Captain Louis Renault from “Casablanca” (1943) vs. Nester Patou from “Irma la Douce” (1963): A Perfect Breen Film vs. A Perfect Shurlock Flop

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I would like to thank Eva of Coffee, Classics, and Craziness for allowing me to participate in her Good Cop, Bad Cop Blogathon, which ends today. It was an excellent opportunity for me to consider two French policeman who show the difference between the Breen era and the Shurlock era when it comes to the depiction of law enforcers, crime, and sin. I am going to compare Nester Patou, played by Jack Lemmon in Irma la Douce from 1963, with Louis Renault, played by Claude Rains in Casablanca from 1943. While the latter film was a perfect Code film during the glorious Breen era, the former was a film which was scandalous even during the loose early 60s Shurlock era. Let’s jump in the squad car and head to the French police headquarters to investigate these two cops to decide who is really the “good cop” and who is the “bad cop.”

Claude Rains’s Captain Louis Renault and Jack Lemmon’s Nester Patou have a similar appearance, since they both are costumed in the jaunty, belted black uniform and matching cap of the French police force, but do the similarities go any deeper than their attire? The first is a supporting character in Hal B. Wallis’s 1943 wartime sensation, the iconic Casablanca, and the second is the leading man in Billy Wilder’s 1963 Paris comedy, the scandalous Irma la Douce; the difference between these movies was bigger than the fact that Warner Brothers produced Casablanca while United Artists released Irma la Douce. When the former was made in 1942, Joseph I. Breen’s tenure as the head of the Production Code Administration was at its peak, so the Code was thoroughly enforced in the self-regulation of Casablanca and its most troublesome character, Louis Renault. By the time Irma la Douce was made in 1962, Geoffrey M. Shurlock was the head of the PCA, and his loose, weak policies of self-regulation had allowed the Code’s influence to become almost completely nonexistent by the time this movie presented a leading policeman character, Nester Patou, who would have been dynamite two decades earlier. We will examine the two characters in terms of their scenarios, their convictions, and their end results to show the difference between a French policeman in a perfect Code film from the Breen era and one in a Shurlock era film which flagrantly mocked the Code.

When Irma la Douce begins, Nester Patou is an upright policeman of a low rank in France; when Casablanca begins, Captain Renault is the admittedly corrupt prefect of police in unoccupied France. At the opening of Irma la Douce, Nester has just been transferred from the children’s play area in a park to the more risqué play area of a red-light district in Paris; in contrast, Captain Renault has apparently been at his post in Casablanca for a while when the movie begins. Both policemen are in the middle of areas with notorious black markets; however, Patou is a naïve bystander, while Renault is a primary member of the illegal business. When Nester first surveys his new territory, the young policeman has a sneaking suspicion that the dozens of women who are loitering on the street in costumes a la the Folies Bergere are members of “the oldest profession.” When he finally confirms their industry, he promptly has them all arrested and thrown into a police wagon. In complete contrast, Captain Renault makes a tidy profit off selling visas to travelers who are desperate to proceed to Lisbon and can afford his prices. When the cutrate visa seller Ugarte (Peter Lorre) is arrested and killed, Louis has no competition in the visa business. Unfortunately, Nester Patou is also working in a corrupt police force; he just doesn’t happen to be part of the racket. He refuses to believe that police officers except money in exchange for not reporting the immoral business in the area. However, the inspector of police in Paris, like the head official in unoccupied France, is corrupt and eager to accept favors. When Nester discovers him among the customers he found with the loose women, he is fired. Renault has no such problems, since he is in charge and thus has the right to do anything he wants to, even if it’s against the law; he is lucky enough to not have any junior officers like Patou who are concerned about pesky things like enforcing the law.

Patou is the stereotype of the “good cop,” the overzealous young officer who wants to enforce every law, but Renault is a less stereotypical example of a “bad cop,” since he is obviously unscrupulous while possessing smooth, charming manners. When the movie begins, Nester Patou is an upright young police officer who has high standards about everything. He abstains totally from alcohol, liquor, and immoral relationships on duty and off. In contrast, Captain Renault is a middle-aged officer who has decided to use his rank to enjoy worldly pleasure. He is constantly ordering champagne at Rick’s Café, he smokes deliberately and frequently, once even lighting one cigarette with another, and he is a connoisseur of the women who need visas but have no money. Nester is a person of high moral character, yet he is also characterized as a very naïve individual. Thus, his morality seems more like inexperience than decency. When the test of his real character comes, he fails, since he had only dogmas, not real principles. In complete contrast, Captain Renault knows that he is immoral and unscrupulous from the beginning; he even refers to himself as “a poor corrupt official.” He attempts to keep some appearances of decency, since he won’t accept money for a visa in the crowded nightclub. However, at other times, he is absolutely shameless, such as when he casually reveals that Ugarte was killed and when he accepts his winnings while closing the gambling in Rick’s place; he doesn’t even try to hide it.

