Learning from the best

Billy Wilder's master course in comedy

Published: May 27 2016, 01:01:am

Monday, March 12, 1973

AVANTI! Co-written by I.A.L. Diamond, based on the 1968 stage play by Samuel Taylor. Music arranged by Carlo Rustichelli. Co-written, produced and directed by Billy Wilder. Running time: 150 minutes. Mature entertainment.
IF THE ART OF COMEDY could be taught, Billy Wilder would be an ideal teacher. Since 1957, the year he teamed with writer I.A.L. Diamond, Wilder has specialized in comedies, each one memorable in its own way, and each one completely different from the others.
    Their Some Like It Hot (1959) was a rollicking bit of period humour based on the flight to Florida of the only living witnesses to Chicago's St. Valentine's Day massacre. On the lam were Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis. The vehicle for their escape was an all-girl jazz band that featured Marilyn Monroe.
    Wilder liked working with Lemmon, and featured the comedian in his next film, 1960's The Apartment. An off-beat love story, it was a satire on modern corporate ambition. It co-starred Shirley MacLaine, and was Oscar's choice as the year's best picture.
    The following year, Wilder changed tempo, unleashing a manic classic. One, Two, Three was an absolute gut-buster. It starred James Cagney as an American executive in charge of the Coca-Cola plant in pre-wall Berlin. The film was paced like a machine gun, firing off salvoes of topical humour faster than any film before or since.
    For his 1963 release, Wilder moved on to Paris, reuniting his Apartment stars in a bouncy screen adaptation of Irma La Douce. Lemmon played an officious flic enamoured of Pigalle's most engaging poule, MacLaine. The performers' screen love life remained off-beat, but this time the emphasis was on the slapstick rather than poignancy.
    Returning to an American setting, Wilder pushed satire over into broad burlesque for Kiss Me, Stupid, an unselfconsciously gross tale about a pop star (Dean Martin) who is sexually pursued (by Kim Novak) for economic favours. America wasn't ready for that kind of humour in 1964, and Wilder found himself condemned by church groups as a smut peddler.
    With The Fortune Cookie (1966), he retreated into manic satire, and a reunion with his favourite star. He teamed Jack Lemmon with Walter Matthau (later they'd be paired in a comic masterpiece, director Gene Saks's The Odd Couple) in a film that slashed away at big league football, network television and insurance companies, inviting targets all.
    A gentler Wilder emerged in 1969 with the release of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Baker Street Irregulars around the world were stricken with apprehension when the project was announced, but the finished product did nothing but enhance the reputation of their favourite fictional hero.
    The little-seen feature is a gem of intelligent, affectionate 
Victoriana. Wilder's comic touch is often so light as to be mistaken for a caress, while his feeling for period is so sure that the Austrian-born director might have been a native Londoner. That Private Life and Kiss Me, Stupid were the product of the same creative team (Wilder and Diamond) is the ultimate tribute to their boundless versatility.
    And now comes Avanti!, the latest addition to the Wilder comic curriculum and an absolute delight.
        I'm not going to offer a lot of details about the new film, other than to say that it's a pleasure to be firmly caught up in its warmth and wit. Though it appears to be a formula feature, Avanti! brims with comic surprises, offering the joy of never knowing what's coming next.
    Instead of precise detail, let me set the scene and the situation. The time is now [1974].
    Wendell Armbruster Jr. (Jack Lemmon), president of a powerful Baltimore-based industrial conglomerate, is on his way to Italy to claim the body of his father, the chairman of the board. Armbruster Sr. has died in an auto accident during his annual visit to the holiday island of Ischia.  
    Also on the way to Ischia is a free-spirited British bird named Pamela Piggott (Juliet Mills). Much to Jr.'s embarrassment, she seems to recognize him, and insists on striking up a conversation. Did I mention that Armbruster Sr. was not alone in the auto wreck?
    Now, that's all the plot you're going to get out of me. I will tell you, though, that in the Wilder romantic canon this is the film to fit between The Apartment and Irma La Douce, a picture without the heavy pathos of the former or the out-and-out fantasy of the latter.          
     Well, there is a touch of Mediterranean magic.
    Based on Samuel Taylor's 1968 Broadway play, it is perhaps the simplest plot that Wilder has ever tackled. The audience has a pretty good idea how the film will come out practically from the beginning. The joy is seeing the tale spun out as the filmmaker builds in complications — bodies go missing from the morgue — and bends around curves in the narrative.
    Avanti! is a study in style, and Wilder is a master stylist who makes use of the fact that the audience thinks it knows what's happening. Like a conductor playing a familiar symphony, he draws us in and takes our breath away with his dextrous handling of the material.
    A word of caution and one of commendation are in order. In the United States, Avanti! comes with an R (for Restricted) rating, presumably because of a nude swim in the Bay of Naples by stars Lemmon and Mills.
     Our own film classifier, Ray MacDonald, credits British Columbians with more sophistication than that and has, quite properly, rated the film Mature. I'll presume that MacDonald enjoyed the film.
     I certainly did, and recommend it without reservation. Billy Wilder has rarely been in better form and his players are, without exception, perfect.
    Avanti! — the word is Italian for "come in" — is an offer that shouldn't be refused.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1973. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: To say that the Austrian-born Billy Wilder was versatile is to state the obvious. Relocating to the U.S. in the early 1930s, he won his first Academy Awards in 1946, collecting best director and screenwriter Oscars for the harrowing alcoholism drama The Lost Weekend. He was nominated in the director category five more times —for Sunset Boulevard (1950), Stalag 17 (1953), Sabrina (1954), Witness for the Prosecution (1957), and Some Like It Hot (1959)  — before 1960's The Apartment put statuettes for best picture, director and screenwriter on his mantle. As the above review shows, I was quite giddy in my appreciation of his comic talents, taking great delight in his ability to be both manic and nuanced at the same time. I can remember damn near dying with laughter — really, I actually stopped breathing — at a 1962 screening of One, Two, Three in Toronto's Vaughan Theatre. The love affair came to an abrupt end in 1974, with the release of his version of The Front Page. A remake of the classic 1931 newspapering comedy, it starred Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, a comic pairing that promised hilarity but somehow fell flat. Just 67, Wilder seemed to have lost touch with the cinematic zeitgeist. He made just two more features, the Sunset Boulevard-like Fedora (1978) and 1981's Buddy Buddy, a remake of French director Francis Veber's L'emmerdeur, with Lemmon and Matthau in the title roles. Thereafter he devoted himself to collecting fine art and creating his own sculptural constructions. He died in 2002 at the age of 95.