Monday, March 17, 2008

Irma La Douce directed by Billy Wilder (starring Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine)

Irma La Douce (1963). Screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond from the book and lyrics of the musical Irma La Douce by Alexandre Breffort.

In an attempt to recapture the magic of The Apartment, director Billy Wilder reassembled the stars of that film, Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, in an adaptation of a popular musical — and promptly removed the music. The result was Irma La Douce, a film that has been mostly forgotten my modern movie lovers even though it was a huge box-office success in 1963 (earning more than The Great Escape and The Birds combined!).

Part of the reason for the obscurity of Irma La Douce may be its highly contrived and mostly unbelievable plot. Jack Lemmon plays Nestor Patou, a Parisian policeman who falls in love with streetwalker Irma La Douce ("Irma the sweet") after arresting her (and losing his job in the process). Taken by him as well, Irma (MacLaine) takes Nestor on as her live-in "fellow" (read: pimp).

But Nestor is an insecure, jealous man, and he instantly schemes to replace her customers with a single one of his own — one rich enough that she won't have to see any others. So he dresses up as "Lord X" a British millionaire and spends his nights working several jobs to produce the cash for the role. Then Irma's ex-fellow almost sees Nestor changing from his costume, but thinks he's witnessed a murder....

The real appeal of Irma La Douce is in how Lemmon and MacLaine genuinely seem to like each other. One could easily imagine a relationship blossoming between them, and that is the key to believing in these characters.

Wilder himself has called the film a "failure" (see Conversations with Wilder by Cameron Crowe), mostly due to the fact that his actors, though playing native Parisians, speak with their own accents. But their fans will not care because, though it does not come close to the quality of its predecessor, Irma La Douce is one of Wilder's most purely engaging films, even during the slow spots. Jack Lemmon has a lot of fun with his dual role, and Shirley MacLaine has never been sexier!

(Keep an eye out for a walk-on by the young James Caan, in his film debut as a soldier.)

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