The Daily Stream: Irma La Douce Delightfully Shows A Hollywood In … – /Film

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching, why it’s worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)
The Movie: “Irma la Douce”
Where You Can Stream It: Prime Video
The Pitch: Jack Lemmon stars as by-the-book but naïve police officer Nestor Patou who starts a new beat in Paris’ red light district. Being a vigilant lawman, he decides to round up all of the sex workers and arrest them, which in turn exposes the corrupt ring within the police force that allows this to usually go on unnoticed by the cops. Nestor is swiftly fired from the force and finds himself drawn to one of the sex workers, the titular Irma la Douce (Shirley MacLaine). After he dispatches her abusive pimp, the two end up moving in together, but Nestor is rather uneasy about Irma still providing service to other men for work. So, he concocts a plan to disguise himself as a wealthy Englishman named Lord X to become her sugar daddy and only client. And that’s only half of the hijinks.

Billy Wilder always had a penchant to see what he could get away with within the confines of the Hays Code and the mentalities of classic Hollywood, particularly when it came to sex. Think about Barbara Stanwyck’s entrance in “Double Indemnity,” draped in a towel and entering in a double entendre verbal sparring match with Fred MacMurray, or the iconic image in “The Seven Year Itch” of Marilyn Monroe’s white dress being blown into the air by a subway grate. There’s also, of course, the fairly explicit for 1959 queerness of “Some Like It Hot.” Wilder loves extra-marital affairs and taboo relationships.
“Irma la Douce” was made in the waning days of the Hays Code, and the chance to directly deal with the actual realities of sex work, particularly in this lighthearted way, probably was not open earlier in Hollywood. Especially for a film of this scale with this pedigree. This is Billy Wilder, Jack Lemmon, and Shirley MacLaine reuniting after their Best Picture winner “The Apartment” from three years earlier (which just so happens to be my favorite film of all time), and it swings them from the heartfelt drama of that picture to full-out, vivacious farce. MacLaine, in particular, really gets to let loose playing a character full of unbridled energy and unabashed sexiness. She and Lemmon have just as sparkling chemistry as they do in “The Apartment,” but the joy here is more in their comedic interplay instead of the emotional one. The world and taboos Billy Wilder wants to showcase are the primary focus here, and they all have a lot of fun with them.

Returning as well from “The Apartment” is cinematographer Joseph LaShelle, who ended up working with Billy Wilder quite a bit in the 1960s. From my vantage point, they mastered the art of blocking and constructing dynamic images within an anamorphic, widescreen frame. They bring that same skill to “Irma la Douce” but get to add in some truly vibrant color. Shots track along this Parisian street, and whether it’s the paint on the walls or a woman’s skirt, the colors leap off the screen, none more so than Irma’s signature green stockings and hair bow. It’s top-of-the-line Hollywood filmmaking.
Now, don’t get me wrong. “Irma la Douce” is a pretty messy movie. It runs nearly two and a half hours, and it doesn’t exactly come together in the most satisfying manner. That being said, everyone involved is taking some truly wild swings, and because the story is somewhat shaggy, you can never really tell where “Irma la Douce” is going. But on a scene-by-scene basis, this picture has so much to offer in terms of some fairly unhinged and wild work from a bunch of artists at the height of their powers. You’ll marvel at the elaborate Paris sets, giddily laugh as Jack Lemmon attempts to keep up the ruse of the truly outrageous Lord X persona, and be utterly baffled that not only did a major Hollywood studio produce this movie, but that it was one of the five highest grossing films of the year.
When we speak about the kinds of movies that don’t get made anymore, we tend to talk about dramas for adults. But what we really don’t get anymore are movies like “Irma la Douce,” and that is a real shame.


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