Uptight 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.
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 hand can be a real jerk at times, stuffy, uptight and downright rude.
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 of 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 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.
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.
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 by 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 got 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.
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.
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