One, Two, Three (1961)

After seeing DM-Killer, I went on to rewatch Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three, as a sort of palate cleanser: another black&white Wirtschaftwunder era comedy – more simplistic in its message, perhaps, but also far more benign than DM-Killer.

+++ John MacNamara (James Cagney) is Coca Cola’s area manager for West Berlin. For him the divided city full of tension and uncertainty is the latest in a string of “punishment postings” that were the result of losing an Arab bottling plant in a riot that was not his fault.

He has been working extra hard ever since in order to get his career back onto its old trajectory. Too hard, his wife Phyllis believes, and she feels that their family life has suffered as a result. And now, just as MacNamara thinks he might have regained Atlanta’s trust, his boss sends him his unruly daughter and tells him to keep an eye on her. 17 years old, spoilt, naive, and boy-crazy, Scarlett (Pamela Tiffin) is going to endanger everything MacNamara has built in Berlin. +++

The plan had always been to make this a fast-paced film; and the plot does whip itself into a certain frenzy the longer it goes on, with MacNamara facing a very tight deadline and having to face several problems at once, including his wife’s unhappiness.

As the time ticks away, the camera shows us MacNamara’s cuckoo clock which plays the Yankee Doodle Dandy. Maybe I am just imagining things, but it seems to me that the melody becomes faster and more hectic the closer we get to the deadline.

Exemplary of the film’s fast pace is the use of Aram Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance” in one scene. The piece was adapted for the film by André Previn, who had worked on such projects long before his career re-focused on conducting the world’s leading orchestras. The “Sabre Dance” is also used during the film’s opening credits, which is a less happy choice. The melody is unsettling and too fast for people who have just arrived in the cinema and are trying to settle in. You feel stressed out before the film has even started. And of course the film starts out rather slowly, as most films do, with a preamble explaining the premise, etc. So the credits set a pace that the film does not match in the beginning, which just feels odd.

Speaking of the preamble: shooting this film in 1961, Wilder and his crew were taken by surprise by the erection of what would become the Berlin Wall. Most interior scenes were being shot on sets in Munich anyway, but now they had to build additional sets to imitate locations they could no longer access. More importantly, the film’s premise and plot only work in a Berlin politically divided but with fairly unrestricted travel between East and West. The reality in Berlin was now far different, and the so the film opens with an explanation that tells the audience that the story took place a year earlier.

Needless to say, the dramatic events surrounding the Wall’s clandestine erection also meant that this comedy now sat tonally off-kilter to the public mood and the general political climate. Audiences as well as many critics did not like the film when it was originally released; and it was a box-office failure in both the US and Germany, losing money in the process.
That perception has since shifted dramatically, and One, Two, Three is now considered a small masterpiece, and one of the quintessential comedies when it comes to depicting the absurdities of the Cold War.

Apart from its fast pace, the important elements that make this film a success are Wilder’s direction, the strong writing (by Wilder and his frequent collaborator I.A.L. Diamond), and the performances. Everyone here is cast well, and everyone here does an excellent job, especially Cagney as MacNamara, Arlene Francis (as his wife), Lilo Pulver (as his secretary), and Hanns Lothar (as his right-hand man).
The list of strong performances goes on and on, but most of these actors have their roles limited by either screen-time, or by the fact that they are one-note stereotypes (notably either Southerners or communists): Horst Buchholz, Pamela Tiffin, Howard St. John, Leon Askin, and Ralf Wolter, and in even smaller roles Peter Capell, Karl Lieffen, Loïs Bolton, Hubert von Meyerinck, and Rose Renée Roth.

(Bolton’s role is very small, as her character is not really needed but tacked on as it would seem odd if Howard St. John’s character Hazeltine made this trip without his wife. Imdb and Wikipedia are no real help on this, but it seems very likely that Loïs Bolton is the same person as the Lois Irvin Bolton that St. John had married in 1939. Given how small her role is, and given that St. John had to travel all the way to Munich for two soundstage scenes, and given that Bolton’s character appears only in those two scenes, it makes sense that St. John would have suggested his wife for this role.)

Cagney is essential for the film’s success. His character is in practically every scene and everything revolves around him. This role had to be filled by someone who could bring the on-screen energy, and has the face, voice, and demeanour of an ageing manager barking commands. Between the omnipresence of his character, and the level of energy he had to emit through his character, the filming proved so exhausting for Cagney that he began a 20-year hiatus soon after. The fact that he did not get along with Buchholz and the fact that the film was not well-received probably also contributed to this decision. If you put that much energy into a project, the disappointment about its failure must hit extra hard.

