The Sour Journalist and the Sweet Romantic: Billy Wilder in AVANTI!

A slightly edited version of the following essay was published to accompany a film series devoted to the favorite films of Frieda Grafe that was held in the spring of 2013  at the Arsenal in Berlin. I was also invited to Berlin to introduce the screening of Avanti! on April 28. (The next day, in response to my opening sentence, Volker Pantenburg was kind enough to email me a rough translation of Grafe’s brief remarks about Avanti! in her “Filmtips”: “AVANTI!, 1972. As in FEDORA, it is about a corpse, but here it’s more time-critical. The American Moloch is confronted with its European frontiers, the Mafia. And: the Indian summer of business men” [“business men” is written in English].). — J.R.


As someone who can’t read German, I feel more than a little frustrated    that I can’t read Frieda Grafe on the subject of Avanti! But I know that she selected the film in 1995 as one of her thirty favorites — a fascinating, eccentric line-up that contains only one silent picture (Frank Capra’s The Strong Man, 1926) and only one film of the 1980s (Jacques Rozier’s Maine-Océan, 1986), to cite the first and last items on her list. It seems equally eclectic that on this chronologically ordered list,  Avanti! appears just after Michael Snow’s La Région Centrale and just before Luc Moullet’s Anatomie d’un rapport and Chantal Akerman’s News from Home, her only other 1970s films. And I’m no less fascinated by her five 1960s titles. All less than obvious choices for each of these directors: Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Autumn, Jerry Lewis’s The Bellboy, Roger Corman’s The Little Shop of Horrors, Jean-Luc Godard’s Une femme est une femme, and Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s The Honey Pot.

Avanti! is my own favorite Wilder picture as well, although it certainly  wasn’t one of Wilder’s. Perversely, he criticized the film for what might be regarded as one of its greatest strengths, complaining, “It smelled that it was shot in Italy” — as if a studio-created artificial Italy would have been better, matching Ernst Lubitsch’s famous preference for Paris, Paramount over Paris, France. But the journalist in Wilder turns out to have been more relevant than the celebrated confectioner, and in some respects the filmmaker’s images, which are commonly overlooked by critics, are   allowed to supersede his words: the opening sequence of Avanti! unfolds without dialogue, and some of the film’s finest stretches bring us back to some of the expressiveness of silent cinema. (Avanti! is also exceptional in Wilder’s work for its profanity and nudity — not to mention the degree to which it actually qualifies as an Italian film because of the number of Italians who worked on it, and the amount of unsubtitled Italian dialogue it employs, without ever allowing viewers who don’t understand the language to lose the narrative thread.)

Apart from her “thirty best” list, I’ve read a few Frieda Grafe texts in translation, including her remarkable book with Enno Patalas on Fritz Lang (in French, read in conjunction with the frame enlargements in the original German edition), and her short book in English on Mankiewicz’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1). I also met her a few times, including once in Chicago (when she and Enno were traveling with the superb restoration of Die Nibelungen) and once on my first visit to Munich, when I had the uncommon privilege of being invited to her and Enno’s home and enjoying her cooking.

Perhaps the best thing I can do with Frieda’s critical wisdom while writing about Avanti! is to cite the following provocative paragraph from her monograph about The Ghost and Mrs. Muir:

“With talk came the Jew” –- this is Mankiewicz’s

description of the change that occurred in the film industry

when talkies, and with them the need for speakable texts,

led to the importation of members of the East Coast

intelligentsia to the Hollywood studios. The fact that the

bodies in silent films, so lifelike in other respects, were

unable to speak, made them appear uncanny. The voices in

the talkies never quite got over the fact that they were cut off

from the bodies. They never really grew back together. Even

when speech was synchronized it retained a belatedness

and a degree of independence that resisted the subjection

to the image that realism demanded. (2)

It would needlessly oversimplify Billy Wilder’s oeuvre to reduce it to the dialectical play between two fundamental traits –- his journalistic training and instincts on the one hand, which tend to be vulgar, explicit, and  critical, and his romantic emulation of the style and vision of Ernst Lubitsch on the other hand, which depends more on ellipsis, suggestion, and lyrical appreciation. I doubt, for instance, that Some Like it Hot (1959) or The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), two very different masterpieces, could be adequately accounted for by this formula. Nevertheless, the interaction between these two particular strains in Wilder’s work still seems to account for a great deal of what remains vital and enduring about his gifts as a writer-director.

The journalistic gifts most often yield a multifaceted critique of American life and the American character from the vantage point of the present, generally viewed in a highly topical fashion, while the Lubitsch-inspired romanticism often adds up to a celebration (and, in some cases, a quasi-nostalgic evocation) of various characteristics associated with Europe and the past -– in particular, the remnants of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that formed the backdrop for Wilder’s early activities as a journalist in Vienna and Berlin, characteristics commonly perceived more as traditional and even historical virtues than as topical actualities. In fact, one reason why Wilder’s relatively neglected and underrated Avanti! (1972) has remained a particular favorite of mine has been the masterful way it balances these two traits with a kind of classical perfection that effectively matches the film’s structure.Most of the topical details, like the references to Spiro Agnew and Ralph Nader, function as indications of the Armbrusters’ right-wing politics, and these are often counteracted and alleviated by the allusions to Lubitsch, which are associated with Piggott and her more graceful accommodations to Italian values. By contrast, I would argue that other Wilder films that critique or at least profess to critique the greed and crudity of American capitalists — notably The Apartment (1960), One, Two, Three (1961), and The Fortune Cookie (1964) — are hampered by diverse forms of sentimentality or cynicism, which in Wilder’s case often amounts to the same thing. (“Shut up and deal,” the last line of dialogue in The Apartment, epitomizes this duality.)

Even though Wilder’s actual collaborations with Lubitsch came quite early  in his Hollywood career, in his screenplays for Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938) and Ninotchka (1939), both co-written with Charles Brackett, it is arguably his journalistic side that predominates in his first major films as writer-director director: Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945), Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Ace in the Hole (1951). These can all be read in certain respects as poison-pen letters about some of the  harsher cruelties of American life in the 1940s. (Admittedly, the grounding of Ninotchka in some of the complacencies and simplifications of its Cold War satire also gives that film a certain topicality — some of which got carried over much later into Wilder’s own One, Two, Three.)

The influence of Lubitsch may already be present in The Emperor Waltz and A Foreign Affair (both 1948), but I would argue that one reason why it was slower to take hold as an essential Wilderesque trait is the fact that Wilder’s use of France as the site of Lubitsch-style romance — in Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, Ninotchka, Love in the Afternoon (1957), Irma la Douce (1963), and portions of Fedora (1979) — has never been entirely convincing. For me, this is especially and even painfully true in Love in the Afternoon, the first Wilder feature that brandishes its Lubitschian credentials, where the visible signs of this effort spoil much of the fun, along with serious miscasting. (To my mind, if Maurice Chevalier, the male lover most associated with Lubitsch’s early talkies, had played Audrey Hepburn’s aging lover in that picture and Gary Cooper had played her father, rather than the other way around, the film would have had a much better chance of succeeding.)

One way in which Lubitsch influenced Wilder was in his methodology for coming up with the plots of his comedies, which typically involved  adapting obscure European stage farces. Avanti! in fact adapts an American stage farce with the same title that opened on Broadway in early 1968 and closed after 21 performances — although seven years later (and three years after the film’s release), a revamped version of the play, A Touch of Spring, opened in London’s West End and became a hit.

The author of both versions of the play, Samuel A. Taylor, is the same man who wrote the play Sabrina (coadapted and filmed by Wilder in 1954) and scripted, among other items in his extremely variable filmography, The Eddy Duchin Story (1956), Vertigo (1958), Goodbye Again (1961), Three on a Couch (1966), Topaz (1969), and The Love Machine (1971). Having read A Touch of Spring (but not the play Avanti! that preceded it), I find the differences between this rather glib romp and Wilder’s film so pronounced that they almost register as completely independent works. The setting is a hotel apartment in Rome and the characters are all different — a wealthy American in his 30s named Sandy Claiborne from St. Louis (at least a decade younger than Wilder’s counterpart, Wendell Armbruster Jr., from Baltimore, and with a distinctly different personality, played by Jack Lemmon); his young wife (who doesn’t appear in the film at all); a young and bisexual Italian Jack-of-all-trades who works for foreigners (and who doesn’t appear in the film either, although some of  his plot functions are assumed in the film by a much older hotel   proprietor, Carlo Carlucci, played by Clive Revill); a slim English actress (replaced in the film by a slightly plump English shop clerk, again with a different personality, played by Juliet Mills); and a young employee of the U.S. embassy in Rome and an Italian film director, neither of whom has any counterpart in the film (unless one counts J. J. Blodgett, a middle-aged U.S. State Department big shot played by Edward Andrews, who is much more of a caricature than John Wesley, described by Taylor as “scholarly-looking, with horn-rimmed glasses”).

