Avanti! (1972)

Director: Billy Wilder


By Marilyn Ferdinand

Will I be excommunicated from film blogging if I admit that I really don’t like Billy Wilder’s films very much? Yes, even Some Like It Hot. There’s this je ne sais quoi about him—oh, who am I kidding. I don’t like how he treats women. He doesn’t seem to like us very much. He doesn’t usually present us with dignity. His best films tend to be about male courage, male bonding. Hell, he even has Joe E. Brown preferring a fake woman—even when Jack Lemmon reveals his deception—to a real one. “Nobody’s perfect.” That’s right, Billy, including you.

The worst film I’ve seen in some time is Avanti!, so thoroughly reprehensible that I hardly know where to begin. So let’s just quickly dispatch with the plot and then start chewing on Wilder’s fat, little head. Wendell Armbruster, Jr. (Jack Lemmon) races from a round of golf, via his company’s private jet, to an airport, and hops a plane to Italy. His father, the very powerful and well-connected head of the family huglomerate, has been killed in a car crash on Ischia, a spa island near Naples.


On his train trip to his final destination, he briefly and unpleasantly encounters Englishwoman Pamela Piggott (Juliet Mills) and insults her dowdy appearance, and she very believably takes pains to point out to him her overstuffed figure. They find out they are staying at the same hotel, and are on the same mission; Pamela’s mother was in the car, too, and as it happens, shared the suite with Armbruster Sr. that Jr. now occupies for the past 10 years. Some nonsense about paperwork, various attempts at blackmail, recreating 24 hours in the life of the deceased couple including dinner, dancing and a nude swim in the morning, a crime of passion, the inevitable clinch between the children of the elderly lovebirds and the promise to continue on in their parents’ illustrious tradition. Isn’t it just so moving? Doesn’t it just bring a tear to your eye? Or maybe that was just a spitball.

Avanti%208.jpgSeriously, folks, this is the worst kind of misogynistic, stereotypical crap I’ve ever seen in my life! First, Wendell is the quintessential ugly American tycoon, spouting orders, trying to hurry everyone up, hush everyone up, and offend everyone (up?). He’s unbelievably rude to Pamela, commenting openly on her “fat ass” and other insults. Of course, he’s not entirely wrong. I’m not sure they could have found a more revolting travel outfit for her if they had ripped the sackcloth off of Buñuel’s beggars in Viridiana. When she “blossoms” at the dinner she is supposed to be sharing with Wendell, (bringing her own apple to adhere strictly to her diet, what a laugh riot!)—he in one of his father’s suits, she in one of her mother’s dresses—they put her in a long, flowing example of the best faux-hippie attire the Sears catalog had to offer. Her finest wardrobe avanti%20nude.jpgmoment was in her altogether, basking on a rock in the Bay of Nipples, I mean Naples, where it is more than obvious that she is not only not fat, but actually has one of the best figures a woman could want. To be fair, Wilder makes sure Lemmon has his nude scenes, too, though all we get are some skinny ass cheeks. To keep the male audience interested, Wilder throws in a gratuitous topless scene of Anna, a moustachioed, Afro-haired Sicilian maid (Giselda Castrini) who’s having it on with Bruno (Gianfranco Barra), the hotel valet who landed at Ischia after being deported from America.


The solicitious, duplicitous concierge Carlo Carlucci (Clive Revill) bobs and weaves to ensure that Senor Armbruster gets anything he bellows for and remains in the dark about his father’s long-term infidelity, pulling out pictures of the family back in the U. S. of A. to put on the nightstand and spiriting the late Mrs. Piggott’s luggage to Pamela’s room—the latter falsehood exploded fairly early by the unfortunate Miss Piggott. Carlucci and staff wax poetic about the graciousness of the deceased couple; Carlucci even offers them both graves in his family plot to obviate the need for all the permits Pamela and Wendell need to get the bodies home, available land, of course, being no problem on a tiny island.


When Wendell refuses to pay the Trotta family $3,500 for damages to their vineyard from the crash, the bodies vanish from the morgue. Wendell is spirited away by a one-eyed man to a nighttime bocce ball tournament and introduced to the Missing Link team, aka, the Trotta family (no women—it seems they sprung from sea sponges). Wendell is further blackmailed by Bruno with nude photos of his father and mistress and with those of him and Pamela in exchange for a visa back to his beloved America to get away from the pregnant, marriage-minded Anna. Of course, the Sicilian spitfire plugs him in Pamela’s room, forcing Carlo to move her into Wendell’s room to avoid police questioning—it is, of course, the only solution in a large hotel, and the police would never check the guest register to see who was staying in the room.

There’s a lot more nonsense, including a phone call from Wendell’s wife asking when the body will arrive for the state funeral she has planned. Pamela answers and spoils Wendell’s lie that she’s an interpreter. When Wendell gets in hot water with the missus, Pamela grabs the phone and tells her not to worry: “I’m short, I’m fat, and I’m not very attractive.” That works for Mrs. Armbruster, who knows how superficial her husband’s taste in women is—after all, he married her. Bruno gets shipped home instead of Wendell’s father. Wendell considers that a good thing—Bruno is finally getting what he wanted: a trip back to America. And the happy new adulterers will find their way back to Ischia every July 15–August 15 for their “health.”


Billy Wilder has dealt with adultery before, most notably in The Apartment, again with Jack Lemmon. In both these films, the heroine has very low self-esteem, and Lemmon is a blustery, overbearing oaf. However, in The Apartment, there is much more humanity and much sharper satire on the American way of doing business. Here, we get nothing but types that, to be fair, are universally insulting and utterly unfunny. The Italians are crooked, shakedown artists who hold adultery in the highest regard. The one Sicilian is ugly and trigger-happy. And poor Pamela is willing to settle for the same life as her supposedly honorable mother had (never letting Armbruster Sr. set her up in London as a kept woman because she “was in love”). Mum kept her manicuring job at the Savoy Hotel, and good ole Pamela will be no trouble to Wendell either. “I’m not all women’s lib,” she says, “I don’t mind being considered a sex object.” In 1972, this sentiment is laughable and aggressively anti-feminist. It is certainly no triumph that a perfectly attractive woman who earns her own living is ridiculed for her imaginary weight problem and pushed into a “happy ending” of long-term adultery, and 11 months of pining away.

The rating for this film on IMDb is 7, which is pretty good. I hope that rating is only for the beautiful scenery. I would hate to think that modern users of IMDb really think this is a good movie. I applaud the three under-18 women who gave it a 1. Right on, sisters!

  • bill r. spoke:
    10th/02/2009 to 6:30 am

    Haven’t seen Avanti!, so I can’t really comment, but by and large I don’t like Wilder’s comedies. Like, at all. Okay, I think Some Like it Hot is okay, but I think One, Two, Three, for example, is embarrassing, and I hate the second or third or whatever-it-was remake of The Fortune Cookie he made in the 70s. And don’t get me started on The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. And etc. I don’t know why he should be held up as the comedic master. Give me Double Indemnity or Ace in the Hole.

  • Flickhead spoke:
    10th/02/2009 to 6:38 am

    Will I be excommunicated from film blogging if I admit that I really don’t like Billy Wilder’s films very much?
    Not by me.
    Wilder doesn’t fire my imagination — even in those instances with Barbara Stanwyck. His films have always had a distance about them, as if they’re from a part of the brain we should avoid. The self loathing is palpable: Ace in the Hole, Sunset Boulevard, The Fortune Cookie…
    Thank you for bringing up Some Like It Hot. I thought I was the only one. That and Stalag 17. And I’d rather eat glass than sit through One, Two, Three ever again.
    Avanti! is part of a downslide to this career. It pained me to read your review. Well written, yes. But the subject is like reliving an unloved moment from the past. The death of a beloved pet, perhaps. I’d tucked Avanti! in the same corner of my mind where Buddy, Buddy hangs motionless, somewhere beyond the frontal lobe, lobotomy territory… Très horrorshow
    Poor Juliet Mills. In a scant few years she’d be in that raunchy guilty pleasure, Beyond the Door II, an Exorcist knock-off complete with spinning heads and pea soup evacuations. Ain’t Hollywood grand?

