Monday 5 March 2012

Irma la Douce (1963)

Director: Billy Wilder
Stars: Jack Lemmon and Shirley Maclaine

Last time I saw Irma la Douce, I was watching anything by Billy Wilder that I could find. My DVR was playing up and it stuttered its way through the second half so badly that it was hard to see anything at all. It was Billy Wilder though so I owed it to myself to see it. This time out, I have a decent quality copy but I'm watching for Tura Satana, who died a year ago and is sorely missed. Her impact on film cannot be underestimated, although she only made ten pictures over almost fifty years and four of those were for Ted V Mikels, hardly a Billy Wilder. This was her debut on the big screen, as it was for James Caan, and she reached the second page of credits, a page ahead of Bill Bixby. She even gets a few lines as Suzette Wong, hardly an inspired name but an appropriate one perhaps for an Asian prostitute in Paris. I'm not going to complain about seeing Tura in purple underwear but her eyeshadow is scary. She doesn't quite look herself.

She's not the only source of colour here. We begin by zooming in on the title character, another Parisian prostitute played by Shirley Maclaine who stakes out her territory on Rue Casanova in outrageous lime green, which is mirrored in the credits. Irma is more talented than most of her colleagues, though she's as professionally detached as they come. She can really sway up the Hotel Casanova staircase and she can spin a sob story like nobody's business to ensure that her marks leave plentiful tips beyond her basic fee. All the girls are colourful, which highlights just how colourful Nestor Patou isn't when he shows up dressed all in black. He's that rarest of beasts in Paris, an honest cop, newly promoted from a children's playground and working his first day on the beat. The only colour he has is in his experience: he's so green that he doesn't even know the number for the police station and he double takes what he sees on Rue Casanova.

'Something tells me they're streetwalkers,' he confides in Irma, who he only half believes isn't just walking her dog. So he raids the Hotel Casanova and ships off the ladies of the evening, all sixteen of them, to jail. Now Nestor Patou is played by Jack Lemmon, who shares top billing with Shirley Maclaine, a reunion for them, having been so successful in The Apartment three years earlier, also for Billy Wilder. In fact, Maclaine signed on without even reading the script, simply because she 'believed in Wilder and Lemmon'. She wasn't happy with the film, which she saw as 'crude and clumsy', though it did garner another Oscar nomination for her, her third although she wouldn't win until her sixth, twenty years later for Terms of Endearment. So when Patou is promptly fired from the force for not realising that one of the johns he busted was his own boss, we know he isn't going to leave the story and in fact the real story is about to begin.
Irma la Douce was sourced from a French musical, hence the salacious subject matter that isn't what you might expect from Hollywood. It was first staged in 1956, successfully enough to cross the channel to the West End in London and finally reach Broadway, where it won Elizabeth Seal a Tony in 1961. Never able to overlook successful material, Hollywood optioned it but surprisingly turned it into a straight comedy. Wilder was apparently uncomfortable with singing and dancing numbers, but he did allow André Previn to fill the film with music, enough so that it won an Oscar for its score. I'm happy for that, not only because I'm not a fan of musicals but because Wilder's comedic touch is the biggest success here. Perhaps because he could write comedy, he was able to shoot it and though he made dramatic films as great as Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard and The Lost Weekend, it's comedies like The Apartment and Some Like It Hot that define him.

This one isn't up to those standards but it has much to be remembered for. Most obvious is the performance of Jack Lemmon. The central thrust of the story, if such a term can be used in a film about prostitution, is that Nestor Patou inadvertently becomes Irma's pimp and lover though he never approves of her work. Unable to talk her out of her job or into allowing him to work to keep her, he masquerades as a rich English lord who pays enough that she doesn't have to work for anyone else. To keep up this charade, he works multiple jobs on the sly while Irma is asleep. You can imagine the situation comedy wrought from the inability to sustain such a double life. Lord X is a construct of every 'British' film Patou has ever seen and Lemmon's Terry-Thomas in an eye patch approach is at once contagious, irresistible and completely ludicrous, building background from Gunga Din, The Guns of Navarone, Bridge on the River Kwai, even Mutiny on the Bounty.

The biggest flaw ties to Wilder's strong conviction that Jack Lemmon could do no wrong. It would not have hurt to restrain his star a little here and it certainly wouldn't have hurt to build up some of the other characters in the film, especially Maclaine's. Writing in her memoir, My Lucky Stars, about Lemmon and The Apartment, she hints that Wilder didn't see her talent, and by extension, anyone else's, as much as he saw Lemmon's, and that reads very true here. This film is named for her character rather than his but he's focused on so strongly that it should have been retitled Nestor Patou. Few others get a chance to shine, though Maclaine is impeccable in a role meant for Marilyn Monroe, who died before production began. Wilder's first choice was Elizabeth Taylor but he didn't want the drama that came with the Taylor/Burton affair ongoing at the time. Best of the rest is Lou Jacobi as Moustache, taking Charles Laughton's place after his death.
In fact I probably appreciated Moustache more than any of the other characters in this film. He takes his name from Chez Moustache, the bar that he owns and runs, which serves as the base of operations for the local pimps and the local hangout for their girls. More than anyone else, we want to know more about him. We hear all sorts of stories about his background, though it's unlikely that any of them are true, but we do want them to be. Certainly he's the most grounded character in the story, he's inevitably behind whatever transpires and he imparts a good deal of the homespun philosophy of the film. He also gets many of the best lines: 'It's a hard way to make an easy living,' Moustache tells a rapidly tiring Nestor. His character is a real gem, worthy of spinning off into other films and situations. I'm sure the reason for Jacobi's delivery being so consistently spot on is his background as a stand up comedian, but that's another story.

Beyond more Moustache, I wanted to see more of the colours and textures of the Rue Casanova set that cost $350,000 in 1963 money to build, but they're also glossed over for the most part. We have to settle instead for colourful names and a few scenes or lines here and there to offer hints of what might have been. Of Irma's fellow prostitutes, Hope Holiday gets most screen time as Lolita, but she was the least interesting to me. I wanted to learn about Mimi the MauMau, Kiki the Cossack and the Zebra twins, not to mention Suzette Wong, naturally, however strange Tura Satana looked at this point. I wanted to learn about their pimps too: One Armed JoJo, Casablanca Charlie and Hippolyte the Ox, from whom Nestor won Irma in a truly bizarre fight scene that has to be seen to be believed. I wouldn't have minded more about the narrator too, who works in the stomach of Paris and who speaks with the memorable voice of Louis Jourdan.

Sadly we get very little of any of that. What we get is lots of Jack Lemmon. Now the good news is that lots of Jack Lemmon is hardly a bad consolation prize, especially when he's working for Billy Wilder, who cast him in seven of his films, including Some Like It Hot and The Apartment, two of the greatest comedies Hollywood ever made. The bad news is that after that pinnacle, each film seemed a little less remarkable and this was the beginning of that downward slope. Wilder didn't translate well to the seventies at all, but he was still watchable and it's not unfair to suggest that lesser Lemmon and Wilder is still a good deal better than the best most filmmakers can come up with. This one still feels like classic era stuff and it's an enjoyable picture but, as with One, Two, Three, his Jimmy Cagney movie a year earlier, the cracks were beginning to show. Once you've seen enough of his truly great films, you'll see what this one could have been but wasn't.

No comments: