Irma la Douce (1963) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

I suppose that some of you younger guys look at today's movies and these older films and think that people have really changed in the past few years. I suppose some of that is true, but not as much as you think. 

Don't think that life for a low-rent Paris streetwalker in 1963 was like the life pictured in this film. They didn't live in ornately decorated lofts, and they didn't get rid of their gorilla-like pimps by saying "now get out of here, ya big galoot", and they didn't have perfect teeth and they probably weren't surrounded with colorful, loveable cafe owners. This was a romantic fantasy, in the same sense that Pretty Woman was a different kind of romantic fantasy about the same subject a couple of decades later.

Their real life was filled with brutal johns, exploitative police and pimps, venereal disease, and a complete lack of proper medical and dental care. They probably drank or took drugs in vast quantities, and they rarely resembled Shirley MacLaine. They lived amidst brutality, violence, and squalor.  In other words, they didn't look much different from hookers in the Bronx in 2001, except maybe for the ethnic composition.

In other words, it isn't people that have changed, but movies. 

Romanticism moves in and out of vogue. Realism takes hold. Perhaps the cycles reverse or repeat. A film would have portrayed the whole scene much differently if it were made in 1973 after the worldwide counter-cultural revolution, sexual liberation, women's lib,  and so forth. But by the time Pretty Woman came along, the gritty realism of the early 70's was out of fashion again, and hookers got perfect teeth once more. Now, in the post-Tarantino age, the scale seems to have tipped again toward realism, or at least toward ugliness. 

Irma la Douce is pretty much of a mindless fairy tale, and is a prisoner of its age in many ways. Yet it has a fascinating na´vetÚ, a sweetness and innocence that will suck you right in. In fact, it's like watching a Broadway musical without the music, and even the Paris street scenes seem to be painted theatrical backdrops, absent the grime and graffiti of real streets. Who better to reflect this unthreatening innocence than its star, Jack Lemmon, whose very presence suggests he would ask a woman's permission to kiss her, and would have his eyes downcast and be stuttering while he did so.

And yet, Irma has an amoral core to it. Underneath all the sweetness is an anarchy that says these people are nice because they ignore the sensible moral rules of sensible people. I like that. It gives the film just enough edge to make it fresh today.

You see, Irma (MacLaine) is a streetwalker, and Jack Lemmon is the world's most honest cop, who is shocked, shocked and appalled, to determine that there is lovemaking for profit going on in a hotel with no overnight guests! So he busts the place, which proves not only disruptive to the local economy, but also fatal to his career, since one of the johns is the chief inspector. Of course, the film is already straying far from the movie code of that era, since it is proclaiming that prostitution is the natural order of things, and anyone choosing to close it down is immoral and dangerously anti-capitalist.

In the course of his losing his police job, he kinda falls for Irma, and he ends up defending her from abuse by her pimp. When he doggedly brings the pimp down in a fight, he wins the girl. Now here is where the story becomes totally amoral. She can't go back to the pimp, because he'll really kick the hell out of her, and she isn't just going to give up her profession and get a job flipping burgers. In fact, she talks about what a sucker her mom was for giving up her own lucrative clientele to get married and have a baby. She needs a new pimp. 

Guess who is elected?

Remember he's in love with her, and the last thing he wants is for her to sleep with other men, but he has no job and can't support them, and she can only earn money doing what she does, so even though he's love-struck, and jealous of everyone, he sells her nightly.

Can you imagine that in an American movie in 1963? That's amoral even by today's standards for American romantic comedies. I suppose they snuck it through by making all the characters French, therefore excusing the film itself, which was ostensibly simply recording their Gallic amorality.

At any rate, he conceives of a scheme to solve his jealousy problem. Irma mentions that she once had a client who paid her enough to be his exclusive personal concubine. Lemmon thinks about it and concocts a perfect plan. He will disguise himself as a stuffy, impotent English gentleman who pays Irma enough to be his personal companion, and will work as many hours of manual labor as he needs to in order to finance this operation. Of course, this leaves him too tired to enjoy her company, which kind of defeats the whole purpose of the scheme.

Of course, this is not meant to be taken seriously. The plot keeps winding on forever, with about a zillion more silly twists, and it's a fairy tale. All the plot threads are resolved in convenient, completely impossible ways, with even a hint of supernatural assistance. Don't worry about it. It is completely dumb, because it is supposed to be. Just enjoy some old-fashioned cornball humor.

Billy Wilder wrote and/or directed some of the greatest comedies in film history, and a few good films of other types as well. He represented a perfect blend of European sensibility and American marketing savvy, a guy who never underestimated the intelligence of the audience, but also believed that his job was to entertain. His film credits read like a list of the all-time great films: The Apartment, Some Like It Hot, Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity. As a writer, he has 29 films rated above 7.0 at IMDb, 15 of those rated above 7.5, which is the cut-off point for IMDb's top 250. Of those fifteen movies, he also directed twelve of them! To put it another way, the top 250 includes non-Wilder films only because he couldn't make enough movies to fill the whole list. Irma la Douce isn't even one of his twenty best films, but for many directors it would be a career highlight.

Jack Lemmon was one of Wilder's favored players, possessing as he did exactly the right combination of reticent upper class manners, genial good humor, and an inherent kindness that shines through every part he ever played. If ever there was a prototype for a "nice" guy, it was Jon Uhler Lemmon III, the perennial Harvard undergrad from nearby Newton, Mass, who won two Oscars and was nominated for six others. Known and beloved in his twilight years as America's most devoted bad golfer, Lemmon passed away this June, aged only 76. His last screen appearance came in The Legend of Bagger Vance, playing golf alone, in twilight, for the love of the game, in a beautifully photographed scene that almost seems like Lemmon writing the perfect epitaph for himself. 

"Don't make me mad. You wouldn't like me when I'm mad."
This film was a major box office smash, and was once the highest grossing comedy all all-time. I do remember that it was the longest-running film in the history of my home town (Rochester, New York), held on to that record for many years, and may still hold that record for all I know. 


see Tuna's comments (yellow)
Tuna's comments in yellow

Irma la Douce (1963) -- Shirley Maclaine, Jack Lemmon, and an amazing amount of near exposure for its time had the film well on its way already, but a strong script, and excellent direction by Billy Wilder made it an absolute classic. Maclaine plays Irma, Paris streetwalker extrordinaire, and Lemmon starts the film as an honest cop. When Lemmon busts all of the girls and their clients, including his boss, he is kicked of the force, but ends up Irma's "manager." He falls in love, and can't stand her being with other men, so takes several night jobs to earn enough that she doesn't have to work, but becomes an impotent Brit who pays her 500 Francs per visit to play cards with him.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 2.35:1

  • no features except the original trailer

Those who have seen it remember the rest of the story, and those who haven't seen it should. MacLaine shows most of her breasts several times, but what many thought was actual breast exposure on VHS versions ends up being obscured by flesh colored pasties when you look frame by frame. There may be a hint of a nipple in one of the cleavage shots, and a look at her bum through her translucent panties. The film is beautifully photographed, and was nominated for an Oscar in that category, as well as Best Actress, and won for best score adaption (Andre Previn). 

The film is a pure delight for the entire 2 hours and 27 minutes running time.

Even if you don't normally like comedy, you might enjoy this one, due to great cast, and offbeat energy (such as an alcoholic toy poodle). DVD transfer is decent, especially for its age, but is devoid  of special features. The film stirred a lot of controversy at the time of release over theme and near-nudity. 

"No, Mikey, I don't see any toll booth."

The Critics Vote

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 7.1 
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, both reviewers feel it is a B-.

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