  • Rick Olson spoke:
    10th/02/2009 to 7:44 am

    I’m with Bill. I think Some Like it Hot is very overrated, but I love his dark stuff. I’ve not seen Avanti either. (Hey, Bill, we’re twins! I’m not really stalking you from blog to blog … it just looks like it)

  • Pat spoke:
    10th/02/2009 to 8:01 am

    I will admit to being one of those people who loves “Some LIke it Hot,” and likes Wilder in general, but I’m not blind to the problems and misogynism in some of this work. I loathe “The Fortune Cookie” and was never able to make it through “Kiss Me, Stupid,” to name just two I really don’t like.
    As I think I noted elsewhere, I saw “Avanti!” when I was 13 (it was the first “R”-rated film I ever saw). Even at that age, I felt kind of embarassed for everyone involved (especially Juliet Mills – at 13, I was dealing with weight issues of my own, and I could tap into how unfairly her character was being treated) I’ve never had any desire to revisit it.

  • Rod spoke:
    10th/02/2009 to 8:44 am

    Congratulations. You’ve successfully made me feel like a bad person for enjoying this film.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    10th/02/2009 to 9:31 am

    Sorry, Rod. I call ’em like I see ’em. And thanks to everyone for making me feel all right with my lack of enthusiasm for Wilder. I really thought there was something weird about me – he’s so acclaimed.
    Pat, you don’t have to “admit” to liking Some Like It Hot. A lot of people do, and it’s certainly not anywhere near a turkey. I’m the one who has been apologizing for not liking it for a long time.

  • Flickhead spoke:
    10th/02/2009 to 11:38 am

    Some like it not.
    Kiss Me, Stupid is an anomoly here, and one Wilder I’d like to revisit. (It’s coming up in the monthly film club.) As I recall, it played fast and loose with narrative, to where there were no conventional lead characters or plot — an experiment that turned many off.

  • bill r. spoke:
    10th/02/2009 to 11:53 am

    I’m curious, Marilyn: Do you like any Wilder films? Other than The Apartment, I mean, for which you seem to have some affection.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    10th/02/2009 to 11:54 am

    I like Some Like it Hot too Pat so no worries here. I also like Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, The Apartment & Ace in the Hole so I can’t jump on the “I thought I was the only one” bandwagon. Sorry. I haven’t seen Avanti and I certainly recognize Buddy Buddy to be atrocious.
    Bill, I believe when you said remake, you were referring to The Front Page. Yes, it’s dreadful too. I don’t like much Wilder after The Apartment but I don’t dislike much Wilder before it either. I’m sure I’d hate this if I saw it since it’s post Apartment. But Stalag 17 as being worse than eating glass? Geez. Don’t tell Sheila.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    10th/02/2009 to 12:27 pm

    I like The Lost Weekend, Sabrina, Sunset Blvd., Double Indemnity There are others, like Witness for the Prosecution that I find enjoyable. As for The Apartment, the more I see it, the less I like it. I find the story quite caustic and somewhat believable, but I really hate Lemmon’s patronizing behavior toward Shirley MacLaine. I think Lemmon in Billy Wilder films is my least favorite type of man.

  • Flickhead spoke:
    10th/02/2009 to 12:39 pm

    Jonathan, the eating of glass applied to One, Two, Three, not Stalag 17.

