Friday, April 12, 2013

One, Two, Three (1961) - Directed by Billy Wilder


This post is being re-run, with some added thoughts, in honor of The James Cagney Blogothon, hosted by The Movie Projector. 

Several of Billy Wilder's films are significant works and among the greatest films of all time.   His output, particularly up through the early 1960’s is a cavalcade of great movies. I wonder, though, if One, Two, Three qualifies as underrated? It certainly qualifies as a masterful satirical comedy, one of Wilder’s downright funniest films. But it gets lost in the shuffle. Preceding its 1961 release, there was the 1-2 punch of Some Like it Hot (1959) and The Apartment (1960), arguably Wilder’s best films, containing the electricity of stars like Jack Lemmon, Marilyn Monroe, and Shirley MacLaine. One, Two, Three may not get the same attention because it stars an aging James Cagney, Horst Buchholz, Pamela Tiffin, Arlene Francis, and Liselotte Pulver. But Cagney turns in one of his greatest and funniest performances here. Was the man ever funnier than in this film? Was he ever more fiery, passionate, and amazing than in this film? It is as much a crowning achievement for him in his career as it is another Wilder masterpiece. But it's Cagney's performance that makes the material really work.

Oh the hilarious joys of this film are a sheer delight. Based on a one-act Hungarian play from 1929 and a plot sort of borrowed from Ninotchka (1939) (which Wilder co-wrote), Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond wrote this script which revolves around C.R. MacNamera (Cagney), an executive for Coca-Cola who is based in West Berlin. He’s aiming for a head job leading Western Europe and is banking on his proposed introduction of Coke to the Soviet Union as his ultimate achievement to get the promotion. He also has a wife (Arlene Francis) and 2 kids at home. C.R. gets a call from the home base in Atlanta from his boss Mr. Hazeltine in Atlanta saying that he’s sending his daughter Scarlett (Pamela Tiffin) to Europe and wants her to stay with the MacNameras. C.R. reluctantly takes the responsibility. He realizes he’s into a huge mess, though, after Scarlett winds up falling in love with and marrying a communist named Otto Piffl (Horst Buchholz) while in Berlin under his watch. MacNamera has further complications when Mr. Hazeltine comes to visit and MacNamera has only a few hours to turn the Communist into a distinguished European gentleman before Mr. Hazeltine arrives.



Most of this film’s comedy is a satirical hodge-podge filled with communist jokes, but no one is really spared. Everything from American patriotism to Nazism is given full assault here: MacNamera’s assistant named Schlemmer, who repeatedly clicks his heals together every time he’s given a command; his secretary who provides fringe benefits; Otto Piffle’s hilarious communist pronouncements; Scarlett’s southern heritage; even the spread of mega-corporations globally and the use of lavish gifts and under-the-table bribes. It’s all played at an uproarious pace, especially in the blistering second half, on the level of traditional screwball comedies like His Girl Friday (1940) and Bringing Up Baby (1938). Of course it’s all rather silly and over-the-top, but this sort of material begs for this treatment.

This film ultimately belongs to James Cagney, though. This would be the last film he would appear in until Ragtime (1981), but it’s arguably his greatest performance in any film that I've ever seen him in. He simply owns this film and devours it beginning to end. His lightning paced dialogue and snappy timing are simply stunning and on the order of supernatural. There’s a scene toward the end of the film where he’s rattling off a list of items needed acquiring to his secretary and the delivery is astoundingly quick and punchy. You take pause and marvel at him as you watch it. It might be my single favorite Cagney moment of all time. How the heck could he talk that fast and still be coherent? For most of the film he is worked up into a gloriously nervous lather. His character is rather a conniving rat, but he’s pure fun to watch! For those with the background information, look for some humorous nods to previous films that Cagney appeared in. Also, a couple things of note as I did a bit of background on this. Apparently, Cagney hated Buchholz, saying of him, “this Horst Buchholz character I truly loathed. Had he kept on with his little scene-stealing didoes, I would have been forced to knock him on his ass, which I would have very much enjoyed doing." Another thing of note is that at the beginning of Wilder’s shoot in Berlin, the Berlin Wall was just being built. Thus, the tone in relations between nations as the film was released went south, causing the film to fail at the box office. It really should be seen though and is not only one of Wilder’s best films, but one of the all-time great comedies from this era, even presaging the Cold War lampooning that Kubrick would examine in his masterful Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). But the most memorable thing about the film is Cagney. His remarkable talent and timing is on display here in all it's perfection.

17 comments:

Sam Juliano said...

John, this is a wonderfully penned piece on a usually underestimated film that endures marvelously on repeat viewings. I agree with practically everything you say except the assertion that may well be Cagney's greatest performance. In a career that includes PUBLIC ENEMY, YANKEE DOODLE DANDY, ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES, WHITE HEAT, THE ROARING TWENTIES, EACH DAWN I DIE and THE MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES, I would be hard-pressed to include his nonetheless accomplished turn in the Wilder film in my Top 10 of his performances. But on the other hand, I could also understand why he has long been underestimated in this film. It's a stellat satirical piece, where everyone and everything is game, and I can well understand why you talk of it in the same breath as some of those celebrated Hawks' screwball comedies.

Jon said...

Hi Sam!

Thanks for the comments. Absolutely Cagney had many great performances and this one is as good as any IMO. I think it's also my favorite of his. I think White Heat and Yankee Doodle Dandy are close seconds. We don't have to agree and I guess that's why I said arguably his best. I don't think there would be a consensus, but I generally prefer him when it's not a gangster film.

John Greco said...

Jon,

I am a big Wilder fan and yes this is one film that seems to always be under radar. The film runs at 110MPH, it unbelievably fast paced and I truly admire Cagney's ability to speak at such a rapid pace.