By contrast, Wilder’s film, conscripted by I.A.L. Diamond, is set on the island of Ischia, not far from the bay of Naples, where Armbruster arrives at the Grand Hotel Excelsior to reclaim the body of his recently deceased father, a 67-year-old tycoon who has died in an auto accident during his annual summer holiday there. Armbruster Jr., who has had to proceed directly from a golf course in plaid trousers and a red cardigan to a U.S. airport (thus occasioning an extended gag involving his on-plane exchange of clothes with an American doctor on the plane who’s dressed   in a suit), arrives in Rome and takes a train and ferry from there to Ischia, where he’s greeted by Carlo Carlucci (English actor Clive Revill), and meanwhile has also encountered Pamela Piggott (Juliet Mills), a young working-class Londoner whose mother perished in the same accident. Armbruster quickly discovers that his father and Piggott’s mother were lovers who had been carrying on a secret affair at this hotel for a month every summer over the past decade — something Piggott knew about that was completely unknown to him, a discovery that’s only made by Sandy Claiborne well into the second act of the play. (In the film, Armbruster is initially shocked and indignant; unlike Claiborne in the play, he has all the classic traits of the Ugly American abroad  — demanding, impatient, prudish.) Over the course of a weekend, while Armbruster and Carlucci wrestle with diverse forms of bureaucratic red tape and local extortion in order to get Armbruster Sr.’s corpse shipped back to Baltimore in time for  a large funeral scheduled for the following week, Armbruster Jr. and Piggott very gradually fall into many of the same rituals followed by their parents and even more gradually become lovers — a process that eventually reaches its belated climax almost two hours into a 144-minute movie, but in A Touch of Spring is already a fait accompli by the end of the first act.

As Armbruster Jr. and Piggott discover and essentially recapitulate various details about their parents’ amorous past at the same hotel, the quintessential German appreciation for Italian culture (as epitomized in such classics as Der Tod in Venedig/Death in Venice), accompanied here by satirical observations about certain Italian ”traits” — e.g., the aforementioned red tape, corruption, extended lunch breaks) — becomes the main bill of fare. (Curiously, one reason why Wilder was himself disappointed with the way this film turned out was that he originally   wanted Armbruster Sr.’s long-term affair to have been with a male hotel bellhop, until studio executives dissuaded him.)

One reason, I suspect, why Avanti! reportedly lost $700,000 at the box office and received mainly cool or even hostile reviews in the U.S. (the New York Times’s Vincent Canby called it “in almost every respect, terrible”) is the sheer abrasiveness of Armbruster’s character as played by Lemmon, showing the American businessman abroad in such an unfavorable light that it could only have made some American viewers squirm — much as Kiss Me, Stupid (1964) did eight years earlier. Although the ostensible reason for the previous film’s disastrous reception was its vulgarity and alleged “immorality”, I suspect that its devastating critique of the more craven and puritanical values of small-town America — unalleviated by a charismatic performance (as it was by, say, James Cagney in relation to his own character’s rudeness as an American executive abroad, in One, Two, Three) — was largely to blame.


As already suggested, the last-minute appearance of Blodgett and his even more hyperbolic intolerance and sense of entitlement (“Mind you, I don’t object to foreigners speaking a foreign language; I just wish they’d speak the same foreign language”) belatedly allows Armbruster to register as an acceptable and conventional hero, but only for the film’s last 20-odd minutes. Yet prior to this, one reason why the synthesis of Wilder’s journalistic/critical and lyrical/romantic traits is so satisfying is that each trait is focused on one of the romantic leads. The journalistic critique is mainly trained on the impatience, intolerance, and staccato body language of Armbruster, all seen (and criticized) as both essentially American and at odds with his immediate surroundings, while the Lubitschian romanticism chiefly belongs to the relative relaxation, tolerance, and legato body language of Piggott as she allows her behavior to be overtaken by the moods and customs of Italy. Only once, just before they go swimming in the nude at dawn, is the respective “speed” of the two characters noticeably altered: Pamela, uninhibited, sheds her clothing briskly (one   item at a time — an offscreen striptease executed in classic Lubitschian fashion) while Wendell, embarrassed, dawdles and delays his undressing as much as possible, even keeping on his white shorts and black socks before he plunges into the water. (The shorts inadvertently come off while he swims towards Pamela, and he eventually removes his socks on the large rock where the two of them sunbathe, after a boat of enthusiastic, staring fisherman passes, and he vainly and absurdly tries to shield her breasts with them.)