  • bill r. spoke:
    10th/02/2009 to 1:18 pm

    Right, The Fortune Cookie…that’s what I meant. Terrible movie. The remake, anyway.
    And One, Two, Three is indeed quite painful (don’t tell Dennis). I like Cagney in it, because I always like Cagney, but too often Wilder’s idea of comedy is to show people running around and yelling.
    And Marilyn, thankfully, no one has ever said to me, “You know who you remind me of? Jack Lemmon in Billy Wilder movies.” So we’re still good.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    10th/02/2009 to 1:27 pm

    Bill, Front Page is the remake, not Fortune Cookie. I’m getting confused.
    I’ve only ever seen bits and pieces of One, Two, Three on TCM but I remember reading about it on the Siren’s site and she and Peter Nellhaus liked it a lot for what it’s worth.
    Flickhead – oops, sorry.
    Marilyn, I’m just curious, but don’t you think MacLaine controls the situation with Lemmon? She seems to be the one in charge, not him. And in charge of McMurray too, which is why she leaves him. But maybe I’m reading that wrong. I haven’t watched it in about a year and I’m curious now to rewatch it with your thoughts in mind.

  • bill r. spoke:
    10th/02/2009 to 1:45 pm

    Damn! Sorry. What I meant was, The Fortune Cookie remake was terrible.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    10th/02/2009 to 2:52 pm

    Jonathan – What MacLaine does or does not control is superfluous. Lemmon’s character keeps trying to force her to do things, like he knows what’s best for her. It’s not his call, and I resent that he tries.

  • Pat spoke:
    10th/02/2009 to 3:10 pm

    I’ve never had that take on Lemmon’s character in “The Apartment.” I suppose he is a little patronizing towards MacLaine, but I always took him to mean well, even if some of his actions were a bit misguided. He’s going through a transition from being at the beck and call of the company higher-ups to developing a backbone and some integrity, so I’d expect him to make some missteps, and I’m inclined to feel more generous towards his character.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    10th/02/2009 to 3:25 pm

    Pat – That’s the insidious problem with Wilder’s men and women. It’s easy to think that pappa knows best the way that Wilder portrays his women – prostitutes, other women, fools for love. Whether Lemmon is always as self-serving as I imagine him to be, by contrast to his pathetic female protagonists, the impression is that he’s Moses on the Mount.

  • jonathan lapper spoke:
    10th/02/2009 to 4:14 pm

    The decisions Maclaine makes, leaving this man, going to that one, are her own and given the relationship she was in with MacMurray, it could be said that the decision changes the direction of her life (from kept woman to independent woman). So, changing the course of one’s life is superflous?!

  • Pat spoke:
    10th/02/2009 to 5:10 pm

    I don’t know, Marilyn. I understand what you’re saying and I can see that to be true in other Wilder films, most notably in the relationship between Lemmon and MacLaine in “Irma La Douce.” But I just don’t get that vibe from “The Apartment.” I’m more in Jonathan’s corner on this one – I think MacLaine ultimately controls her own destiny. Take that final exchange when she comes back to Lemmon’s apartment and they play gin rummy. (Lemmon: “I love you Miss Kubelik. I absolutely adore you.” MacLaine: “Shut up and deal.”) Who’s got the upper hand there?

  • Peter Nellhaus spoke:
    11th/02/2009 to 10:23 am

    I did like Avanti! when I saw it just prior to its original release. I tried watching it again on cable and found that it did not hold up at all. Buddy Buddy is indeed painful to watch. I did like Fedora though.
    I have to feel some sympathy for Wilder because he made this film after watching his pet project, the Sherlock Holmes film, get butchered and dumped by United Artists after a decade of being one of their most successful directors. Avanti! was an attempt to prove that he was still contemporary and hip to the changing times in Hollywood. I don’t know how much truth there is to the claim that he tried to direct Schindler’s List per his conversations with Cameron Crowe, but in truth I would have loved to have seen his version.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    11th/02/2009 to 11:21 am

    Peter – I would have loved to see ANYONE’s version of Schindler’s List, instead of Spielberg’s.
    There are a lot of pains taken in Avanti! to show Wendell as a stuffed shirt, and as many pains taken by him to say he’s not – “I saw “O, Calcutta!” twice.” Maybe this was stand-in dialogue for Wilder.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    11th/02/2009 to 12:08 pm

    Peter – I would have loved to see ANYONE’s version of Schindler’s List, instead of Spielberg’s.
    I’d like to see that post. I still have my own Spielberg post to do which I haven’t gotten around to yet, and I’m a little apprehensive due to the backlash I might get. Anyway, I could definitely jump on board that bandwagon. Spielberg and I have many problems, many – and he doesn’t even know who I am!

