Avanti! (1972) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

Avanti-DVDUptight Baltimore business executive Jack Lemmon and lovelorn British hairdresser Juliet Mills meet cute in Italy, lose their inhibitions (and their clothes) and get mixed up in blackmail, murder and a dash of body snatching in Avanti!, Billy Wilder’s autumnal romance. It was adapted from an unsuccessful Samuel Taylor play – later re-titled ‘A Touch of Spring’ – that was originally set in Rome. The film however relocates to Ischia, the beautiful volcanic island near Naples, and was filmed entirely on location on the Amalfi coast. A box-office disappointment in its day, this mellow, deeply romantic black comedy of clashing cultures and mixed up bodies, deserved to do much better.

The following review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his fab Sweet Freedom blog.

“I don’t object to foreigners speaking a foreign language. I just wish they’d all speak the same foreign language”

Lemmon is Wendell Armbruster Jr, scion of a wealthy industrialist though when we first see him things are not going his way. He transfers from the company jet into a commercial Alitalia plane (no, I don’t know why he didn’t just fly direct – maybe he ran out of fuel), wearing the most unbecoming of attire and soon sidles up to another passenger and heads to the bathroom with him – this causes some consternation among the crew and passengers, which is not relieved when the two men emerge, but wearing each other’s clothes! This five-minute sequence, virtually silent without a line of dialogue, is a paen to the comedy of early cinema and all seems very quaint now but was conceived as a slightly racy mile high club joke then.

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It turns out that Wendell Armbruster Sr just died while at a health resort in Italy and his son has rushed straight from the golf course to collect the body and bring it back to the US in time for the equivalent of a state funeral (Kissinger will be attending). On the journey to the island spa (involving transfers to a trains and then hydrofoil and then a small coach) he keeps bumping into the black-clad Pamela Piggott, who seems to know rather too much about him while spouting inanities from a guide-book. At the hotel it emerges that her mother had been in the same car as Wendell’s father and that she too is there to collect a body – in fact their parents had been conducting an affair for ten years, which upsets Wendell no end though Miss Piggott (as he insists on referring to her) seems much calmer about it. She sees it all in a much more romantic spirit (but then this wasn’t news to her), instead worrying much more about her tendency to put on weight and the fact that her musician boyfriend (currently working on a musical about the Titanic called ‘Splash’) walked off with her telly and her hairdryer. Wendell on the other can be a real jerk at times, stuffy, uptight and downright rude.

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At this point, as they say, complications ensue as Italian beurocracy proves an obstacle (Wendell needs to find a zinc-lined coffin for export and fill in enormous amounts of paperwork) as does the fact that the bodies suddenly vanish from the morgue – to say nothing blackmail photos being produced after a dawn swim in the nude and a shooting in the hotel. Time for hotel manager Carlo Carlucci (played by the great Clive Revill with a pretty decent Italian accent) to prove his worth. This leads to plenty of stereotypical ‘funny foreigner’ moments (all played by real Italians however, including the hugely popular local comic Pippo Franco as the local undertaker), which does date the film, but only slightly. Wendell gets exasperated while Pamela gives in to the senses – here is a typical exchange:

“I guess there is something to what it says in the tourist guide.”
“What does it say?”
“It says Italy is not a country – it’s an emotion.”
“Well, it’s certainly been an experience!”

This is after their dawn swim in which they both end up basking in the sun naked (except for Wendell’s socks) – the film has a little bit of nudity, which is handled with some charm and is pretty democratic as Lemmon is seen naked (from behind) about as often as Mills.

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Nearly all Billy Wilder’s films feature disguises and switches of identity, from Ginger Rogers pretending to be a schoolgirl in The Major and the Minor and Fred MacMurray disguised as Barbara Stanwyck’s husband in Double Indemnity; the duplicitous women in Witness for the Prosecution and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes; to Jack Lemmon masquerading as Professor X in Irma La Deuce, pretending to have a bad back in The Fortune Cookie or getting all dragged up with Tony Curtis in Some Like it Hot. In Avanti! this is handled quite subtly, tracking Wendell’s progress through the movie as he traverses a comic equivalent of Kübler-Ross’ ‘five stages of grief’ as he slowly takes on and accepts the role played by his father, after whom he is named, coming to understand the man finally in death. Already running the family company, he starts wearing his father’s clothes and using his nick-name to try and sway Pamela to get the bodies back when he mistakenly believes she has hidden them (she is innocent however); and ultimately, when he gives in to the romantic charm of the resort, he chooses to continue what now will become a generational tradition, his journey complete after finding people he really cares about. He’ll still be an annoying plutocrat, but will have a much softer, mellower side, one where love, kindness and forgiveness can finally make a home.

