Synopsis: James Cagney “gives one of the richest, funniest, most breathlessly paced performances of his career” (The New York Times) in this Billy Wilder comedy that defrosts the Cold War with gales of laughter!
C.R. MacNamara (Cagney), a top-ranking executive stationed in West Berlin, is charged with the care of his boss’ visiting daughter. But when he learns that she’s gone and married a fierce young communist – and that his boss will be arriving in town in 24 hours – Mac must transform the unwilling beatnik into a suitable son-in-law or risk losing his chance for advancement! Before you can say “one, two, three,” his plans have spun out of control and into an international incident that could infuriate the Russians, the Germans and, worst of all, his own suspicious wife (Arlene Francis)!
One, Two, Three 8.25
I wouldn’t blame anyone from skipping a movie called ‘One, Two, Three’. In fact, if it weren’t part of my Billy Wilder boxed set, I probably would have done so myself; Cagney is hardly a draw for me, and even Wilder’s association wouldn’t stir me.
But it would be a shame to ignore this ‘hidden’ gem!
While it wasn’t a success at the time (apparently ‘One, Two, Three’ was released soon after the Berlin Wall was built – which cast a dark shadow over it, seeing as it’s set in East and West Berlin), this Cold War comedy has a lot going for it: a sharp script, a fast pace, some good comedic performances and beautiful photography.
The dialogue is exceptionally funny, well-timed, and almost all the gags are spot on – 85% of them work. Even the farce elements were enjoyable, actually – which is pretty rare, in my opinion. Perfect examples of its success are this wacky car chase scene that actually thrills and amuses at once and a fast-paced rush to the airport filled with funny bits. Even an East German interrogation to the tune of “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” managed to be chuckle-friendly. Not bad at all.
Overall, the performers’ comic timing is quite good. Surprisingly so. Thank goodness, too, ‘cause it makes up for their general lack of charisma; even though they’re all quite capable in their roles, none of the actors truly leap off the screen. The only one that stood out in a positive way is Liselotte Pulver, who plays Cagney’s secretary. While it’s mostly due to her sex appeal, she does bring a freshness that is otherwise lacking.
It’s funny how that role could easily have been fashioned for Marilyn Monroe. Pulver is hardly a replacement for her, but she has similar looks and you can see how easily Monroe would have filled those shoes. Similarly, the lead role could easily have been penned for Jack Lemmon (as were many of Wilder and Diamond’s scripts post-‘Some Like It Hot’).
Personally, I’m not convinced that Lemmon would have had the pitbull quality that the role requires without coming off as a jerk. Cagney does, except that he also lacks the nuance that Lemmon would have brought to the role – all he does is yell, yell, yell. In fact, I can’t recall one line that he didn’t shout. Having said this, his comic timing was impeccable; I was impressed (and surprised, after being subjected to his ghastly turn in ‘Mister Roberts’!).
Meanwhile, Horst Buchholz and Pamela Tiffin were barely tolerable. He also shouted all his lines – but he played an angry youth on the edge of revolt, so it was possible to accept it in that context. Still, his lack of finesse makes me want to avoid his films. Tiffin’s first appearance in the film was so poorly performed, with her southern accent wavering constantly, that I immediately took a dislike to her. She pulled through in the rest of the film, but I’d have been happy to trade her in for just about anyone else.
I quite enjoyed Hanns Lothar as Cagney’s dutiful assistant. He played a former SS who is trying to rebuild his life as a company man, burying his previous associations behind a veneer of eagerness and efficiency. While some of the gags were repetitive, he pulled them off with class and skill. Frankly, he made Schlemmer into such a solid secondary character that I’m curious about what else he’s done.
The whole film is based on the theme of East vs. West, with capitalism viewed from both sides: as a parasitic evil on the one hand, and as mankind’s greatest boon on the other. The political discourse was not only amusing (and thought-provoking!) but, given its historical context, it has an allure that is hard to match – not unlike ‘Dr. Strangelove’, but without such a menacing undercurrent.
I am quite surprised by Coca Cola’s close association with the film: not only is it a HUGE product placement, which I find surprising in such a production (I’d have expected a fictitious company), but it may not have been a commercially smart move for them in light of how politically charged the film is. Perhaps they were banking on a strong pro-American sentiment to bolster them…? And yet, this could easily have backfired.
For me, it really helped that the film was shot in black and white. Not only does it capture the post-war era remarkable well, but it also gives the film a look that would have been hard to reproduce in but the most lavish colour films. I’m not familiar with cinematographers, so I can’t speak to this one’s experience and/or skill, but I was extremely pleased with what I saw on screen: it seemed to me that all the outdoor shots were gorgeous and that everything was framed for maximum impact.
In the end, I hope that I can manage to dispel the impression that ‘One, Two, Three’ gives me with its title and casting. It was quite a fun film and it would be unfortunate if my memory conspired to keep me from seeing it again. I may even have to watch it again in the near future just to cement this first impression solidly in my mind. *mental note to do exactly that*
I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this film to anyone who has liked Billy Wilder films, enjoys political satire, or simply enjoys ’50s and ’60s cinema. Despite its lackluster commercial reception, this one’s a keeper. It really deserved a greater fate.