In 1963, Billy Wilder is three years removed from a pinnacle movie of his career with The Apartment. His amazing decade of the 1950s almost goes unmatched among directors except maybe Hitchcock and Spielberg. A decade that started with Sunset Boulevard and included Some Like It Hot, Sabrina, and The Seven Year Itch among others. By 1963, Billy Wilder was basking in the freedom that a pattern of successful films brings to a director. This is the year that Billy brings back two of his favorites, Jack Lemmon (almost a stand-in for Billy one would believe) and Shirley MacLaine to star in the adaptation of a play by Alexandre Breffort called Irma La Douce.
Kino Lorber Studio Classics has recently released this oft-forgotten classic onto Blu-ray, highlighting the splendid cinematography by Joseph LaShelle (Oscar-nominated) and wonderful score by Andre Previn (Oscar-winner). The film has that wonderful look that somehow tells you immediately that it’s from that early 1960s era. The colors are bright and pop off the screen. The acting isn’t just limited to the lead actors but each character stands out, showing Wilder’s attention to every detail. Herschel Bernardi and Lou Jacobi are standouts. The audio commentaries on the disc – one by Joseph McBride and one by Kat Ellinger (both film historians) put the film in historical perspective. There’s lots to look at here.
The plot is deceptively simple. Jack Lemmon plays a French policeman, Nestor, fired from the force. Falling in love with prostitute Irma (Shirley MacLaine), he develops a British alter ego named Lord X to become Irma’s only customer and pimp essentially. Will Irma fall in love with Nestor or Lord X? I wanted to pad that out a little bit but that’s really the crux of it. It’s really a shell for Lemmon and MacLaine to act the crap out of the script. Lemmon is in rare form here. Playing dual characters and called upon to perform physical comedy that he doesn’t get to do enough. MacLaine gets to ham it up and it really feels like the story is just missing musical numbers for her in spots.
Does it work? Yes and no. The only gripe is really the 2 hour and 23 minute running time. There’s just too much filler to pad this out to that amount of time. The rest is just wonderful. Billy Wilder has worked with smaller plots and found ways to interject lessons. There’s not much of a lesson here – it’s a fun ride from beginning to end. Mostly it’s just Jack Lemmon’s film and the rest of us, including MacLaine are along for the ride. The best comparison is The Apartment because in that film there were also morally ambiguous characters and in the end, I didn’t feel any moral lesson was thrown in our faces. Same thing here. We are dealing with prostitution and a policeman with a fake second life. Wilder just rides that line and it feels right.
Wilder’s career wouldn’t find the same height in the 1960s and 1970s that it had in the 1950s. But this film is a testament to the talents of one of our greatest directors and a couple of his favorite actors at their best. This isn’t a film you find on many “Best Of” lists anymore and it doesn’t play theaters on its anniversaries. But get this disc and you’ll find the kind of film that I love – one that few have heard of and when you show it to them, they’re blown away that they never saw it before. Well done, Billy.