are exaggerated, and the situations are contrived. But it's a comedy, and liberties are thus more acceptable. Lemmon changes from a goody two-shoes vice cop into a pimp, then he has a dual life as a night laborer and as a parody of an English aristocrat. He's not a character, he's a chameleon, similar to his careening character turns in Wilder's notorious Some Like it Hot.

Because it's a movie, MacLaine can't figure out that Lord X is Jack Lemmon, and no one informs her that Lemmon is working all night at a market. And because it's a movie, Lemmon goes to ridiculous lengths to reserve MacLaine's organ for his exclusive use, instead of simply asking her to find a new profession.

Most curious of all is the bartender, who is the world's greatest enabler. Want to become a pimp? Impersonate an Englishman? Borrow 500 francs? Break out of prison? Need an attorney? An obstetrician? No worries, mate. Wonder why such a useful jack of all trades is tending bar at a pimp and prostitute hangout. I suppose the tips (and scenery) are good.

Fortunately, the ridiculous plot and characters are made less embarrassing by the performances. MacLaine is adorable, and Lemmon's all-out everyman is inspirational to those who find it tough just to crawl out of bed to go to work each day. More importantly, he's generally funny.