John

Jon said...

John,

Thanks for the comment!! Yeah I really love this film. It's so much fun and Cagney just blows me away.

Caftan Woman said...

Almost nothing tickles my funny bone like Cold War humor. Throw in the unbelievable energy of Cagney and "One, Two, Three" can't help but be a winner. I hope your article garners more fans for the, as you said, underrated movie.

Kevin Deany said...

"His lightning paced dialogue and snappy timing are simply stunning and on the order of supernatural."

Ain't that the truth? At his age its even more astonishing. That scene you mention where he's listing the things he needs, accompanied by the snap of his fingers, is astonishing as any great stunt or special effects sequence. One's mouth is open in awe. No wonder he went into retirement for the next 20 years.

A terrific post on a very funny comedy. If I had a bottle of Kremlin Cola I would open it, pour it over ice and watch Billy Wilder's film all over again.

said...

I love this film so much, an wish it got more attention. To me, it's a subtle masterpiece, that deals more with politics and may look dated or unatractive. Anyway, who have never watched this one is missing a wonderful Wilder film and a marvelous Cagney performance.
Don't forget to WATCH my contribution to the blogathon! :)
Greetings!

Judy said...

Jon, must admit I have a slight grudge against this film since I've read that Wilder forced Cagney to do every take up to 50 times and in the end he decided he was finished and retired. Maybe if Wilder had been a bit easier on him we might have a couple more Cagney films? But anyway you would never know it was so difficult to make from the astonishing performance - totally agree with you that the long scene where he decides on a shopping list is amazing, and that he is on top form throughout. I do find the humour of the film a bit uneasy at times, given how the situation in Berlin was developing, but it is certainly very clever and sharp, and you have written a great piece about it. PS, I think Cagney enjoyed some of the in-jokes in this one, like the scene where he offers Horst Buchholz a grapefruit for breakfast!

KimWilson said...

Hands down, this is my favorite Cagney performance. It may not be one of Cagney's favorites, but I thought CR MacNamera was the best character he ever played. Plus, I love the story as it relates to the Cold War & Coca-Cola. I'ma fan of irony and satire and this is filled with it. I'm glad you spotlighted this film!

R. D. Finch said...

Jon, a very enthusiastic post on what is (with the exception of his small part in "Ragtime") Cagney's last film. I'm not as big a fan of the film as you, but you do make a very persuasive case for your praise of it. I think Wilder lays on the satire to such an extent that it comes off as unfocused, although with Wilder taking pot shots at everything in sight, some of them are bound to hit home!. In concept the film seems a step backward for Wilder, more like an update of films from the 30s and 40s like "Ninotchka" and "A Foreign Affair" than the very modern-feeling "The Apartment."

I know that Cagney was concerned that the furious pace of the movie wouldn't leave any breathing space, and I do find the speed of the film a bit stressful. But if there are things in the film I have reservations about, they have nothing to do with Cagney or his acting. He simply grabs the film by the arm and drags it along with him. I can't see it working as well as it does with another actor, if for no other reason than I can't think of anyone who could have delivered Wilder's pungent dialogue and maintained that unflagging level of comic frustration the way Cagney did! Thanks, Jon, for updating your post so that the Cagney Blogathon could end with Cagney's last starring movie performance.

Jon said...

Thanks all for your comments, both the positive ones and the concerns like Judy's. Judy I did not know about how Wilder had apparently treated Cagney. That would make anyone retire! R.D., I'm very glad I could contribute to your blogothon, and even though this was a re-post, I re-invested some thoughts I felt were left out the previous time. It's probably not as good as The Apartment or Some LIke it Hot, but there's something great about it just the same in my eyes. Caftan Woman and Kevin, thanks for your creative comments. I can tell you enjoy this film! To Le, I agree, there is something very appealing about the fact this one got seemingly left behind, but it's a joy to find others who love it so. To Kim, You and I both share the opinion that this is Cagney's best performance....it's sheer bliss. Thanks all!

Grand Old Movies said...

That's too bad to learn about Cagney & Wilder not getting along; you think they would have hit it off together. It doesn't show in the film, though (but maybe that accounts for the speed of Cagney's performance, he was trying to get through it as fast as possible?). I like how Wilder kept the film fast and cynical and cocks a snoot at everything. But Cagney is the one who really keeps it on the ball. Enjoyed your post!

Ken Anderson said...

Well, you've convinced me...
I really have to take a look at this film I've more or less avoided because of the supporting cast. Your enthusiasm for Cagney's performance and your description of the satiric tone and pacing is quite persuasive and I have to add this to my Cagney yet-to-see list. Loved the tone of your writing... engagingly informal and full of info. Thanks!

Sam Juliano said...

This has always been one of Cagney's most underrated performances Jon, though in recent years there has been a glowing reassessment of the film, and of Cagney's work in it. I warmed up to this after a relatively indifferent first viewing, and as always I delight in this superlative and passionate review of a film I well know you rate most highly. I was startled to read what Judy added, and definitely can't say I am pleased with Wilder in that regard.

Great work Jon!

The Lady Eve said...

I last watched "One, Two, Three" many years ago. Its pace always seemed a bit intense. But your great enthusiasm for the film and Cagney's performance has convinced me to take another look.

Classicfilmboy said...

I'm a fan of this one and, as TLE says, the pace is intense. But the satire and humor is dead-on, and the manic pace adds to the humor. This is an overlooked film which has always surprised me as well. Cagney is terrific as always.

Jon said...

Thanks to all for the continued comments. Everyone one right....the pace is pretty intense....which is part of the hilarity...of course the "sabre dance" music is used to great comedic effect here as well.