Monday, September 24, 2012

Sowing My "Wilder" Oats the Fourth: I Give Up On Trying to Rationalize That Title: The Lost Weekend and Irma la Douce

Hey, folks, I'm back with another entry in my little series exploring the work of one of my favorite filmmakers, Billy Wilder.  This will be my last one for a while, since October's coming and that means horror movies.  Billy Wilder should have made some horror movies, so I could review them.

The Lost Weekend, by Billy Wilder, 1945

While most of my reviews so far have focused on the Billy Wilder of the late 50's, the 60's, and the 70's, there's still a good deal of his early films that I've yet to see.  A cautionary tale of the dangers of addiction, The Lost Weekend is a true classic, made just after Wilder had received a bunch of Oscar nominations for his breakthrough, Double Indemnity.

Ray Milland plays Don Birnam, an aspiring writer who lives on his brother's dime, which he mostly spends on booze.  At the start of the movie, Don is ten days sober, or so he claims, as we soon see him pull up a bottle he had hidden outside his window.  Once he gets his brother out of his hair, Don goes on a massive bender, full of self loathing and yuckiness.  During his bender, we see in flashbacks what has led Don to this point, as well as his meeting and courtship with Helen St. James, the woman who loves him and tolerates his behavior maybe way more than he deserves.

The Lost Weekend isn't one of Wilder's screwball comedies.  It's dark and even pretty harrowing for its time, with a serious underlying message about alcoholism, a problem that was on the rise since Prohibition.  That said, there are some laughs, and plenty of that sharp dialogue Billy Wilder was so good at writing.  Perhaps The Lost Weekend's most lasting contribution to society is the scene where Dan is walking while neon signs and stuff dissolve by in the background.  Even if you haven't seen this movie, you've seen that scene in homages and parodies a million billion times.  I'm guessing some of the people who use that device don't even know where it came from.

I'm sure at some point, we've all known, been, or dealt with addicts in our lives.  In the Lost Weekend, Billy Wilder addresses the issue head on at a time when many people just enabled it or swept it under the rug.  And he manages to make it all entertaining and not beat us over the head too hard with the message (there is some beating us over the head, but not TOO hard).

Irma la Douce, by Billy Wilder, 1963

While One, Two, Three was Wilder's next movie after his big Best Picture win for The Apartment, Irma la Douce was his true followup.  I assume One, Two Three was already in production by the time the Oscar nominations came out.  Irma la Douce is that kind of big, maybe a little too big, ambitious movies that a director makes when given extra license by a studio for making them an award winning box office hit.  I guess what I'm trying to say is, Irma la Douce is Billy Wilder's Magnolia.

Though he reunites The Apartment's stars, Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, Wilder wisely does not try to replicate the tone of that film.  Instead, Irma la Douce is more of a sophisticated screwball comedy in the vein of Some Like it Hot.  Set in Paris, Lemmon plays Nestor, an idealistic and oblivious police officer assigned to the seedy red light district, where the usual officers on duty take bribes to look the other way while the prostitutes work.  When he finds out what's going on, he stages a one man raid on the hotel and arrests all the prostitutes, including Irma la Douce (MacLaine), a sweet, chain-smoking, green-stockinged prostitute who carries around an alcoholic poodle.  She recognizes his kindness and good intentions, and treats him more kindly than the others.

Now, comes the series of misunderstandings part, because that's what these comedies are all about, right?  Well, Irma la Douce has maybe the most misunderstandings ever in one of these movies, so many, in fact, that the movie has an unwieldy 2 1/2 hour running time.  You see, through a series of misunderstandings, Nestor loses his job, and then another series of misunderstandings leads Nestor to become Irma's pimp.  And when Nestor can't stand the thought of Irma sleeping with other men, he disguises himself as "Lord X" a Brit who pays Irma to be exclusive to him.  Nestor must now work all night to pay for his own girl's services as a prostitute, but not for sex, just for talking.  Nestor's sneaking out to work at night leads Irma to believe he's cheating on her, which leads her to try to run away with Lord X who is really Nestor... and so on.

This movie is complicated, but oh so smart.  I'm not usually big on comedies longer than 90 minutes or so, and you could definitely feel Irma la Douce's length (THAT'S WHAT SHE SAID HEHEHEH).  But I didn't really mind, that much, because the movie was very watchable and funny, and Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine are both great once again.  Lemmon gets to show his range, playing two characters (or one character playing another, I guess) and showing off his physical comedy skills.  It's also, as expected from Billy Wilder, ridiculously mature for its time.  By 1963, his movies are getting pretty dirty, and it's awesome.  If you can commit to that insanely long running time, or maybe just watch it in two sittings, Irma la Douce is an extremely fun ride.  I know I said it's bloated and overlong like Magnolia, but hey, I happen to really like Magnolia too.


If you'd like, I have a bunch more Billy Wilder reviews and you can follow these links here to read them.

No comments:

Post a Comment