The Film and Performance:
Irma la Douce originally was presented to audiences as a highly successful Broadway musical that was nominated for a Tony for Best Musical. Writer/director Billy Wilder became interested in adapting the musical into a comedy film as a vehicle for Marilyn Monroe and a film reunion for Monroe, himself, and Jack Lemmon. Unfortunately this idea was forced to be scrapped due to Monroe’s untimely death in 1962. However, Wilder was able to maintain his idea for a reunion by casting Shirley MacLaine, who had previously worked with Wilder and Lemmon in The Apartment.
The film stars MacLaine as Irma la Douce, a successful French prostitute who works in Paris’ ‘Red Light district.’ The film opens with a setting that portrays the area as littered with questionable persons who desire an evening of affection from a lady for a price. These women are allowed to work primarily due to corrupt police officials who accept bribes. This all changes when Nester Patou (Jack Lemmon) starts work as an honest cop, shakes up the normal order of activities, and inadvertently finds himself working as Irma’s pimp. Having fallen in love with her, Nester immediately becomes consumed with jealousy at the prospect of sharing her with other suitors. Nester soon concocts a plan of posing as a snooty upper-class British gentleman, known as “Lord X,” in order to occupy Irma’s time at nights, which introduces a new set of issues and hilarious complications.
The important thing to note about Irma la Douce is the necessity to suspend disbelief when viewing this film. Despite the film’s potentially heavy topics, it veers away from issues of morality and instead attempts to embellish upon the comedic aspects of love and jealousy. The fact that Irma is a prostitute only adds to the lunacy of the plot, which works to the film’s advantage. The film was especially careful to indirectly focus upon Irma’s work, even portraying it as something hardly outside of what the norm would have been in the early 1960s when the film was made. Instead, the film heavily focuses upon Jack Lemmon’s Nester and his insecurities and worries of Irma being shared with others. Once the film introduces ‘Lord X’ into the narrative, the film further shifts to Nester’s plight of keeping up the act and the physical strain it places on Nester’s actual relationship with Irma. In that regard, Billy Wilder’s writing and direction of this film is first-rate.
The primary success of the film is Jack Lemmon, whose performance the film hinged upon. Normally his roles within comedy films are reactionary performances, especially his films with Walter Matthau. In Irma la Douce, the plot of the film is dependent upon Lemmon and the characters react based upon him. In that regard the supporting cast is outstanding, all of whom bounce off of Lemmon’s performance. Shirley MacLaine is a scene-stealer as Irma, who portrays her role as someone who considers herself as a career-woman and uses her profession with the intent of making her relationship the best it can be financially. MacLaine’s performance is endearing and entirely reactionary to Lemmon’s Nester, crafting her as someone not jaded by life and simply wanting to find her own piece of happiness. However, the film’s definitive scene-stealer, who nearly steals the film from even Jack Lemmon is Lou Jacobi as “Moustache,” the character who is at the epicenter of all the film’s shenanigans. Jacobi functions as the film’s moral compass and also as the character who instills rationality to the various characters throughout the entire film. Additionally, Jacobi’s comedy, especially his repetitious line with a hand wave “That’s another story”, is one of the more momentous components of the film.
Incidentally, Jack Lemmon’s performance is at its finest when his role deviates into the alter-ego, ‘Lord X’ for the film’s second half, the persona Nester occupies in order to keep Irma off the streets. Lemmon’s ‘Lord X’ is a hysterical caricature of a upper-class British gentleman with the mannerisms so exaggerated that it evokes the vast majority of the film’s laughs. Lemmon’s portrayal of ‘Lord X’ along with his neurotic performance as Nester essentially provided audiences with a dual performance that emphasized Jack Lemmon’s versatility as an actor. Ironically, Jack Lemmon was initially told by others before signing onto the film that such a performance would be considered a replica of his work in Some Like it Hot and that the very substance of the film and performance would destroy what was considered his ‘innocent’ image to moviegoers. Despite these reservations, both fears were debunked by Lemmon’s performance. His ‘innocent’ image was hardly tarnished due to an honest performance about someone who is lovestruck and his performance as ‘Lord X’ was a complete deviation from his dual performance as Jerry and Daphne in Some Like it Hot.
The only flaw of Irma la Douce is in its narrative delivery. For the majority of the film, Irma la Douce stays within a framework of reality and the only suspension of disbelief is the film’s acceptant view of prostitution. However, in the film’s final quarter it deviates into a form of farce that seemingly doesn’t fit within the film’s overall framework. While the latter quarter of the film fits within the framework of the original Broadway musical, the action within the film version deviates too much from the comedy style the film had long adopted. It creates the impression that Billy Wilder had an idea of how to conclude the film, but couldn’t precisely figure out how to get the narration to go from one arc to another in a logical manner. Instead, Wilder allowed the film to dip into farce territory, which made the conclusion of the film feel out of place despite it being in sync with its original source material. While this isn’t enough to ruin the film experience, it does hinder the film from being a classic.