Paris is not always as romantic as it's made out to be, though love is for sale there should you have some francs to spare, as Irma La Douce (Shirley MacLaine) will tell you, standing outside the hotel near the Paris market which is her place of work, her little dog under her arm, waiting for a gentleman to walk up and whisper in her ear. There are plenty of fallen women on that street making money for largely ungrateful pimps, but this came as a surprise to the latest policeman to grace the area, Gendarme Nestor Patou (Jack Lemmon) who was so shocked that ladies were selling their bodies in broad daylight that he had them all arrested. He didn't even take bribes!
Irma La Douce was a popular stage musical, a saucy night out at the theatre for many though it was at heart a sweet-natured, if unconventional, romance. The rights were snapped up to make a movie out of it, and Billy Wilder, past master at screen comedy, was interested: but he just wasn't interested in making a musical. His style had always been nagging at the boundaries of good taste and what was acceptable under the Production Code of censorship, but it was not until the nineteen-sixties that he was able to truly let fly with all his previously suppressed sexual humour and this little item was one of the first results of that newfound freedom as the censor relented.
Well, it was not so much "little" as it was elephantine and stretched out, and without the tunes to break up the comedy it quickly grew very wearing. At the time, there were naysayers pointing out no matter how near the knuckle it believed it was, the film remained reliant on some particularly creaky clichés of stage farce, but most audiences did not mind, and turned this into a hit, if not one that lasted into history as a classic. Yet neither was it a neglected gem, and now that tastes have moved on and prostitution is no longer a subject for humour in this manner, its attempts to be cute and carefree wear on the patience: it was all too monotonous, no matter the twists in the plot.
Lemmon was at his most Lemmony here, but without the decent material his tendency to ham it up was left unchecked, despite the upheavals his Nestor character endured over a very long two and a half hours or so. MacLaine, who had starred with him in the bona fide classic The Apartment three years beforehand, fared a little better, but was not helped by being cast as an airhead sex object: nobody was more surprised than she about her Oscar nomination, she wasn't bad, exactly, simply in the shadow of the actress who was supposed to get the role, Marilyn Monroe, who priced herself out of the part by dint of being dead by the time it went before the cameras. When you know she was up for this, you can see where she would have been better suited whereas MacLaine always had the impression of more savvy.
That narrative sprawled over the course of Nestor losing his job as a cop (or a flic, one supposes) and moving in with his new paramour Irma, as they have become quite taken with one another. The thing is, he is not happy about her line of work, it's not important that she is their breadwinner, his prickly coyness ensures he wants to put a stop to it. Therefore he turns to a plan that would be better realised on the stage, where he dresses up as an English Lord and contrives to pay the oblivious Irma five hundred francs for playing cards with him - heaven forfend they have sex, so you see Wilder was still shackled by the censor to an extent. You kept expecting her to twig since the Lord was so blatantly Nestor that MacLaine didn't suit playing a dummy, but it didn't resolve itself that way, throwing up a false murder charge instead, and only the curious similarity between Lemmon in disguise and a Jim Carrey comedy persona left an impression. All in all, fairly tedious, with only scattered amusements (like Tura Satana in a supporting role) - and it led Wilder to the rather nasty Kiss Me, Stupid next. Music by Andre Previn.
[Eureka have released this on Blu-ray as part of their Masters of Cinema collection. Those features in full:
Stunning 1080p presentation from a brand new 4K restoration
LPCM Mono audio
Optional English SDH subtitles
Brand New and Exclusive Interview with film scholar Neil Sinyard
Feature Length Audio Commentary by critic and film historian Kat Ellinger
Feature Length Audio Commentary by film historian Joseph McBride
The original trailer (which is mostly animated, an interesting artefact)
PLUS: A Collector's booklet featuring a new essay by Richard Combs, alongside a wide selection of rare archival imagery.]