  • Bob Turnbull spoke:
    11th/02/2009 to 2:25 pm

    My two least favourite Wilders are definitely two of his later ones – “The Fortune Cookie” and “The Front Page” (I actually saw this before “His Girl Friday” – at which point it dropped even further in my estimation as HGF was pretty much perfect as it was). However “One, Two Three” is one of my favourites…I just caught up with it last year and thought it just raced from the opening all the way through – Cagney was a ball of energy and the dialogue was zip, zip, zipping for most of the time. I guess there were a number of running around screaming type scenes, but I’d look at those as just some respite to the viewer before they plowed into the dialogue again.
    “Double Indemnity” is my fave and “Ace In The Hole” and “Sunset Boulevard” get high marks too. Otherwise, I mostly like his films…But not too much more. For example, I thought Rogers was great in “The Major And The Minor” and Holden was terrific in “Stalag 17”, but neither of those films held much else for me.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    11th/02/2009 to 2:35 pm

    One, Two, Three is the film Cagney was making when he decided to retire. I may never forgive it for that.

  • kevin mummery spoke:
    11th/02/2009 to 10:22 pm

    Marilyn, you’re not alone…Billy Wilder was a great film maker when he was given free reign to express his low opinion of humanity, but when he had to lighten up to do “comedy” he became a lot less interesting. I believe Ace In The Hole is the last Wilder film worth watching, if you take his career in chronological order…once he had a major failure it seems he forced himself to be less, I don’t know, “cynical”? There’s a reason William Holden once said of Wilder that he had “a mind full of razor blades”, and after 1951 we never really got to see that Wilder. Which is too bad, because that’s the one that made the better films.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    12th/02/2009 to 9:40 am

    Kevin, excellent comments, though I do think his comedies are extremely hard on humanity as well. Can you or anyone else recommend a good biography of Wilder? I think he’d be a fascinating person to read about.

  • kevin mummery spoke:
    13th/02/2009 to 3:04 am

    Unfortunately I’m not aware of any biographies of Wilder, good or otherwise. I’d certainly love to read one if it was available…I’d especially like to learn about his early years in Vienna when he was a newspaper reporter and professional dancer (some say “gigolo”), but other than the usual sources we’ve all read or seen, I don’t know of anything. Sorry.

  • Glenn spoke:
    6th/07/2009 to 1:30 pm

    Wow. Couldn’t disagree more. Wilder has made at least 3 masterpieces, Double Indemnity, Ace in the Hole, and Witness for the Prosecution, and that doesn’t even count Some Like it Hot and The Apartment which are amazing. As for Avanti!, I had a completely different reaction. I found it quite daring in how it painted each character, the American arrogant bastard and the low-self-esteemed “Bird”, then flipped them on their head. They start out as stereotypes but when they come together they become something more, something more dynamic than I ever expected. That final goodbye says it all.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    6th/07/2009 to 1:58 pm

    Glenn- Thanks for commented. Is it really daring the way these characters were painted? Typical Ugly American and frumpy spinster find the good life in Italy? Originality is not this film’s strong suit, and I’m afraid the morality the film offers is a clear step backwards for women trying to emerge into their own around the world. You seem keen on the geopolitics of the film while overlooking its sexual politics. Seen in that light, your opinion might come closer to mine.

  • Katy Villagrá Saura spoke:
    13th/01/2011 to 11:01 am

    No tenéis ni idea de cine si no os gusta esta gran película de Billy Wilder. Y respecto a vuestros comentarios, tenéis una cortedad mental supina. Y si esta película os parece machista es que no la habéis entendido en absoluto . Creo que sois unos puritanos paletos.

    Translation (from Babelfish): You do not have nor cinema idea if you do not like this great film of Billy Wilder. And with respect to your commentaries, you have a supine mental shortness. And if this film seems to you chauvinistic it is that you have not understood it absolutely. I believe that you are paletos puritanos (?)