Lieutenant Patou and Captain Renault begin their respective movies as completely opposite characters, so it is no wonder that they end their movies antithetically. Nester Patou is a “good cop” who is incorruptible, principled, sober, serious, and full of high ideals about the dignity of the police force. Louis Renault is a “bad cop” who sells illegal exit visas, overlooks the black-market business conducted in Rick’s Café, allows the café to remain open because he always wins at crooked roulettes, and makes any unscrupulous deal which is convenient at the moment. Both police officers want to impress their superiors, but they have different means for doing this and different goals; Nester wants to receive credit and acclaim for his fine work on the force, but Louis wants to win favor and importance with the current dominant group, the Third Reich, by flattering the foremost Nazi in unoccupied France, Major Strasser. This ambition leads each man to his ultimate fate; both fail while attempting to receive glory and acclaim. Nester tries to capture a whole wagon full of lawbreakers by arresting all the perpetrators in the Hotel Casanova; Louis tries to arrest the famous French Underground leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) by making a deal with Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) which will trap him. However, both plans are foiled by unpredicted human action. Nester is fired for raiding the inspector of police’s handy little setup, for discovering the inspector’s involvement with the illegal business, and for accepting bribes; he hadn’t even realized that money was put in his hat. Captain Renault is about to arrest Laszlo for receiving a letter of transit from Rick, but the latter forces him to change his plans by threatening him with a gun; Renault is forced to aid Laszlo’s escape on the last plane for Lisbon that night. Nester’s high morals fall to ruin with his police career; in the scene after he is fired, he drinks cognac, casually chats with Irma (Shirley MacLaine), and eventually goes to her apartment with her. His naivete is unbelievable at this point, but it doesn’t make him do the right thing. By the time he realizes what she has in mind, he goes right along. His last decent impulse is modesty, since he insists that Irma put on her sleeping mask when he gets undressed. After spending the night with her, he becomes her pimp, and he is fully engulfed in the life which he so thoroughly despised at the beginning of the movie. In Casablanca, Captain Renault is forced to let Victor Laszlo and his wife escape Casablanca and the clutches of the Third Reich because he is not willing to be shot for his “principles.” After the plane has left, Major Strasser arrives and tries to foil the Laszlos’ escape by telephoning the radio tower; Rick threatens him with a gun, beats him to the draw, and kills him. When some officers run up, Louis has a sudden change of heart and tells them to “round up the usual suspects,” thus sparing Rick from arrest. When they are alone again, he notes that Rick turned out to be a patriot; he says that becoming one is not a bad idea. Realizing that the bottle from which he had just poured a drink contains Vichy water, he tosses the bottle into the waste basket and kicks it over; he really becomes a Frenchman at that moment, since he decides to stop taking orders from Nazi Vichy and to be a patriot, too. He tells Rick that he will arrange their passage to the Free French garrison at Brazzaville; Captain Renault has joined the fight for freedom.

In 1942, great care was taken in the portrayal of the prefect of police. Since he was a French officer and not an American one, there was no real problem with him being corrupt. His business of selling exit visas was acceptable in the story’s context. The Production Code Administration’s main concern was the visas he sold for favors to poor women. The play’s explicitness surrounding this situation was eliminated, and the whole scenario was greatly toned down. By 1963, the PCA was a ghost of its former self. In nine years, Geoffrey Shurlock had let it decay and diminish until it was nothing more than a weak censor board. They no longer reviewed storylines, plots, scripts, source materials, and costumes with loving, painstaking care. They merely reviewed the final print and granted a seal or demanded a few cuts or retakes. Thus, no care was taken in the portrayal of a junior police officer who falls prey to the vice in Paris. He starts with high ideals, yet he quickly becomes part of the business which he had condemned the day before. His moral descent reflects the industry’s ethics’ descent. Mr. Shurlock started his tenure as the Code administrator full of fine principles and high ideals, yet he quickly let them fall apart. A few failures and some opposition were enough to defeat him. He could talk, but he couldn’t fight. His arguments against trivial things in unacceptable films were like Nester Patou hanging newspapers in the windows with clothespin when he went to Irma’s apartment. They didn’t fix anything; they were just feeble attempts to cover something.

