One, Two, Three (1961)
Director: Billy Wilder
Writer: I. A. L. Diamond and Billy Wilder
Cinematographer: Daniel L. Fapp
Producer: Billy Wilder
by Jon Cvack
I somehow once started this film awhile back, though for whatever reason I never finished it. I’m not entirely sure why that was. I recalled the oddity in having the film integrate the actual Coca-Cola brand in such a politically charged satire, and that it was the perfect type of role for James Cagney. As I round Billy Wilder’s filmography, I’m left in awe of the range the man had - up there with Kubrick and Spielberg in exploring close to the full genre spectrum, with Wilder returning most to comedy the way that Spielberg did with action-adventure.
One, Two, Three is about a Coca-Cola executive C.R. "Mac" MacNamara (James Cagney), hungry to become the head of the Western European division, though currently serving in West Berlin, hundreds of feet away from the divide. Mac’s assisted by Schlemmer (Hanns Lothar), who can’t seem to shake snapping his boots together like his former Nazi self after every single delegation, and his gorgeous secretary/paramour Fräulein Ingeborg (Liselotte Pulver) who’s character and purpose provides some of the film’s most cringey moments.
This all goes on while Mac’s wife Phyllis (Arlene Francis) cares for the two children, hoping that Mac could take a transfer back to Atlanta, even if it means giving up his climb up the ladder. Feeling a promotion is around the corner, Mac’s boss W.P. Hazeltine (Howard St. John) calls to let Mac know that his 17 year old daughter Scarlett (Pamela Tiffin) is coming to town and will need a bit of supervision. Mac reluctantly agrees, greets her at the airport, and more or less forgets about the task as he tries to close a deal with some Russian officials, knowing how much business a deal with the Soviet Union could bring in.
Mac’s negligence soon leads Scarlett to go missing for two weeks, returning married to a dreamy firebrand socialist Otto Ludwig Piffl (Horst Buchholz) who’s in love with Scarlett as much as overthrowing capitalism and scolding Mac’s ethics. The couple is now determined to return to Moscow and start a family. Sure enough, H.P. then calls to reveal that he’s coming to town the next day to visit Scarlett and check on business. Thus begins a comedy of errors as Mac attempts to preserve the deal with Russia while getting them to hand over Otto, who Mac then tries to turn into a capitalist in rushed time, making him over and providing him with an executive position; all while Mac’s wife decides to take the kids and return back to the states.
This was the third film Wilder made after Some Like It Hot (1959) and his second after The Apartment (1960). It’s a good film, but what feels like a story that’s going to ascend into some grand political thrilling comedy, levels out with fierce, though entertaining, banter between the socialist and capitalist. In a couple of behind the scene videos extras included on the disc, Wilder mentioned how he never wanted to make anything overtly political throughout his career. I’m not positive whether he thought this film was exempt from that philosophy, but even if it was one could argue it’s simply an outsider’s look at politics, rather than promoting any particular point of view.
Throughout the film, the socialist seems just as selfish and narrow minded as the capitalist. Even the ending, in which we see Mac successfully pull off the gag of Otto’s descent from royalty and that Otto learns to love the fruits and power of wealth, Wilder goes one step further, having H.P. offer Otto the Head of Western Division Header Quarters; leaving Mac nothing more to do than return to his wife and kids, which seems like a healthy thing to do, but then you’re wondering if Otto wasn’t provided the position, whether Mac would’ve just as easily let them go back to Georgia. Such is the genius of Billy Wilder. Looking through his filmography, it’s astonishing how much range he had. It makes little sense to me how Frank Capra and John Ford hold such distinction in American cinema’s history. Billy Wilder is amongst the greatest in world cinema from the period - joining the ranks of Ozu, Kurosawa, Bergman, and Fellini - and arguably one of the top ten greatest filmmakers in all of cinematic history (a list I’ll have to actually make).
One, Two, Three begins a slow fade out as Wilder never returned to his peak of cinematic prowess. Or in other words, instead of making timeless perfect films he goes on to make just some very good movies. One, Two, Three’s worth it for the performances and photography, which creates ultra wide images for an otherwise simple setting; demonstrating Wilder’s leverage when today’s world would never call for such extravagant design. There isn’t a particular morality to the story, and while I want to say it’s cynical, it plays more like warning against taking oneself too seriously. We’ve satirized our politicians in every way possible over the last few decades - from the idealism of "The West Wing" to the farce of "Veep" - but it’s long past due to take a look at the firebrands who elect the candidates and how silly some ideas can be.
BELOW: Meeting some commies
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