Friday, August 20, 2010

If You Want Her To Come In

Right now there are a number of people that I know who are off somewhere else in the world on some sort of vacation with quite a few of them in Europe and they’re all presumably having an enjoyable, relaxing August (a handful are also in Canada, but that’s neither here nor there). Since I can’t even get to Santa Monica without a massive amount of difficulty right now, I guess I’m a little jealous. Don’t get me wrong, I hope they all have a great time, but since I’m just sitting here, it’s hot, and I see all these photos on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, whatever, what can I really say. A few years ago I was seriously looking into taking a trip to Italy but then the recession began to happen, I got worried about my job and we all know what happened with that. So it was probably the smart thing that I didn’t spend my savings on the trip, but I still wish I could. I mention all this because there’s a certain kind of movie that for me always goes with August, during those dog days when it begins to be a little too hot. I watch one of these films and they make me wish I could get involved in some kind of romance or jet off to an island in Europe somewhere. Certain Blake Edwards movies scored by Henry Mancini seem to go with this feeling, there’s always Bava’s FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON and, among numerous others, there’s also Billy Wilder’s 1972 comedy AVANTI!, set on an Italian island during the lazy summer months. Reading up on the film it wasn’t particularly well-received at the time of its release and, coming after the disaster of THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, was another nail in the commercial coffin for the aging director. I can see that it has some problems but in its quest for a certain kind of Lubitsch vibe at its very best I find it totally infectious, somewhat moving and for a film that takes its time more than most, even at two hours and twenty-four minutes I feel more than happy to simply let it glide along at its own luxurious pace. I suppose that sort of thing is all right during the lazy month of August, even if you are just sitting in your small apartment not going anywhere.

Conservative businessman Wendell Armbruster, Jr. (Jack Lemmon) arrives in Italy (with the Italian stewardess stating, “Please fasten your cigarettes and extinguish your seat belts,” as they land), traveling to the island of Ischia where he was spending his annual vacation at an island spa named the Grand Hotel Excelsior. Soon after he is greeted by the hotel director Carlo Carlucci (Clive Revill) he makes the acquaintance of British Pamela Pigott (Juliet Mills) there to collect the body of her own mother. It doesn’t take long before Armbruster figures out that not only were his father and her mother killed in the same crash, but they were in fact lovers who had been keeping up this secret assignation at the same hotel. As he tries to unfurl the massive amounts of red tape Armbruster, in spite of himself, starts to become rather fond of Miss Piggott and the surrounding environment as the two of them begin to fall for each other just as their parents once did.

In his series of interviews with Cameron Crowe, Billy Wilder doesn’t have much at all to say about AVANTI! outside of being pleased with the authentic feel shooting on location in Italy brought to it. His detached attitude towards the film in retrospect may be partly due to the less than great response it seems to have received upon its release in December 1972 but since all I can do is go by what I think when watching it now what I see is a film which is slightly flawed in its tone, possibly mildly hurt by topical references that feel a little too shoehorned in by a director possibly trying to keep up with the times (mentions of Kissinger, Ralph Nader and even LOVE STORY) but for the most part it glides along smoothly, elegantly, a true pleasure to watch and to live in. The script by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond (loosely based on the play by Samuel Taylor) offers a truly emotional feel that becomes stronger as it goes on but never drops the patented sharp, cynical dialogue these men excelled in. AVANTI! treats the love story of the deceased with respect, lives that deserve to be celebrated and remembered, but never dwells on that point instead choosing to focus on the possibilities those left behind still have with Armbruster Jr. becoming more drawn into this lifestyle as the film proceeds almost without even realizing. Lemmon’s executive is an uptight Nixon-era prig but any unpleasant aspects of his behavior are never taken too far (he’s definitely not his insufferable OUT-OF-TOWNERS character), just enough to allow a slight—ever so slight—transformation to take effect in the man over the course of the narrative even down to a practically unspoken acceptance of the life his father had that he never knew about.

On occasion the film does feel like it may be straining a little too much to seem effortlessly light and charming—the opening dialogue-free sequence involving a misunderstanding on the airplane, for example, doesn’t quite work for me—but by a certain point I just focus on the easygoing vibe AVANTI! gives off, letting the environment soak in to me as much as it does the film’s lead character. Every scene bares the confidence and brilliance of Wilder as director, with exquisitely timed dialogue between the actors throughout as well as the pure elegance of passages like Juliet Mills dancing in front of the hotel orchestra in the early morning light. And in the middle of it all is possibly one of the most unsung sequences in all of Billy Wilder’s career, when Lemmon and Mills must identify their parents’ bodies in the local morgue, which comes off as truly gentle and emotional particularly coming from a director who was never known for that sort of approach and the genuine humanity that comes from the scene affects the entire film around it more than can even be stated.

