Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Target #219: Avanti! (1972, Billy Wilder)

TSPDT placing: #841
Directed by: Billy Wilder
Written by: Samuel A. Taylor (play), I.A.L. Diamond (writer), Billy Wilder (writer)
Starring: Jack Lemmon, Juliet Mills, Clive Revill, Edward Andrews, Gianfranco Barra, Franco Angrisano

After decades of dishing out enough cynicism to make a clergyman lose all faith in humanity, I'm almost glad that, by 1972, director Billy Wilder and co-screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond had gotten most of it out of their system. Wilder's fifth film with Jack Lemmon, Avanti! (1972), can only be described as a pleasant comedy – so pleasant, in fact, that our lead character commits adultery seemingly out of politeness. There are, of course, elements of satire concerning foreign policy and the miles of red-tape surrounding international commerce, but the overwhelming emotional tone is one of bittersweet fulfillment. This is a great director approaching the twilight of his life and career, and finally recognising that there is, after all, much goodness in this world, even if one must travel to Italy in order to experience it. Nevertheless, the three major creative talents (Wilder, Diamond and Lemmon) would subsequently return to cynical quickfire slapstick with The Front Page (1974), an adaptation of the same play that spawned Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday (1940).

Jack Lemmon plays Wendell Armbruster, Jr, a wealthy American businessman who boards the first plane to Italy following the news of his father's death. Wendell Armbruster, Sr was killed in an automobile accident while on his annual pilgrimage to the Grand Hotel Excelsior, where he goes, he says, to rejuvenate in their famous Italian mud baths. It doesn't take long, however, for Wendell to discover that his much-respected father had not died alone, and that his secret English mistress of ten years had also perished when their vehicle ploughed off a winding road and into a vineyard. Pamela Piggott (Juliet Mills), the mistress' open-minded daughter, has also arrived in the country to claim her mother's body, and Wendell treats her poorly, his steadfast morals refusing to acknowledge their parents' liaison for the great love that it was. As the two corpses become embroiled in endless lengths of red tape – including the need to acquire two zinc-lined coffins, and no shortage of obscure contracts to be signed – Wendell and Pamela begin to understand their close connection, and form a touching relationship of their own.

Though the two leads both deliver sterling comedic performances, Clive Revill is undoubtedly the film's highlight as Carlo Carlucci, the world's most accommodating hotel manager. Blessed with political connections of all kinds, and an inability to sleep until the hotel's off-season, Carlo darts endlessly across town to tie up all the loose ends, apparently expecting nothing in return – he's probably Wilder's all-time nicest comedic creation. The narrative style is similar to that of Arthur Hiller's The Out of Towners (1970), in that the story is comprised of many consistently-mounting setbacks, though the overall effect is far less frustrating for the audience and spares sufficient time to allow some important character development. There is also a rather unnecessary subplot involving a deported American immigrant and his disturbingly-masculine girlfriend, and the film, however nice its intentions, does run about half an hour overtime. Nevertheless, Avanti! is a mature romantic comedy with memorable performances and a very enjoyable story; I wouldn't be surprised if it warms to me greatly with repeat viewings.

Currently my #5 film of 1972:
1) The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola)
2) Sleuth (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
3) Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes {Aguirre: The Wrath of God} (Werner Herzog)
4) Frenzy (Alfred Hitchcock)
5) Avanti! (Billy Wilder)
Currently my #15 film from director Billy Wilder:
1) Double Indemnity (1944)
2) The Apartment (1960)
3) Sunset Blvd. (1950)
4) Some Like It Hot (1959)
5) Irma la Douce (1963)
6) The Lost Weekend (1945)
7) Stalag 17 (1953)
8) Five Graves to Cairo (1943)
9) The Fortune Cookie (1966)
10) Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
11) One, Two, Three (1961)
12) Sabrina (1954)
13) The Major and the Minor (1942)
14) The Front Page (1974)
15) Avanti! (1972)
16) The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)

Billy Wilder on the TSPDT top 1000:
#28 - Some Like it Hot (1959)
#31 - Sunset Blvd. (1950)
#67 - The Apartment (1960)
#91 - Double Indemnity (1944)
#580 - Ace in the Hole (1951)
#841 - Avanti! (1972)
#905 - The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)
#987 - One, Two, Three (1961)

What others have said:

"Avanti! isn't a laugh-a-minute kind of a movie, and it's too long by maybe half an hour. It also suffers from the problem that the audience has everything figured out several minutes before Jack Lemmon does. Still, the movie has a certain charm, some of which seeps in along with the locations, and there is in most of the many Wilder/Lemmon collaborations a cheerful insouciance, as if life is best approached with a cheerful, if puzzled, grin."
Roger Ebert, January 1, 1972

"This 1972 release is the most underrated of all Billy Wilder comedies and arguably the one that comes closest to the sweet mastery and lilting grace of his mentor, Ernst Lubitsch. The development of Mills and Lemmon's own romance over various bureaucratic complications is gradual and leisurely paced; at 144 minutes, this is an experience to roll around on your tongue. Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond adapted a relatively obscure play by Samuel A. Taylor, and the lovely music is by Carlo Rustichelli."
Jonathan Rosenbaum

"Stylistically mirroring the spiritual transformation of its protagonists and its theme of rejuvenation, AVANTI! is like a leisurely sun-drenched vacation which one begins feeling cranky and tired and emerges refreshed and invigorated. Shamefully underrated when it was released and attacked for being overlong and dated, the film's critics seem to have completely missed the point that these very qualities are intrinsic to Wilder's strategy to dramatize the essential conflict between Old World European charm--with its three-hour lunch breaks and relaxed pace... and the rat race of the Ugly American, personified by the obnoxious, finger-snapping Wendell who has no time to enjoy life and has a set of ulcers to prove it."
TV Guide's Movie Guide

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