Irma La Douce Review

Noel Megahey has reviewed the Region 2 release of Billy Wilder’s 1963 comedy classic Irma La Douce. Released by MGM on 26th November, the film stars Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine and is well presented in Technicolor and Panavision.

Jack Lemmon plays Nestor Patou, a young, naïve policeman on the beat at Les Halles in Paris. After he over-enthusiastically busts the local brothel where Irma La Douce (‘Irma The Sweet’, played by Shirley MacLaine) works and incurs the wrath of his police-chief – one of the brothel’s emminent clients – he manages to find himself out of a job and out on the streets. In a hilarious café fight sequence, he defeats Bruce Yarnell’s ‘Ox’, earning the respect of the other low-lives and assumes the role of Irma’s mec (her ‘business manager’ as it is euphemistically translated in the film) and boyfriend.

Irma La Douce was derived from a stage musical, and the resulting Wilder film has all the colour, stageyness and simplicity of storytelling and characterisation of a musical – but without the songs. Had it been a musical, of course it is unlikely that Billy Wilder would have been able to team up once again with Lemmon and MacLaine after the Oscar-winning success of The Apartment (1960), but the film does seem to lack the set-piece choreographed song and dance routines that are arguably what make musicals so memorable.

Despite the lack of songs or big production numbers, there is still much to enjoy in the film. The stage sets are colourful and stylised – a no more realistic depiction of Paris than the recent Moulin Rouge – with not a single dodgy French accent to be heard. The cops are referred to, amusingly, as ‘flicks’ – pronounced with a heavy New York drawl. But neither realism nor social commentary are a consideration here. It’s a romantic comedy and a rather sweet and funny one which, if it doesn’t succeed as a romantic comedy to the same extent as The Apartment, it is not through any fault of casting. Lemmon and MacLaine once again work wonderfully with each other – MacLaine’s dryness and nonchalance a perfect foil for Lemmon’s typical over-enthusiastic, bumbling, kind-hearted goof. Nestor falls in love with Irma and starts working night-shifts in the market to be able to pay for her exclusively, disguised as the rich English gentleman, Lord X – an hilarious comedy turn from Lemmon with an outrageous upper-class accent.

On DVD, Irma La Douce looks very good indeed. The picture is transferred in anamorphic widescreen at the 2:35:1 ratio and displays wonderfully the original Panavision presentation. There are frequent white specks and dust spots evident throughout the whole film which while noticeable, don’t spoil the picture. There is also some aliasing as some of the Ox’s finely-checked suits play havoc with the screen display on a couple of occasions – but otherwise the film looks wonderful. Filmed in glorious Technicolor, the colours are rich and bright, the image is remarkably sharp and the contrast is very well-balanced. It is a real pleasure to see the film looking this good.

There has been no remastering of the soundtrack, which is presented in mono in Dolby Digital 2.0. The quality is adequate-to-fair but at least there is no distracting hiss. The rather dull sound has no dynamic range, which is a pity because the film has an Academy Award winning score conducted by André Previn, based on the original musical. Even so, the wonderful score is rather under-used in the film and is just crying out for an opportunity to cut loose on a big production number that the film is sadly lacking.

The menus are basic – mainly black and white stills from the film. The main menu screen shows Lemmon and MacLaine getting married at the altar, so that could spoil the ending for you – although the outcome of the film shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone. The DVD is disappointingly light on extras, which is a great pity as it would have been nice to have some background information, historical context or critical views on the film. The only extra is the original theatrical trailer, which is grainy and scratchy and faded, but presented anamorphically in 2:35:1 ratio. It is mainly a cartoon Pink Panther style trailer and is really rather good. The clips shown in the trailer make the film out to be a little racier than it really is – one scene of one of the poules jiggling her tassles (ahem) to Jack Lemmon in the back of the police van is not in the final cut of the film.

Irma La Douce is a below-par film for Billy Wilder and doesn’t quite work as a drama when removed from its musical roots, but by anyone else’s standards, it’s quite a good film. It’s not as well-loved as some of the other great comedy classics he made with Jack Lemmon – Some Like It Hot or The Apartment – and has been rather neglected, but with this reasonably good DVD release, it may well be worth checking out again.


Updated: Nov 09, 2001

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