Billy Wilder is a name synonymous with Hollywood classics. During his tenure as a movie-making big shot, Wilder produced a string of acclaimed features, including Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole and Some Like it Hot. With such iconic films littering the man’s resume, it is perhaps no surprise that are many entries on his filmography are often overlooked. One film from the venerable director’s later period, the Cold War farce One, Two, Three, is a perfect example. Brilliantly written, beautifully paced and powerfully acted (especially by star James Cagney), it’s a film that seems destined to fly under many people’s radars but reward those with enough grey matter to give it a whirl.
One, Two, Three opens at the height of the Cold War. It is the early 60s, and Berlin is divided. We are introduced to our protagonist (Coke a Cola executive C.R. “Mac” MacNamara) via voice-over, who humorously narrates to the audience about the dichotomy that grips the city and by extension the world.
This opening scene is about as penetrating as Wilder is willing to get regarding Cold War politics. MacNamara’s glib narration, and not-so-nuanced suggestions to the delights of post-war Capitalism, are difficult to digest – especially when viewing the film in a 21st Century perspective. Thankfully, this lead-in is relatively brief, and it is not long before Cagney appears on-screen.
In his first few scenes, Cagney quickly establishes himself as a force to be reckoned with. Despite the fact that One, Two, Three was his penultimate film, the actor shows no signs of fatigue. His rapid-fire delivery of Wilder’s sharp, acerbic dialogue is one of the film’s central delights, and he turns MacNamara into someone who is likable despite being a gigantic blowhard.
Despite Cagney’s considerable intensity and gravitas, One, Two, Three is a film played completely for laughs. There is hardly a whiff of emotional resonance, even though the film broaches subject-matter that in other contexts would be quite serious. For example, despite occupying a position of some importance in the Coke a Cola firm, Cagney’s MacNamara feels lost and disillusioned. Due to a couple of past mistakes, MacNamara’s position in the company is now damaged and precarious. A brief reference is made by the character early on, when he laments how he once was in charge of nine countries for Coke a Cola and now only holds half a city.
MacNamara is also on the outs with his wife (played brilliantly by Arlene Francis), who is tired of their life abroad and wishes bitterly to return to the U.S with their two children. There are a couple of effective comedic bits between her and Cagney, such as her sarcastic references to him as “Mein Fuhrer.” Yet despite this joshing, you never feel that the couple shares a romantic bond. Like much of Wilder’s work, their pairing feels laced with biting cynicism. This is hardly surprising when one examines other “romances” found in the director’s output, which are often so awful and depressing that they make life in a monastery sound mightily appealing.
A far more vibrant (although even more grating) romance forms the crux of the film’s actual storyline. MacNamara finds himself saddled with taking care of the young, nubile, and completely scatter-brained Scarlett Hazeltine (Pamela Tifflin), who happens to be the daughter of his boss Wendell. The executive hopes that by being an effective babysitter he can put himself back in his boss’s good graces and eventually elevate himself out of the dichotomized rubble of post-war Berlin.
As one might expect things don’t go smoothly. Murphy’s law is alive and well and before long Scarlett disappears from the MacNamara’s watchful eye, only to turn up later with a new husband named Otto (Horst Buchholz), who is a Communist of the most militant kind. This plot point sets up perhaps the film’s most consistent gag, which is the conflict between Otto’s zeal for all that is red and Cagney blustery disdain for the young man’s principles. Complicating matters further is the imminent arrival of Scarlett’s two parents, which provokes MacNamara into a frenzied attempt to make Otto more presentable.
The film’s characterization of Communism – while certainly a potent source for merriment – is amazingly simplistic. It boils an entire economic and ideological system down into silly gags like having to eat in bed because one doesn’t possess a table. The performance of Horst Buchholz as Otto also contributes to this cartoonish tone. While he has some humorous bits, his performance is one-note, and the actor seems circumscribed to shouting every line at the top of his lungs. This gradually becomes wearisome as the film progresses, and by the end one can understand Cagney’s own reflection of having wanted to “knock Buchholz on his ass” during filming. The viewers’ interpretation of the performance may be somewhat more muted. However, I personally found myself in Cagney’s court, more than a little willing to join in the beatdown.
Despite these loud performances, One, Two, Three is first and foremost Wilder’s film, and he leaves his mark in a variety of ways. From the whimsical use of music (Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini is used to torture Buchholtz’s Otto in one scene) to its endearing supporting characters (such as MacNamara’s flirtatious secretary – who becomes the obsession of several East Berliners), One, Two, Three should be remembered as Wilder’s last stand. The whip-smart script and lightning-fast pacing speaks to a directorial hand about half as wizened as Wilder’s was in 1961. This youthful exuberance, especially when paired with Cagney’s joyful and authoritative performance, turns the film into a testament to the powers of two Golden Age legends. It serves as proof that sometimes a director’s “smaller” films can be some of their most special.