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It takes two hours for the protagonists to get into a clinch, which seems absurdly long (the film itself runs nearly two and a half hours) but this is actually very smart, playing to the essence of romance. Like any real love affair, it’s not the bedroom hanky panky but the intimacy that one truly desires, so getting there really is part of the fun. It also makes the bittersweet finale all the more poignant as the two seem to have barely had time to finally give in to their feelings before they are rudely separated again. Lemmon is perfect in a tailor-made role as a man being driven nuts life’s little annoyances while Mills is delightful as the beautiful woman with problems of self-image (saying at one point, “I’m short, I’m fat and I’m not very attractive” – all untrue to anyone with eyes to see) – they make for a great pairing and it’s a shame they never go to make another film together.

The film is far from perfect – there is some coarseness and crudity to take advantage of the softening of censorship and some of the more old-fashioned farcical elements (characters rush in and out of hotel rooms a lot) may grate with some – but the cast is charming, the locations beautifully shot by the great Luigi Kuveiller and the music stunning – and there are lots of great jokes too. Oh, and speaking of the music, if you are not transported by the beautiful melody of the theme song – Gino Paoli’s classic ‘Senza Fine’ (which you can listen to here) – well, then I hate to break it to you, but it’s quite possible you have no soul. But never fear, there is a remedy at hand …

It’s a great movie and it’s available freely (and illegally) in its entirety on YouTube – watch it and succumb to its spell.

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DVD Availability: Easy to find on DVD in a decent no-frills edition with an anamorphic transfer, in France this is also available on Blu-ray but apparently has forced French subtitles when you choose the non-dubbed option, so I’ll be sticking with my older disc for now.

Avanti (1972)
Director: Billy Wilder
Producer: Billy Wilder
Screenplay:  Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond (from the play by Samuel Taylor)
Cinematography: Luigi Kuveiller
Art Direction: Ferdinando Scarfiotti
Music: Carlo Rustichelli (after Gino Paoli, Sergio Bruni, Roberto Murolo et al)
Cast: Jack Lemmon, Juliet Mills, Clive Revill, Edward Arnold, Giselda Castrini, Pippo Franco

***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

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24 Responses to Avanti! (1972) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

  1. le0pard13 says:

    Haven’t seen this in ages! Your fine write-up a good excuse as anything to rectify that, Sergio. Many thanks.

  2. Sergio – Oh, this is a terrific film. I’m so very pleased that you reminded us of it! :-). I really do like the Lemmon/Mills chemistry, and of course there’s the setting. You really don’t see comic/caper/romance films like this very often any more. Well, at least not well-done ones. Thanks for the terrific review.

    • Thanks Margot – so glad it’s not just me that loves this movie – probably a stretch to call it a mystery despitre the various crime elements, but I just don’t care!

  3. Colin says:

    Sergio, this may sound strange to anyone familiar with the kind of stuff I generally write about but Avanti is quite possibly my favorite film. As such, I’m delighted not only that you decided to feature it, but also that you wrote about it so damned well! I think it’s fair to say that you hit on every one its strengths, every point where it works so sublimely.

    I find the central love story unbelievably charming, that pacing which you allude to is just about perfect in my opinion. But generally, the ambiance of the whole thing speaks to me. Somehow, Wilder captured the essential romance of the Mediterranean lifestyle; so much of the broad comedy actually reminds me of the attitudes that still prevail to an extent in that part of the world. I honestly fell in love with the Mediterranean when I first visited and that feeling has never really faded, leading to my spending so much of my adult life here. I can’t really explain why, but this film always seems to sum up the frustrations and delights of living with that quirky and alluring mistress that is the Med.

    And can I just add my unqualified agreement regarding Senza Fine – one of the most beautiful and evocative pieces of music it’s ever been my pleasure to hear. Wonderful post, made my day!

    • You are far too kind – thanks Colin, very much. There is a melancholy beauty to the film that really matches how I feel about my home country (and much of its best cinema) – full of beauty and life and yet with a strong sense of its transitory nature while surrounded by decades of cultural and historical emblems.

      • Colin says:

        There is a degree of melancholy that comes from it, but overall I find it a tremendously positive film. Much of Wilder’s work seems to have such an undercurrent although it’s often buried beneath a cynical facade. In this case, I reckon the positivity shines through a little more clearly.

        • Wilder apparently saw it as a father and son story and I think that really does come through – Lemmon is such a typically obnoxious executive at the beginning and it is just great to see him slowly but surely succumb – there that great moment when he and Pamela are having breakfast and she asks for somethign and he says she can can anything she wants – and you know he truly means it – just wonderful

        • PS speaking of the music – you can listen to the lilting Carlo Rustichelli score here.

