Billy Wilder JOSEPH McBRIDE - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In his new movie, Avanti!, Billy Wilder is still trying hard to become Ernst Lubitsch. The strain shows, some of the romanticism is forced and mechanical, but there is much of which the Master might approve….

In the last few years, as the porno revolution and advancing age have deprived Wilder of his old ability (and desire) to scandalize, he has relaxed considerably in his handling of sex. The Private Life of Sherlock Homes, and now Avanti! find him in a mellowing, more gracious mood; he is less defensive in his treatment of love, less cynical in his attitude toward women, and less inclined to find sport in sexual cruelty. (p. 1)

The dialogue is largely concerned with unseen events (details of the accident, the old couple's affair, complications with the funeral arrangements), and while this is partly attributable to the source being a stage play (by Samuel Taylor), it also adds to the pervasive feeling of nostalgia, the sense of the past being richer and more alive than the present….

In keeping with the theme, Wilder's visual style is sedately elegant, comfortably old-fashioned in its use of unobtrusive cutting, smooth camera movements, graceful choreographic emphasis. A precise, economical style but in no way a dull one…. (p. 2)

Although Avanti! is a twist on the earlier Wilder-[Jack] Lemmon romantic plot, this time having the man cruelly denying the woman's feelings, it is more of a complication than a simple inversion….

The nude swim, which takes its place among Wilder's classic exercises in bad taste, is the decisive blow to Wendell's stodgy dignity, although it takes him a while to realize it. It is characteristic of Wilder's approach to romanticism that he makes the swim so ridiculous, despite its almost religious significance to Pamela and its considerable erotic possibilities. (p. 8)

Avanti! is far from being Wilder's best film—it's not as consistently witty and inventive as Kiss Me, Stupid or Some Like It Hot—but if audiences and critics allow him to continue in the Lubitschian vein, he may reward us for our patience. (p. 9)

Joseph McBride, "The Importance of Being Ernst," in Film Heritage (copyright 1973 by F. A. Macklin), Vol. 8, No. 4, Summer, 1973, pp. 1-9.