Thanks to Wilder and Diamond’s careful, exquisite, and intricate script construction, the long-delayed first kiss of this couple, occurring much later, happens at almost precisely the same moment that Blodgett — an American even more boorish, insensitive, and clueless than Armbruster — suddenly appears, making Wendell, up until now the flawed hero, seem like a civilized role-model by comparison. And despite the fact that the slow build-up to the Armbruster-Piggott romance might be one of the most protracted in the history of Hollywood, Wilder/Diamond still generously allow them to have sex together two separate times — an event signaled on each occasion by a Lubitsch-like ellipsis — before Armbruster boards a plane with a coffin draped in an American flag that supposedly is carrying his father’s corpse back to Baltimore.

In fact, this coffin actually contains the corpse of Bruno (Gianfranco Barra) — an Italian valet and blackmailer at the hotel who longs for a visa  allowing him to return to the U.S., before he’s shot by Anna (Giselda Castrini), the pregnant Sicilian chambermaid carrying his child — while “Willie and Kate,” the dead parents, are secretly buried as “Willie and Kate Carlucci,” to the romantic music of the hotel restaurant’s orchestra. It’s another triumph of script construction as well as poetic justice that the same Bruno, a proto-American racist who scorns Sicilian women (“Here they are all like black olives. Me, I prefer vanilla ice cream,” he declares to Armbruster in the latter’s hotel suite, while a cut to Anna, who’s cleaning the window curtains, underlines the fact that she hears this  insult), is covertly bequeathed an American burial, while the two aging lovers, whose romance is tied directly to Ischia, are given an Italian resting-place on a scenic hillside overlooking the bay.

For a writer-director like Wilder who shared with Joseph L. Mankiewicz an apparent preference for dialogue over mise en scène — making him akin to the (equally) Jewish members of the East Coast intelligentsia cited by Mankiewicz, who came to Hollywood in order to teach the talkies how to talk — there’s also, as noted above, a surprising and uncharacteristic display of silent film sensibility at a few key junctures in Avanti!

Supposedly, there was already a tribute of sorts to this sensibility in Sunset Boulevard. But there it’s a somewhat ambivalent and perhaps even hypocritical appreciation, couched most often in the film’s dialogue even when it’s paradoxically pretending to dismiss dialogue on general principle (“We didn’t need dialogue; we had faces,” declares Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond). This helps to account for why Eric von Stroheim disliked his own role in the film and why even Jeffrey Meyers, the “expert” who introduces the film’s published screenplay (3) — and who plainly considers the film’s tragic figure to be Joe Gillis (William Holden),  not Norma Desmond — could express his own “appreciation” of silent cinema by identifying Mae West (Wilder’s first choice for Desmond) as a silent film star.

The original opening sequence of Sunset Boulevard, deleted after an unsympathetic preview, was set in a morgue where the corpses conversed with one another (a legendary sequence evoked by the dialogue between parked limousines at the conclusion of Leos Carax’s recent Holy Motors). The most impressive demonstration of Wilder’s silent film sensibility in Avanti! occurs in a mortuary where the talk becomes secondary to the images — aside from the ironic suggestion of a wedding ceremony between Armbruster and Piggott transpiring in counterpoint to the   funeral, when they’re each asked to swear, “I do” — in a graceful sequence over ten minutes long (4) whose emotional climaxes are placid and quiet long shots, preceded by the delightful Tatiesque mime of bureaucratic and ceremonial rituals involving rubber stamps, sponges, and signatures on various documents of separate colors, where Armbruster’s impatience and Piggott’s calm acceptance register as musical inflections on the complicated proceedings. Here the telegraphic rendering of both Italian rituals and American and English responses to them, conveyed with journalistic precision, is combined with the Lubitschian powers of suggestion when it comes to the offscreen bodies of the parents and the on-screen responses to them of their offspring, who are also responding in various ways to each other. Death and romance, the matching themes of Wilder’s universe, have rarely been so exquisitely and so poetically intertwined.

End Notes

1.London: British Film Institute, 1995.

2.Ibid., 53.

3.Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999, vii-xvii.

4. Alain Masson has published an interesting analysis of this sequence, over 5400 words long, in Positif  No. 329-330 (1988), 111-116, which I’ve benefited from here. An English translation by Anne-Marie Medcalf and Alec McHoul, “A sequence from Avanti,” appeared in a special issue of The Australian Journal of Media & Culture edited by Adrian Martin, Film: Matters of Style [vol. 5, no. 2, 1990], that is available online at

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