          • Colin says:

            Actually, I was going to post a link to that myself! Variations of Senza Fine have been used in a number of films from The Flight of the Phoenix to the risible Ghost Ship. I really like Rusticelli’s arrangement in this one though.

          • I agree that the Rustichelli is the most delicate and sweet – the one for Phoenix (a film I actually like a lot) is just plain weird though!

          • Colin says:

            Try the Xavier Cugat version –

          • That’s about 18 types of wrong – and I like Xavier Cugat! Do you know, I honestly had not remembered it had been used in the Aldrich movie (but then, with no disrispect to Frank DeVol, the music scores for nearly all his films are pretty begligible really).

  4. Patti Abbott says:

    I have not seen this one since I was a kid and obviously missed a lot of its charms. Lemmon is always terrific though. Juliet Mills seemed an odd choice of a romantic interest for him at the time. Always so schoolmarmish to me. Although when I think about it, Lemmon didn’t really play romantic leads so often. Perhaps Judy Holiday worked best with him. But really I think he was best matched with Walter Matthau.

    • That’s interesting Pati – Lemmon didn’t play too many romantic leads after the early 1960s, did he? I really like the mellowness of this late romance – it is quite possible the ‘kindest’ film Billy Wilder ever made – I find it really funny and moving too at times – beautifully made.

  5. TracyK says:

    I will have to give this a try. The only thing I take issue with is the length, for some reason I don’t do well with long films. I had not realized how often Billy Wilder’s films feature disguises until you mentioned it.

    • It really doesn’t fell long (honest) as there is always something going on – frankly I wish it were twice as long but it is very carefully worked out – me, I think you’ll love it (this is my default position with Avanti! of course …)

  6. A fine review as ever, Sergio. Lemmon used to be one of my favourite actors from his era because his films were essentially clean with a dose of humour. While I can’t remember if I saw this film, I have seen some of his other movies including IRMA LA DEUCE, SOME LIKE IT HOT, and THE APARTMENT, not to mention his many Mutt ‘n Jeff outings with Walter Matthau. I wonder if the vintage comic strip was an inspiration for their collaboration. Years later I was quite shocked to see him as an old man in DAD (with Ted Danson) and THE ODD COUPLE II that didn’t impress me. He was one of those evergreen heroes who never aged. Your review also brought back memories of AIRPORT ’77 probably the most popular in the airport series.

    • Hi Prashant, well you mention a lot of great movies there, especiallt The Apartment. Lemmon didn’t age particulalrly well in some of his later films – or rather, he was doing fine (like in Glengarry Glen Ross) until he got a facelift, which really didn’t suit him. I do remember quite enjoying his Airport film though the first one is the only one I remember with any great clarity. What is great about Lemmon is that he really could do both comedy and drama (Days of Wine and Roses is a great example of where we see him do both).

      • I think IRMA LA DEUCE, and THE APARTMENT were some of the earliest films to be remade in Hindi by Bollywood. You’re right about AIRPORT ’77 which, I thought, was better than the first one starring Charlton Heston or the ones that followed, one of which was based on Arthur Hailey’s novel AIRPORT.

        • I have never seen the Hindi remakes – they sound fascinating. Have you seen them – what are they like? The original Airport, starring Burt Lancaster and Dean Martin, was a gigantic hit and made about $50 million. Charlton Heston starred in Airport ’75 which was less successful but still did pretty well – oddly enough it is more closely based on the Hailey novel than the original movie. After Airport ’77 came ‘Airport ’79: The Concorde, co-starring Alain Delon was was pretty silly as I recall, even compared with the previous entries – and that was that. After Airplane spoofed them I think they couldn’t make any more.

          • Sergio, I’d no idea Burt Lancaster and Dean Martin starred in a film called AIRPORT before Heston’s AIRPORT 75. I’d love to see it. I have seen most of the Hindi remakes of early Hollywood films including a film called “Man Pasand” (My Favourite) which was a very good remake of MY FAIR LADY. In fact, SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY was remade into Hindi at least thrice, I think. There’re virtually dozens of remakes. I haven’t seen any of the more recent versions.

          • Facinating stuff about those remakes Prashant, I hope you post about them! The Lancaster film is well worth getting (and easy to find on DVD), not least for its fabulous score by Alfred Newman (his last) and a scenstealing and Oscar-winning supporting performance by the great Helen Hayes as a lady who just doesn’t like paying for her tikets …

  7. Pingback: Classic crime in the blogosphere: November 2013 | Past Offences

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