Need a break from violence, misery, and injustice? Or maybe just the network TV news? Billy Wilder’s last great comic romance is an Italian vacation soaked in music, food, scenery and sunshine. It’s the best movie ever about Love and Funerals.
KL Studio Classics
1972 / Color/ 1:85 widescreen / 140 min. / Street Date October 10, 2017 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Jack Lemmon, Juliet Mills, Clive Revill, Edward Andrews, Harry Ray, Guidarino Guidi, Franco Acampora, Sergio Bruni, Ty Hardin.
Cinematography: Luigi Kuveiller
Film Editor: Ralph Winters
Art direction: Ferdinando Scarfiotti
Music Arranger: Carlo Rustichelli
Italian standards by Gino Paoli, Giuseppi Capaldo, Vittoriao Fassone, Don Backy, Detto Mariano, Sergio Brui, Salvatore Cardillo, Umberto Bertini, Paolo Marchetti.
Written by I.A.L Diamond and Billy Wilder from a play by Samuel L. Taylor
Produced and Directed by Billy Wilder
When Billy Wilder was reaching advanced old age, good friends rallied to make sure he knew he wasn’t going to be forgotten. Writer-director Cameron Crowe wrote a book lauding Wilder’s many accomplishments and celebrating his life. I always applauded Wilder’s spunk when making a speech a few years earlier – as could expected, he put his attitude toward mortality in the form of a joke.
“Doctor, I’m having trouble peeing.”
“Hm, really? How old are you now?”
“Oh, well then,” says the doctor, “You’ve peed enough.”
That really seems a healthy response to the onslaught of old age.
Avanti! was a completely unjustified box office disaster for Billy Wilder, and worse, his second in a row. The picture was released in a year disinterested in mature romance or wistful comedy; I think it’s safe to say that the audience best suited for this winner had stopped going to movies. The baffled manager of the Westwood Theater made an enlargement of UCLA grad student Janey Place’s laudatory review from the Daily Bruin and put it by the box office, but to no avail. The few who came to the theaters loved the classically plotted farce and its piano pacing, the exact opposite of Wilder’s earlier machine-gun comedy One, Two, Three.
Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond again adapt a play with strong sense of structure and symmetry. High-powered executive Wendell Armbruster Jr. (Jack Lemmon) is more angry than despondent when he rushes to Italy to claim the body of his vacationing father, killed in a car accident. Hotel director Carlo Carlucci (Clive Revill) tries to explain why local red tape won’t allow the body to leave the country immediately, which aggravates Wendell to no end. Wendell also behaves boorishly to solicitous fellow traveler Pamela Piggott (Juliet Mills) when she tries to tell him that not only did his father not die alone, but that he had a lover. His yearly trips to Italy were to keep up an annual affair — with Pamela’s mother. Wendell soon learns what was really going on all those summers when the old man was away.
Critics lumped Wilder’s early ’70s movies with efforts by Howard Hawks and Blake Edwards, and called them old man’s movies. The implication was that the ‘mature’ directors were following their own intuition instead of catering to changing public tastes. Avanti! certainly has a geriatric appeal. It soaks up the scenery like a travelogue, frequently slowing down the pace to savor an Italian ballad, or three. Wilder swaps his Viennese standards for songs like Senza Fine, and discards his all-designed, all-controlled studio look for leisurely, outdoorsy colors.
Beginning as an annoying corporate hotshot, Jack Lemmon’s Armbruster spends the first forty minutes abusing people and acting dyspeptic. He’s perfectly fine when harping at Clive Revill’s unflappable hotelier Carlucci, but since it’s obvious he’ll soon melt into the familiar nice-guy Lemmon we all know, this section may grate on some people. Carlucci carries the responsibility of tons of expository dialogue, which Wilder and Diamond weave into pure comic poetry. Carlucci knows what Armbruster’s doesn’t, and his job is to keep the obnoxious businessman occupied long enough for the romantic spell of Italy to take hold.
Frankly, something about Lemmon’s aggressively nice guys of the previous decade was already wearing thin, and perhaps had been since pictures like Under the Yum-Yum Tree and Good Neighbor Sam. His character in Neil Simon’s The Out-of-Towners was fairly reprehensible, and I never understood why we were supposed to sympathize with his whiny white-collar petty crook in Save the Tiger. He did pull it together for Costa Gavras’ Missing, where his closed-minded father figure undergoes a political transformation.
Also put to task is brave actress Juliet Mills, who gained considerable weight for the role and has to weather the indignity of being called things like ‘fat ass.’ What star or actress today would put her career in jeopardy that way? Mills even has a brief nude scene, displaying her unnatural added pounds. But Avanti! isn’t about ‘beautiful people.’ It’s a unique romance that makes its lovers beautiful.
Contemporary critics sometimes faulted Wilder and Diamond’s attempt to ‘inject’ content like the nudity into such an old-fashioned story, a lame charge in a film that refuses to be exploitative. The ‘basking, like baby seals’ scene is crucial to the breakdown of Wendell Armbruster’s defenses, and also needed to maintain Wilder’s preferred symmetrical structure – like a gun in a drawer, if you talk about skinny dipping, you need to deliver some.
(Spoiler) If this were a horror film, we’d say that Pamela and Wendell are caught in a generational curse, doomed to repeat their parents’ fates. Wilder and Diamond’s romantic curse sees two strangers discover the beauty of their parents’ affair, and become inspired to recreate it. It’s both romantically apt and thematically resonant. Avanti! isn’t just about two lovers in a balmy vacation spot, it’s about the concept of romance itself. The supposed cynic Wilder concocts a ‘meeting cute’ in the shadow of a morgue. The resulting love affair occurs partly because it appears to be pre-ordained. Perhaps the bittersweet angle in Wilder romances is that love is never won cheaply. If Wilder brings death into the equation, perhaps it’s because he sees Love as a reaction to the fact of mortality.