The one key flaw in the film may be in how it dwells on a certain nasty attitude towards Juliet Mills’s character, a woman written as being somewhat overweight It seems pretty obvious that the character as scripted is supposed to be somewhat larger than she really is—Mills apparently gained 25 pounds for the role but it never made much difference—and doesn’t really work with the tone, even playing a little odd since she never looks anywhere near as big as what we’re being told. If it does provide a slight nasty tinge to things the film overcomes this and the actress does as well with a stroll that she takes through the local village at one point, pausing to buy herself four ice cream cones, playing as a lovely little interlude and the actress couldn’t be more endearing. In the end, it’s just about the most optimistic film about adultery imaginable. Of course, it’s the nice kind of adultery which it endorses wholeheartedly, one that takes place in what practically seems like the most luxurious place on earth, enough to reinvigorate the most hardened soul if only in a small way.

It is long, yes, but every beat is laid out with such clockwork precision throughout every one of its lengthy scenes that there would be no way to cut things down without seriously damaging the intricate flow. Even set within a fairly tight time frame the film feels like it’s in no rush whatsoever, choosing to dote on the food preparations or in the methodical way the local notary at the morgue lays out all his materials in an almost musical fashion. And as much time as it goes on for it still feels like it ends too soon, just as the lead character (as well as the viewer) has finally accepted the beauty of this odd paradise in a spa filled with geriatrics, such as a 90 year old baron with two comely nurses, choosing from 16 different kinds of pasta at dinner. Even the one subplot which plays a little too broad, concerning the bellhop and his jealous Sicilian wife with a mustache, winds up mattering in the end with the way the structure is expertly laid out. And as much as filming this on location certainly helped, the structure and dialogue still plays as if this entire thing is happening on Paramount soundstages back in the 30s or something in the best possible way. Of course, that’s what Wilder knew how to do and even if it didn’t play all that well back in ’72, now it seems absolutely right.

The use of color from this era might affect things a little—the cinematographer was Luigi Kuveiller (Argento’s DEEP RED and INVESTIGATION OF A CITIZEN ABOVE SUSPICION) who framed things in the more intimate 1.85 as opposed to Wilder’s usual Scope use which feels right for the story but as much as this DVD is as good as I’ve ever seen it the film still has that somewhat flat look a lot that was somewhat common around this time. This elements of style may be one reason the whole thing never feels quite as light-footed as maybe it should be for me, yet I feel kindly towards it anyway, loving it more as it goes on, not wanting it to end. It’s a film that is the work of someone more mature, but also of someone willing to open themselves up to something like this new development in life, to pause, to let the sunlight come through these windows and for just a few minutes there’ll be nothing at all to worry about. There are always more things to worry about for Wendell Armbruster Jr. as well as myself once the film ends but for a small amount of time it’s a nice dream. In the end, AVANTI! is about making peace with the past, embracing the possibilities of what your own future can be if only in a small way and after everything that’s happened throughout Jack Lemmon’s final line to Juliet Mills comes off as absolutely ideal, even a little beautiful. But it is a script written by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, after all, so that really isn’t too surprising.

It feels like, if not an old man’s movie, than at least a middle-aged man’s movie completely uninterested in the counterculture from the time it was made in and maybe it’s even appropriate that Jack Lemmon looks somewhat older than the 42 he’s supposed to be. Incidentally, if you ever wanted to see Jack Lemmon with his clothes off, well, this is the movie for you and while it’s not the most endearing character of his career Lemmon underplays things admirably, nailing every pause through each ounce of exasperation that he goes through. Even when his character begins to warm up he doesn’t overplay the matter, keeping it subtle. By the time the change comes, the viewer knows him well enough that it becomes apparent. Juliet Mills (who surprisingly goes topless during an early morning swim the couple takes) is continually delightful, full of life, full of vulnerability, expertly bringing to the film all the heart she can along with wonderful chemistry with Lemmon. As sweet as their relationship is, the film is easily stolen by Clive Revill as the ever-resourceful hotel director Carlo Carlucci, always with another solution to each problem that arises. Revill, an actor with hundreds of credits (including serving as the voice of the Emperor in the original version of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK) plays every single line and beat he has with pitch-perfect timing as if he was born for the sole purpose of saying such finely crafted dialogue. There’s not a dull moment whenever he speaks and the movie receives a small lift every time he reappears onscreen. It should also be said that there has rarely been an actor with a way of allowing the word ‘crap’ to roll off their tongue as he does here. The actor received a Golden Globe nomination (so did each of the other players involved as well as the film itself, for that matter) but if the film had been a success it’s easy to imagine that he would have been nominated for an Oscar as well. As U.S. state department representative J.J. Blodgett, familiar face Edward Andrews makes every moment he has near the end count and it feels like a small gift of masterful comic timing when he gets to play a scene with Revill. Their dialogue together pays off in a line from Andrews which for me may be the biggest laugh in the whole movie. The soundtrack is filled with lovely standards that perfectly go with this luxurious scenery, music arranged by Carlo Rustichelli who composed many films including Bava’s BLOOD AND BLACK LACE and KILL BABY KILL. Billy Wilder working with a cinematographer who shot for Argento and a music arranger who composed for Bava all set in one of the most beautiful locales I’ve ever seen. It’s like AVANTI! is some sort of nexus of the sort of filmmaking that I love all combined in one package.

