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 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. Berlin
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
, 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. Berlin