Avanti!, Directed by Billy Wilder

Avanti!, Directed by Billy Wilder
By Ron Falzone

Billy Wilder created several classic films leading up to his twin masterpieces, Some Like It Hot and The Apartment. Most studies of his work stop there, referring to his post-1960 output as his slide down from the mountaintop.  Admittedly, few if any movies could stand comparison to those two, or, for that matter, to his earlier Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole.  But discounting his later work means denying ourselves some true pleasures.

Avanti! (Amazon Link to MovieTrailer) is a solid example of late Wilder (1972), a movie just made for the sheer enjoyment of telling an entertaining story and getting a rise out of the audience.  As such, it is a delightful lasagna made up of equally savory layers of romantic comedy, travelogue, and hilarious politically incorrect Italian stereotypes.

Wendell Armbruster Sr. is a paragon of business, philanthropy and honor.  When he is killed in a car accident on Isola d’Ischia off the shores of Naples, his son (Jack Lemmon) must go to the island to claim the body.  When repressed Wendell Jr. gets there, he discovers that his father was not alone, that he died with his secret mistress of twenty years by his side.  Her body is claimed by the deceased’s live wire daughter, Pamela Piggott (Juliet Mills).  Needless to say, this will become a tale of “like parent, like child.”

In many ways, Avanti! is a traditional romcom.  It follows the “boy meets girl; boy loses girl; boy gets girl back” formula to a T.  But Wilder could never be counted on to just follow the rules.  In fact, whenever you detect that he is doing this, look below the surface to see that he is actually subverting them.  And Avanti! is no different.  If the model were being followed, then the complications the lovers face would be self-generated.  Each would misinterpret the other’s signals and wind up sabotaging the relationship.  Here, the sniping between the two comes from complications caused by outsiders.  Wendell and Pamela will find themselves victims of everything from Italian bureaucracy to extortion to a crime of passion.  Navigating their relationship would be tough enough; piloting it through the denizens of this crazy community is damn near impossible.

Avanti! reflects Wilder’s strengths as well as adding a few unexpected ones.  His facility for populating his comic stories with eccentrics, bureaucrats and self-serving servants is at its fullest flowering here.  Chief among those who provide the perfect comic underpinning is Clive Revill.   As Carlo Carlucci, the hotel manager and chief enabler of all the love affairs within, Revill amply displays the gift for understatement that made him one of Britain’s great farceurs. 

Wilder also brings to the fore his particular way with stereotypes.  This writer/director was always in love with national types (remember those three commissars in Ninotchka?) but, unlike most storytellers, he always subverted the types by playing the intelligence – for good or evil – that lay underneath these characters.  The extortionist Trotta family in Avanti! are classic Italian stereotypes.  They are small town swindlers who plot crimes between bowls of spaghetti and bocce ball, yet they clearly outclass the supposedly more sophisticated Wendell.

His use of stereotypes here also reveals something not seen before in Wilder.  One could easily make an argument that he was just as capable of objectifying women as any other filmmaker of his generation.  Here, though, he tackles this issue head on.  Pamela is a young woman with a weight problem, one that is more in her perception of herself than in fact.  When angry, Wendell is quite likely to be caustic about this.  Rather than taking the opportunity for fat jokes, Wilder uses these moments to show Pamela’s pain and Wendell’s casual cruelty.  This film ultimately makes some serious and much-needed points about body image – a subject only recently addressed in our society.

Another new addition to the Wilder canon is the way in which he uses the location.  Wilder had always been most comfortable indoors.  His films rarely ventured outside, the director preferring the control that shooting interiors can afford.  Visually, Avanti! is his most expansive and visually generous work.  Filming on location, Wilder takes every possible advantage of this beautiful island.  Unlike the forbidding desert landscapes of his earlier Ace in the Hole, here he uses the location to seduce rather than alienate us. 

I admit to be the willing victim of this seduction.  Trapped in the house, as we all are, Avanti!’s travelogue aspects alone making this a perfect antidote to the sight of our four walls.  The fact that it can also make us laugh our heads off is also a much-needed plus.