There is a disturbing, offensive element about Nester Patou’s character that lies below the surface. In many ways, it is worse than the plot about loose women and immorality in Paris. Nester is portrayed as a moral, upright person. However, he is not a voice of morality or a compensating moral value in a sea of wickedness; he is an uptight laughingstock among people who, according to the film’s philosophy, “know how to enjoy life.” He is a caricature of the moral-minded people in the 1920s and 30s who believed in total abstinence, combatted prurience, and fought for decency. He is not depicted as a well-meaning reformer who has dignity and intelligence. He is a blundering buffoon with the naivete of a young, sheltered child. He talks loudly about his principles, but he reaches for the bottle when trouble finds him and makes no fight against temptation. He goes upstairs with Irma, foolishly thinking that she is inviting him to dry off on her couch. When he finally realizes that that isn’t the case, he doesn’t even attempt to flee temptation. He goes willy-nilly along with her. Obviously, he has no gumption, since he’ll do anything she tells him to. That morning, he was a moral policeman who abstained from alcohol, tobacco, and immorality of any kind. By that night, he has completely forsaken his ideals without even a second thought. At the end of the movie, the only principle he has retained is his abhorrence of smoking. It’s more than a silly plot. It’s a well-planned jab at those who had demanded decency for years, namely, the Code and its administrators. Billy Wilder’s three Shurlock era films with Jack Lemmon, Some Like It Hot from 1959, The Apartment from 1960, and Irma la Douce from 1963, are examples of movies which he didn’t even try to make during the Breen era. These, like many movies from that time, have very risqué treatments, but the problems go deeper than that. They all are based on immoral plot material. Some Like It Hot probably could have been made into a Breen film, but it would have been quite different. The Apartment also could have, but it would have been very different, too. Irma la Douce could never be a real Code film, since the whole plot revolves around prostitution, which is forbidden under the Code. When you remove that, all you have is a young policeman who rescued a little boy from drowning at a children’s park and a dog with kidney stones.

During the Breen era, law officers couldn’t be generally disparaged. One police officer, such as Captain Renault, could be evil or corrupt, but the whole force wasn’t put up to ridicule. The corruption in the French police force is made a casual laughing matter in Irma la Douce, but such bad law enforcement is hardly a proper subject for comedy. The audience is neither supposed to care or be disappointed when Nester leaves the police force, since it didn’t fit his ideals anyway. When Captain Renault decides to become a patriot and put aside his sordid dealings, everyone in the audience is pleased for him. There is something likeable about him throughout the film, so we’re glad that he turns out to be a decent fellow after all. In the end, Nester is a “bad cop” because he doesn’t continue to fight for law enforcement after he is fired. After one failed raid, he decides to join the lawbreakers! In contrast, Captain Renault turns out to be a “good cop” because he protects the cause of the French Underground by allowing Victor to escape and by protecting Rick. His desire to go to the headquarters of France Libre in Congo redeems his past evils. Although they wear the same uniform, all Nester Patou and Louis Renault have in common is a fondness for Vichy Water.

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7 thoughts on “Captain Louis Renault from “Casablanca” (1943) vs. Nester Patou from “Irma la Douce” (1963): A Perfect Breen Film vs. A Perfect Shurlock Flop

  1. Your comment about how the audience is pleased for Captain Renault’s change of heart is one of the things which makes Casablanca a true classic.

    On the other hand, while I admire Billy Wilder’s skill as a writer and director, there is something inherently distasteful about Irma La Douce and the atmosphere of the film. The lack of principles indicated by Nestor’s character makes light of his downfall, so the story has no depth.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear Patricia,

      I’m glad that you agree with me about these two movies. It is interesting to compare movies from different time periods. Thank you for reading my article and taking the time to comment!

      Yours Hopefully,

      Tiffany Brannan

      Like

  2. What a fascinating post! Admittedly, I haven’t seen ‘Irma la Douce’ (and doubt I ever will), but your commentary on the similarities and differences between Renault and Patou was still really interesting to read. It’s sad how the Code became so lax and I really wish it would come back.

