Saturday, June 19, 2010


"Avanti!" (Billy Wilder, 1972) Based on a play by Samuel A. Taylor (who wrote "Vertigo" and "Sabrina"), "Avanti!" has been updated to the Nixon 70's by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, as a slightly smutty comedy of manners, where a business-stiff, Wendell Armbruster, Jr. (Wilder muse Jack Lemmon) travels to Ischia, Italy to identify and claim the body of his father (Wendell Armbruster, Sr.).  Turns out the son is stiffer than the dead father.  He is shocked...shocked! find that dear old Dad, who supposedly went to Ischia for the therapeutic baths, was carrying on an torrid affair with a British mistress.  This produces a prolonged hissy-fit—Lemmon excelled at these—where everything and everyone seems to be in a conspiracy to make claiming his father's body an unpleasant experience.  The idea!

It's a clever idea: Armbruster is such a stifled, constipated American that he can't think of any way but his way in which to do things.  And he's in Italy...heck, he's in Europe...which operates on a different clock, and respects things that Americans dismiss nowadays.  Like Sundays.

And people.

What a "backwards" place.

Before long, you hate everything American, and want to take an extended vacation...anywhere but here.  And there's only so much one can take.  For gung-ho Americans, it's an extended dig at the Motherland, and for self-loathing liberals, it's preaching to the choir.  Either way, it's not an awful lot of fun to watch. 

There has always been this quality to the later Wilder films—even "The Apartment" has it to an extent—a superior attitude that hammers points home far beyond the level of the wood, a decidedly cruel streak given to the characters not yet clued in to their own cluelessness.  No empathy.  No affection for the character.  A decided lack of charm imprinted on the character(and this from Taylor and Wilder?*) And if I can carry the carpentry metaphor a little further, it makes what could have been an elegant finish look pretty banged up.

What saves the film—besides the forward progress of the story and the character of Armbruster—are the performances of Clive Revill as the flusterily accomodating concierge of The Grand Hotel Excelsior, and by Juliet Mills, who plays the mistress' daughter, who has also made the journey to claim her mother's body.

You already know what happens, even before you see the film.  And that may be why audiences didn't go to see it.  That, and it takes so long to get there.  You may have some spark of affection for a retch, but you may not give them too much time, either.

The reason Wilder did this one?  Producer-agent Charles Feldman saw it as a play (it ran 28 performances) and bought it for Wilder to make.  Feldman, who'd made the disasterous 1967 James Bond spoof "Casino Royale," passed away soon after, and Wilder, perhaps out of loyalty and affection for the man who'd given him "The Seven Year Itch" years earlier, saw it through to the screen.  If only saw more of that grace and affection could have made it into the movie it inspired.

* In retrospect, those same charm-less qualities are given to Linus Larabee in "Sabrina" and the distraught "Scottie" Ferguson in "Vertigo."  At points, they are hateful characters, displaying attitudes that challenge an audience.  

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