Arlene Francis’s role as MacNamara’s wife is small, but it gives her the opportunity to display a lot of acerbic wit which serves as commentary on the events, and she plays nicely off of Cagney as the wife who sees through his antics and is no longer impressed with his priorities. Because her role is a bit like that of a sniping commentator from the sidelines, the humour in her lines is fairly “honest” and acerbic, and a lot of the film’s more sophisticated innuendo comes from her. (Of course there is also innuendo coming from male characters, but that is invariably simple and cringy.) With her acerbic wit and great comedic timing, I could not help but feel that I had seen Francis before. All my brain could come up with was that she reminded me a lot of Helen Mirren. Only after browsing her filmography did I realise that I knew her from the small number of old What’s My Line clips I had been watching on Youtube over the years.

Pamela Tiffin was basically a complete newcomer at that time, but she is a delightful presence in this film and digs into exactly the right kind of ham for her naïve, exuberant character.

These three American actors were paired with an excellent German (or, as it may be, Swiss/Austrian) cast. Horst Buchholz came fresh off The Magnificent Seven, and Lilo Pulver was already looking back at 10 years’ worth of box-office success ever since her breakthrough performance in Heidelberger Romanze. Pulver had postponed her wedding so that she could work with Wilder; and her fiancé, Helmut Schmid, has a small role as an East German border guard in the film. The role as sex-bomb secretary is somewhat unusual for her, but it is played comically here, which suits her very well. I have heard people compare her to Doris Day, but for me this particular role seems to aim for a Fräuleinwunder version of Marilyn Monroe.
As I said before, strong German character actors like Wolter, Lieffen, and von Meyerinck add a lot to this film, even in the smaller roles. And Hanns Lothar, who would die tragically young only a few years later, delivers an excellent performance as one of the film’s major supporting players.
As for Ralf Wolter, it seems plausible that he had specifically been chosen for his role as a Soviet delegate because of a certain visual similarity to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. In one scene, Wolter’s character takes off his shoe and repeatedly bangs it on the table, in a reference to the semi-anecdotal shoe-banging incident one year earlier. In that same scene, a picture of Khrushchev falls from the wall revealing a picture of Stalin behind it that had been covered up with Khrushchev’s likeness. A multi-layered symbol that is repeatedly employed in films, not just with these two but with other dictators as well.

Wilder and Diamond based their script on a 1929 Hungarian play by Ferenc Molnár and reportedly combined that material with ideas from Wilder’s Ninotchka. Billy Wilder was, of course, an Austrian jew who had just started a successful career as a screen writer in Germany when the rise of the Nazis forced him to emigrate to the United States, where his career as a writer and director took really off. Writing and directing One, Two, Three, which is essentially a US-German project, and shooting on location in Berlin with a part English-, part German-speaking cast, there is no doubt that Wilder benefits greatly from his knowledge of both languages and both cultures. And he is joined by a small number of fellow emigrés, some still working in the US, others already re-established in Germany or Austria. Apart from Leon Askin (Hogan’s Heroes) there are Peter Capell and Rose Renée Roth, but also the film’s arranger and conductor André Previn, and I am probably missing some. In a cameo role as band leader, you can see Friedrich Hollaender, who had worked in Hollywood as a film composer after his emigration, but who – like Capell and Roth – had already been working Germany again by the time One, Two, Three was shot. Just one year earlier, Hollaender had written music for the (somewhat superficial, but fairly popular) musical comedy Das Spukschloß im Spessart, in which Lilo Pulver had played the lead role.

The film’s plot has elements of a comedy of errors, and it has many twists, turns, and new problems and developments every few minutes. The film aims to praise capitalism and democracy and to show how they favourably compare to communism, but it also tries to depict a number of fallacies in the corporate economy and hypocrisies in polite society. It’s all fairly broad strokes. None of these things are very deep or possess any higher level of accuracy. This film cannot achieve this, and it does not set out to do so. And the fast pace and the many activities that go on all the time mean that any potential plot holes or any shortcomings in the message are completely buried and do not in any way impede the enjoyment of the film.

This is one of the very few films that one can without hesitation put on any list of “canonical” films that everyone should have seen at least once in their lives.
Rating: 9 out of 10

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