Wilder has a penchant for Lubitsch-like farce material. Disguise and mistaken identity figure in almost all of his films, along with complicated symmetrical plotting. Wendell and Pamela’s retracing the romantic steps of their parents has a pleasing confected quality, because we perceive the pattern unfolding. Much earlier, when Wilder had the gall to make a creepy Hollywood movie about a doomed screenwriter, even that writer concocted a clever Lubitschian meet-cute: two teachers fall in love without ever making contact. They share a classroom, see, but they don’t directly meet one another because she teaches during the day and he teaches at night . . .
Critics that judge Wilder cynical or misogynistic need to see a key scene at the 37-minute mark. (spoiler again) Wendell and Pamela come together for a legal ceremony at the chapel mortuary where their parents lay side by side. When they affirm the identities of the bodies, saying ‘I do’, the moment doubles as a symbolic marriage. The amusing coroner, a gaunt man who notarizes multiple documents with lightning agility, finishes and allows a moment of silence. Wendell leaves, but Pamela walks over and opens a blind, allowing the outside sunlight to touch the bodies of the two lovers that died together. We suddenly realize that the moment has been carefully prepared. The ‘cynical’ Wilder expresses respect for the love of two old-timers we never see, yet who determine everything that happens to their children. Even the humorless coroner seems transformed, from comic relief into a sympathetic soul. It’s quite beautiful.
The impatient Yankee’s progress is blocked when the corpses disappear from the morgue. Wendell is harassed by body-snatching locals and blackmailed by a peeping-tom bellboy who was deported from America and wants desperately to return. The bellboy’s vendetta-obsessed Sicilian wife has her say as well. Then a go-getter U.S. State Department troubleshooter (Edward Andrews) arrives to speed things up, just when Wendell and Pamela would prefer they stayed slowed-down. Luckily, the resourceful Carlucci has a complicated solution that solves all problems and grants all wishes, even those of the crooked bellboy.
Wilder is obviously deep in love with Ischia and Italy, which includes the food and the language. In fact, the Italian heard in the movie creates extra jokes — the Italian-language speech of the coroner-clerk in the morgue is hilarious. Although many of the Italian characters are stereotypes — sneaky schemer, junior Mafiosi, Sicilian maid with a mustache — I don’t see the slightest patronizing on Wilder’s part. It’s a farce, and the Yankee hero is the most flawed character we see.
Janey Place’s old Daily Bruin article showed how Avanti! was a sentimental catalogue of previous Wilder situations. The final funeral is attended by a romantic orchestra (Love in the Afternoon) and the seven Trotta brothers (one even a dwarf), that recall the seven professors from Ball of Fire or the Trappist Monks from Sherlock Holmes. Naturally, there’s also a dialogue scene where someone describes a funny suicide attempt (several Wilder pictures). A carefully guarded coffin contains the opposite of what it’s supposed to contain, as in Some Like it Hot.
If all of this happened at Wilder’s earlier crackerjack pace, Avanti! might be far too frenetic. But there are slow stretches, and 144 minutes is a longish haul for a comedy. Normally, Wilder and Diamond’s Swiss-clock story construction doesn’t permit a scene to be dropped here or shortened there, and I certainly wouldn’t cut a thing now. But I can imagine that getting Wendell to Ischia faster would help, as would shrinking a scene or two of Mills running about the dock area eating ice cream. And I can remember viewers getting itchy when Edward Andrews shows up and unloads a lot of diplomatic C.I.A. mumbo-jumbo. It almost feels like Wilder is starting a new movie. First-time viewers might have been happier if the show were thirty minutes shorter. As Wilder’s movie is now an old friend, I want the show to stay longer, not go home too soon.
I’d label perfect the dinner scene on the hotel balcony. We’re happy to hear the orchestra reprise the medley of Italian ballads once again, and we get to meet the most gracious Italian Maitre D’ in film history. He’s gentle, thoughtful, and completely non-condescending, even when Pamela brings an apple to his fancy table and announces that it is all she will be eating. “Ver-ry Goo-ood,” he purrs, which is how we feel about the movie, too.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Avanti! finally gives this show its proper visual appeal. Luigi Kuiveiller’s original colors, which I saw twice in Westwood, are soft and light, and suggest the pleasing natural textures of some of the films of Néstor Almendros. The light isn’t just daylight; the morning is quite different from the afternoon, even in interiors.
Kino comes up with two great interviews, with Juliet Mills and Clive Revill. The delightful Ms. Mills has plenty to say about Wilder, Lemmon, and the production; the opportunity to star for Wilder was enough to make her willing to put on all that extra weight for the role. Clive Revill’s interview should probably have been shorter. His stories are just as interesting, but when the questions run thin he begins performing for the camera, enacting a role. He is a master at accents, especially for comic characters. Wilder first gave Revill a small but hilarious part of a Russian ballet impresario in the Sherlock Holmes movie. In Avanti! we’re completely convinced that Revill is Italian.
The original trailer is here, which unfortunately sells the film as an ordinary comedy, like There’s a Girl in My Soup. I’ve always felt that Billy Wilder is a deeply romantic filmmaker — yes, with a streak of acid. I think that the positive, satisfying Avanti! is a comedy masterpiece.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements: Interview with Juliet Mills, Interview with Clive Revill, original trailer.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 4, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson