Writer/director Billy Wilder is known for his ability to bring the best to every genre he takes on, but most of all, he is known for his comedies. The secret to his other successes may be that he brings his razor-sharp wit along with him. That and frequent co-writer, I.A.L. Diamond. The two put together strings of jokes that would go on forever. One such plotted vaudeville act is One, Two, Three (1961). Not the best or the best known–those must be the Jack Lemmon films Some Like It Hot (1959) and The Apartment (1960)–One, Two, Three is sharp, quick, and with a point. But after 1961, Wilder never quite regained the lofty heights he frequented since the mid-forties with Double Indemnity (1944). That is to say, I’ve never heard anyone speak kindly of anything after The Apartment. Consider this an experiment in authorship.
C.R. MacNamara (James Cagney) is the head of Coca-Cola in West Berlin. He’s climbing the greasy pole and thinks that if he can make a deal with the Russians to bring Coke into the Soviet Union, he’ll be made head of Coca-Cola for all of Europe. He’s got a pretty secretary in Fräulein Ingeborg (Lilo Pulver), an American Helen Mirren for a wife (Arlene Francis), and, in short order, a hell of a problem. MacNamara’s boss, Hazeltine (Howard St. John) is sending his daughter Scarlet (Pamela Tiffin) through Europe to keep her away from some rock musician or something and her next stop is Berlin. She’s “hot blooded” and gets married to a devoted communist, Otto Piffl (Horst Buchholz), who also happens to be handsome. It’s distressing, but MacNamara’s a doer and he does. Like one, two, three.
One, Two, Three doesn’t really get good until one-and-a-half at the earliest. Whatever people say, James Cagney just isn’t an actor with an ounce of realism in his bones, blood, or anything else. He can talk quickly and look frustrated like nobody else, though, and these skills are put into practice. *Snap!* But he isn’t even the worst offender. Tiffin, as the ditsy, dumb Scarlet sounds like somebody doing a cold reading for a regional theater production of The Odd Couple. These two get the bulk of the jokes–one for the telling, one for the butting–with a few scattered to the Soviet Commisar, Peripetchikoff (Leon Askin), and Arlene Francis, the wife. Screwball is the word. I used to think screwball comedy described the relationships, but it’s really the dialogue. Someone delivers the pitch and it spins wildly in every direction but straight ahead. It can be terrific in the hands of a great comic actor like Jack Lemmon or Bette Davis, but if you play for laughs, you usually only get groans.
Soon enough, though, the plot of One, Two, Three gets so screwy–in a good way–that every character gets caught up in it. Or, to put it another way, the action catches up with the actors’ fast-tongued shouting and brings narrative and style back to the same page. The last third of the movie tears through events in a way that can only be described as manic. That’s in a good way. It saves the movie and makes it worthy of Wilder and future generations–though it looks to be only in print in Region 2. All you have to know about this movie is in the Sabre Dance, the predominant soundtrack to the movie, and a Soviet tune by Aram Khachaturian. I love it when a movie plays out a classical tune to its fullest.
Also, you’ll find that most of the robust communist-capitalist commentary to be in that final third. There are little digs made on both sides, but it’s the capitalists who win in the end. Decadent and vacuous we may be (look out for the “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini”). Wiley, as a virtue. But corruption runs deep in the Soviet Union and there’s no getting away from that.
This is a movie that is sure to be a cult classic. The dialogue is too full for a single viewing and that encourages movie buffs. If only Cagney could have been replaced with Walter Matthau!