So the way this summer has gone for me isn’t very much to celebrate. I no longer have a car, I still don’t have a job, I definitely haven’t had any luck with certain women lately and there are plenty of nights where I have trouble falling asleep. A film like AVANTI! is filled with hope and sadness so I suppose it fills me with hope and sadness right now as well. In that sense I guess it’s the perfect film for me at this moment in time, with every vibrant frame that it contains making me feel a little better while at the same time causing me to wish all the more that I was somewhere else right now. Like on an island somewhere in Italy. But the way things are right now I guess I’m stuck here in Los Feliz with the hopeful and the bitter running through my head, one continually trying to overtake the other as I think about a few of those women out there, keeping myself up nights as I wonder just what the future holds. It’s kind of like a Billy Wilder movie in that sense, only nowhere near as compelling. At least I have something like AVANTI! to serve as a potent cocktail during those lazy August nights when I need it.

“Three hours for lunch?”

“Mr. Armbruster, here we do not rush to drug store for chicken sandwich and Coca-Cola. Here we take our time. We cook our pasta, we sprinkle our parmesan, we drink our wine, we make our love.”

“What do you do in the evening?”

“In the evening, we go home to our wives.”


Griff said...

I agree with much of which you say about this leisurely told, wistful and intermittently lovely comedy from 1972.

That said, Jack Lemmon is, I think, more than a little hard to like in this picture. I believe we're supposed to find him at least a bit more appealing than we actually do, that Wilder thought the actor's charm and residual goodwill would shine through Armbruster's tough, brusque facade. But it doesn't -- as it also didn't (in a slightly different way) in THE OUT-OF-TOWNERS -- and Lemmon's Armbruster is something of a piece of work, as they used to say when they warned you about going in to see the boss when he was in a bad mood. He isn't much fun to spend time with, which is a significant problem for the early part of the movie, and he is at least initially terribly rude to Pamela, which crosses something of a line, because Juliet Mills is extremely winning in the role.

We can only imagine how much more unpleasant the hardcharging Ambruster, Sr. must have been, but Jr.'s annoying behavior is very off-putting; there is indeed a transformation, but it is slow and gradual. I remember seeing this when it came out. I'm serious when I say that the audience really wanted this guy to become at least slightly more likable right away. I don't know how Lubitsch would have handled this; most of the Lubitsch Paramount comedies are much, much shorter than AVANTI!.

Maybe Lemmon wasn't the guy for this. What if Wilder, instead of sort of running for cover after the SHERLOCK HOLMES debacle to old friend and colleague Lemmon, had gone for someone like Dustin Hoffman? That might have really recharged the old batteries.

Still, I remember the movie fondly. Has Bernard Slade ever given Samuel Taylor (and Wilder & Diamond) a public shoutout for the clear inspiration for SAME TIME, NEXT YEAR? Nice point about Revill and Andrews. It's a shame Mills never had another really good film role (no, BEYOND THE DOOR, which I saw at the Chinese in '75, doesn't count). Anyway, here's hoping we can all make peace with the past.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


Thanks very much for your great comments. Funny thing was, while watching the movie this time around I never really found Lemmon/Armbruster's behavior all that unreasonable with the obvious exception of the comments he makes regarding Ms. Piggot. He's not there for a pleasant reason and he never talks down to Carlucci or anyone else, keeping things mostly on a business-type level at first. And his slight transformation where he opens up just enough felt right to me somehow. And I say this fully acknowledging that there were times in his career where Lemmon's presence could be a bit much, if you know what I mean.

All that said, I think you're right where you say that it's a shame that Wilder never connected with a younger star, whether Hoffman or someone else, who might have energized him into creating something other than some more Lemmon-Matthau comedies towards to end of his career.

I've seen BEYOND THE DOOR on DVD, but I do the best I can to forget that I have.

Beveridge D. Spenser said...

I agree with your opinion on the likability of Lemmon in Avanti: He is just likable enough. Although he is pretty brusque with Mills, once he finds out that she is collecting her mother's body, he becomes very human.

He's not just a comic grumpy exec. He seems real, and that takes this comedy onto a higher plain - I'd say Rene Clair more than Lubitsch.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Now you've got me embarrassed--except for some clips the only Rene Clair film I've seen is I MARRIED A WITCH. I wonder if you're really referring to some of his earlier French films, though, so I gets it's off to the Netflix queue to get this taken care of.