  • Marilyn spoke:
    13th/01/2011 to 4:21 pm

    I’m not sure, Katy, but I think you just called me a mental midget and puritanical dumbass. Same back at you if you think this film is great, the understanding of which does or does not qualify someone to talk about cinema.

  • Katy Villagrá Saura spoke:
    14th/01/2011 to 9:41 am

    Siento que lo hayas tomado como un insulto; no ha sido mi intención insultar. LO SIENTO. Quería decir que no habláis de cine sino de moral. Puritano no es un insulto sino una forma de pensar. Y los árboles no os han dejado ver el bosque, es decir, no habéis entendido el mensaje de Wilder que es: VIVIR. Y quería decir “estrechos de miras”, no insultar, entendido? No habláis de cine sensu stricto. Un saludo

    Translation (from Babelfish): I feel you have taken that it like an insult; it has not been my intention to insult. I FEEL IT. It meant that you do not speak of cinema but of moral. Puritano is not an insult but a form to think. And the trees have not let see the forest to you, that is to say, you have not understood the message of Wilder that is: TO LIVE. And it wanted to say “Straits of sights”, not to insult, understood? You do not speak of cinema sensu stricto. A greeting

  • Marilyn spoke:
    14th/01/2011 to 9:55 am

    Katy: Thanks for clearing that up, and I apologize for my “slap back.” If you read me frequently, you will see that I am both a feminist and keenly interested in narrative. I do see what you’re saying about Wilder’s urging to find happiness; I find, however, the places in which he says to look to be repugnant and anti-feminine. A woman who picks up where her mother has left off has not become her own person, and that will not make her happy in the long run. Lemmon’s character isn’t willing to embrace happiness; he’s too invested in his worldly success to leave a wife with whom he has no deep connection and pursue true happiness with Mills’ character. I don’t think Wilder really was interested in living, only in criticizing how others do it. From a cinematic perspective, this film isn’t any great breakthrough either.

  • Bobby Wise spoke:
    15th/01/2011 to 3:29 pm

    I actually just saw “Avanti!” for the first time a few weeks ago. I didn’t like it at first but must say that the film grew on me, to the point where I thought it was good by the end. It captured a “lazy relaxed vacation” feel very well and it was a film in which I didn’t mind just hanging out with the characters, even if they weren’t doing anything important or saying anything interesting. There’s some sort of unexplainable pull at the center of this film that slowly sucks me in.

    Now, I must say there are some problematic characterizations in it. You pointed out some things I didn’t really think deeply about. Thank you for the lucidity. I did feel that Lemmon was cruel at the beginning of the film, but I gave him a pass. I also felt the woman (forgot her name) was a bit too much of a punching bag. Yet and still, I stuck with both of these flawed characters. I don’t know why. I don’t read so much political nefariousness into the film. It’s light entertainment and I liked it for what it was. And some of the emotions rang true for me.

    On the other hand, when I saw “The Apartment” I thought it wasn’t so great or interesting. Something was missing for me. I’ve only seen these films once apiece so I’ll be curious to see how both hold up to a second viewing some time from now.

    I know very little about late Wilder. I’m actually just catching up. But I do know that not many Hollywood directors made as good of films as “Double Indemnity”, “Sunset Boulevard” and “The Lost Weekend”. These are masterpieces from a master.

  • Libby spoke:
    2nd/07/2011 to 5:36 pm

    How long did it take you to write this review?! Why write an excessively long essay on something you didn’t like? What a waste of time!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    2nd/07/2011 to 5:54 pm

    Libby – It’s my time and I don’t need a fussbudget to come around and tell me what to do with it. Further, it’s not a waste of time for a critic to warn people off wasting their time on a movie. That’s part of the job, too.

  • Fredrik Gustafsson spoke:
    8th/09/2011 to 11:10 am

    Those Wilder films that you like, would you say that his treatment of the female characters in them are different from in his other films, or do you like them despite finding them misogynistic?

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