    Thanks for participating in the blogathon!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear Eva,

      Thank you so much for hosting this blogathon. I really enjoyed participating in it. I hope it was a great success for you.

      Thank you so much for your kind comment. I’m so glad that your liked my article. I can tell that we have a lot in common. It means a lot to me that you think the Code should be brought back, too. If you’d like to show your support for our movement, you can follow our website. PEPS is represented on social media by my friend Promise Pope. Our Facebook page is @peps4Code.

      I’m thinking about starting a new feature called “What The Code Means to Me.” In this, I plan to have different bloggers write about their own opinions on the Code in the past and its possibilities in the future. I want to have one each month. I would love to feature you as the first. You could write a general overview of your opinions about the Code, or you could have a more specific point of view. You could write about how you feel about the Code because of your religious standpoints or political views, how the Code effected some aspect of society in the past, how it influenced an individual movie or particular genre of film, or how it relates to some personal experience of yours. You could also write about how it could effect modern art and culture and yours feelings about the potential of a modern Code. Really, anything that could have fallen into the third category of the Great Breening Blogathon which we hosted in the fall would apply. You can see our rules about the third category at https://pureentertainmentpreservationsociety.wordpress.com/2017/09/07/extra-the-great-breening-blogathon/ and https://pureentertainmentpreservationsociety.wordpress.com/2017/08/25/announcing-the-great-breening-fest/. I know this may be a bit overwhelming, but I know that it would be mutually profitable for both of us. I would provide a little banner and an initial announcement to which you could link, and then I would write an article about your article to promote it. I hope that you will agree to participate for either April or May.

      I look forward to hearing from you, Eva!

      Yours Hopefully,

      Tiffany Brannan

      Like

      • I’m incredibly flattered that you would consider me for your blog series, but unfortunately I know hardly anything about the Code so I don’t think any article I wrote would be informative enough. Do you know of any good books on the subject? Because I really would like to know more and if I was able to read a book before June, I seriously consider writing an article.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Dear Eva,

          Thank you so much for your prompt, gratifying reply. I am terribly glad that you are even interested in participating. Many books have been written on the subject, but there are two that I would definitely recommend. “Joseph I. Breen: Hollywood’s Censor” by Thomas A. Doherty is the only biography that has ever been written about the head of the Production Code Administration, Mr. Breen. Mr. Doherty’s book is very scholarly, in-depth, and informative. It provides information about Mr. Breen’s life as well as Hollywood itself during the Golden Era. I disagree with the fact that he calls Mr. Breen a censor in the title and throughout the book, but it is still the best source for general research. The other book I recommend is “See No Evil: Life Inside a Hollywood Censor” by Jack A. Vizzard. This book, which was published in 1970, is more about the story behind the story. It offers a behind the scenes look at the Code and its enforcers that can be found nowhere else, since it was written by one of the members of the PCA. This book provides a lot less information, but it’s easier to read, since it is a personal commentary on one man’s experiences. The other book is more like something you would get in an advanced course on Hollywood history. My one objection to this book is that it has some rather rough language, which is unfortunate. However, if you can overlook that, it really shows the feeling and the complete picture of how the PCA worked with Hollywood filmmakers. For someone who wants to get the facts and the feeling, I recommend both books. You can used copies of both for a reasonable price on Amazon and Ebay. Thomas Doherty’s book is also available as an ebook on Amazon.

          Another excellent source for information about the PCA is the Margaret Herrick Library’s Digital Collection. Among George Cukor’s letters and files about Cecil B. Demille, you’ll find a collection called the Motion Picture Association of America, Production Code Administration records. Here is the link: http://digitalcollections.oscars.org/cdm/landingpage/collection/p15759coll30. The library in Beverly Hills contains all the records from the PCA! Over thirty-four years worth of letters and memos between the studios and the self-regulators are kept there. While not all these files are available online, hundreds of famous and obscure movies can be found within the files. I can spend a great deal of time looking at the photocopies pages which show the progress of movies like “Life with Father” from plays riddled with profanity to Code-compliant movies. I also enjoy deciphering which members of the PCA self-regulated different movies by observing the initials and numbers put in the lower left corner of every letter.

          I hope I haven’t confused you. If any other these sources sound interesting, I hope that you will choose to participate in whatever month is convenient for you. Good luck with all your writing!

          Yours Hopefully,

          Tiffany Brannan

          Like

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