Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Late Show

Billy Wilder was not just a great talent, but a consistent one.  After an apprenticeship in European film, he escaped to Hollywood in the 1930s and became one of its best screenwriters and directors.  Few have a comparable record: Midnight, Ninotchka, Ball Of Fire, The Major And The Minor, Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard, Ace In The Hole, Stalag 17, Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, The Fortune Cookie.

But movies started changing in the late 60s, and many felt Wilder couldn't keep up. In the studio era, he was the one pushing the envelope, but in New Hollywood he was barely testing the waters.  He got left behind. If nothing else, the final films he made in the 70s and 80s did not match the financial success of his earlier work, but is there an artistic case to be made for them?

That was the question on my mind when I recently saw Avanti! (1972) and Fedora (1978) projected in glorious 35 mm at a local cinema.  I'd caught both these films in bits and pieces on TV, but the real test is seeing them, with an audience, on the big screen.  And the results are, at best, mixed.

I hadn't been a big fan of either, but Avanti! worked better than I expected.  It still has serious flaws, but it got laughs, and, though overlong, was never boring.

It's about a businessman, played by Wilder favorite Jack Lemmon, flying to Italy to pick up the body of his recently-deceased father and return it to the States for a big funeral.  Right away you may note a problem--Wilder believed you need to grab the audience from the start and not let them go, but the stakes here are fairly low. If Lemmon doesn't get the body, or get it in time, do we really care?  This may be an older, more contemplative Wilder, but if there's no engine moving the plot forward, is it a Wilder we care about?

The biggest problem is Lemmon's character.  He's playing an Ugly American.  This is fine, except he's so ugly it's hard to enjoy the movie.  He's nasty to almost everyone and treats all "foreigners" like lackeys who have nothing better to do than cater to his every whim.  The point of the film is Italy opens him up and teaches him to appreciate other things in life, but it's a long time coming, and we've got to wade through a lot of unpleasant stuff.

Juliet Mills as his love interest is okay, but there's not much to the part.  The worst thing about her character is Lemmon keeps calling her fat, when she's merely not movie-star skinny (Mills put on about 20 pounds for the role).  Much better is Clive Revill, who gets most of the laughs as the Italian hotel manager who helps Lemmon.  Also good is Edward Andrews, who gives the movie a fillip in the last act when he appears as an American official (in a part meant for another Wilder favorite, Walter Matthau).

The film is based on a (flop) Broadway play by Samuel Taylor (that starred Robert Reed). I'm not quite sure what Wilder saw in it, but perhaps he figured he'd get to film on location in Italy and show its beauty as well as have some nice, dark gags.  Wilder gets to enjoy the new freedom in film--swearing, nudity and even an affair no one gets punished for--but he's lost a step.  The film is slack.  The younger Wilder, I bet, could have made the jokes hit harder and the plot move faster.  Still, it's not bad, and perhaps deserves a bit more attention than it's gotten in his filmography.

The same can't be said for Fedora.  It stars another favorite, William Holden.  In fact, starting with a reclusive, old movie star and a death, it's sort of an update of Sunset Boulevard--though the comparison doesn't do Wilder any favors. The basic plot is a down-and-out film producer comes to Greece to sign up an old movie star--Fedora--but she's hiding out on a nearby island, not available to the public.

There are a lot of things wrong with this film, but at center is a concept that doesn't work. Perhaps it played in the Tom Tryon story the movie is based on, but the idea of a movie star in her 50s or 60s still playing ingenues is ridiculous.  I realize many stars--such as Marlene Dietrich, who bears some similarities to the title character--hold on to their looks, but plastic surgery can't do miracles.

What this means is the central mystery regarding Fedora herself (I won't give it away, though I generally don't worry about spoilers for films this old) is easy to figure out.  In any case, it's revealed an hour into the film. You can give away a central mystery halfway through a story as long as it leads to new complications (one example is Gone Girl), but in Fedora all they do afterwards is fill in the blanks to see how we got to where we are--and Holden, in a thankless role, pretty much disappears from the film at this point.

The movie is a showcase for Marthe Keller, who plays Fedora at various periods in her life, but she doesn't have the chops to pull it off—in fact, this film pretty much ended her Hollywood career. (The film didn’t help anyone’s career, especially Wilder’s.) There's also a horrible score by Miklos Rozsa, overdone and melodramatic, constantly reminding you of how you're supposed to feel.

There are those who want to make a case for late Wilder masterpieces, but I don't suggest they start with Fedora.

By the way, there's a scene with Holden breaking into Fedora’s room and finding some old composition books where she’s written “I Am Fedora” over and over. The movie was released in 1978.  The Shining, which has a similar scene, came out in 1980.  I wonder...


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