One, Two, Three (1961)
Produced and directed by Billy Wilder
Screenplay by Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond
Based on Egy, kettő, három by Ferenc Molnár
Cinematography by Daniel L. Fapp
MGM/UA DVD (1:44)
I’d like to start this review by thanking Kino Lorber for a Blu-ray release that hasn’t even happened yet and won’t be available for another two weeks (on May 30), Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three (1961) , which I plan to pick up ASAP. I saw the film recently on DVD and was amazed by it, that is, when I wasn’t laughing hysterically. I’m hoping this Blu-ray release will help dispel the erroneous belief that Wilder’s career went downhill fast after The Apartment (1960). It did not and One, Two, Three proves it.
James Cagney plays C.R. “Mac” MacNamara, the sales manager for a Coca-Cola plant in West Berlin. He really doesn’t want to be there; he’s still bitter about bungling a business deal in the Middle East several years earlier, but he’s hoping if he can persuade a trio of Soviet gatekeepers (Leon Askin, Ralf Wolter, Peter Capell) to introduce Coca-Cola behind the Iron Curtain, he’ll be promoted to the company’s head of European operations in London.
But Mac has other problems. His wife Phyllis (Arlene Francis) is dying for a vacation, his office staff stand at attention each time he enters the building, and his personal assistant is a former Nazi named Schlemmer (Hanns Lothar), who just can’t help clicking his boot heels after every word from Mac. And did I mention all the problems caused by Mac’s sexpot secretary Fräulein Ingeborg (Liselotte Pulver)?
But we’re just getting started. Mac gets a phone call from his boss in Atlanta, W.P. Hazeltine (Howard St. John), who informs Mac that Hazeltine’s 17-year-old wildcat of a daughter Scarlett (Pamela Tiffin) is on her way to West Berlin for a few weeks and he expects Mac to take care of her during her stay. This proves next to impossible: Scarlett has a proclivity to slipping over into East Germany (The film was shot in Germany and the Berlin Wall was actually going up as Wilder was filming) for frequent rendezvous with an East German Communist named Otto Piffl (Horst Buchholz). And… shenanigans ensue with blistering speed.
In fact, speed is one of the aspects of One, Two, Three that make the film so compelling and sometimes dizzying. I haven’t seen every James Cagney film, and although he was a fast talker in many of his roles, he obliterates the verbal speed limit in this film, approaching (perhaps even surpassing) the dialogue speed of His Girl Friday (1940). Cagney is absolutely unstoppable but not unflappable as he’s faced with multiple fires to put out no matter where he turns. One of the delights of the film is in every exchange he has with Scarlett, delivering his rapid-fire lines to her and waiting for her put-on-the-brakes Southern drawl to finish even the shortest of sentences. You can actually see him seething.
All of the aforementioned (and several I haven’t mentioned) supporting players are wonderful and while they quickly become familiar, the sight gags combined with the witty and satirical jabs and zingers make for an all-out assault. In a movie like this that never slows down for even a second, you literally need to watch it at least twice to get all the jokes and jabs. Thank goodness for DVDs and Blu-rays. How did people in theaters ever pick up on everything?
Hmmm… another Cagney grapefruit scene?
Cagney was 62 when this film was made and while it doesn’t show onscreen, the production was a nightmare for the actor. Handpicked for the role by Wilder, Cagney was certainly up to the task of such a quickly moving film, but began to grow concerned that the film’s fast pacing would cause problems with the story. Cagney hated the filming (with Wilder shooting one scene 50 times) and also loathed his young co-star Horst Buchholz, whom Cagney claimed was trying to steal every scene. That loathing (which was probably mutual) certainly comes across in the performances, making the animosity between the two characters even more believable. Though tempted to walk off the set, Cagney completed the film but decided he was finished with movies for good. He was, until a little film called Ragtime (1981) came along, which is another story for another time.
In the Billy Wilder filmography, One, Two, Three falls between two Jack Lemmon comedies, The Apartment (1960) and Irma la Douce (1963). I wouldn’t call the film a masterpiece, but it’s very, very good. Modern audiences might understandably consider it too fast with too much political comedy, too much manic action, with too many stereotypes on display. If you can take it for what it is, I think you’ll love One, Two, Three, appreciating it for its cast (especially Cagney, who practically owns the picture), its writing, and its direction.
Do check out the new Kino Lorber release (with reversible covers) which includes an audio commentary by film historian Michael Schlesinger and two features with Billy Wilder discussing the film and its politics.
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