One, Two, Three: “Billy Wilder’s Satirical Greatest Hits”
Mad and hectic, One, Two, Three is a Cold War satire that refuses to be one thing – slow. Here you have all the cast bellowing orders to each other like World War Three is on the horizon, the pacing zips by, and André Previn’s lively score blasts the classic Sabre Dance as the film’s core theme song. All this non-stop and frantic action would be an assault on the senses, wouldn’t it? And yes, One, Two, Three can get exhausting, especially the final act where James Cagney turns the pro-communist and uncultured Otto Piffl, into a sophisticated and well-mannered capitalist. One, Two, Three has one main ingredient that keeps the madness from careening over a cliff – the film was directed by the late, great Billy Wilder. One, Two, Three came at a point in Wilder’s filmography where he was on top form. He had just come off the critical and commercial success of The Apartment, a film which need I remind you took home several Academy Awards including Best Picture in 1960. So you can imagine One, Two, Three had a lot to live up to.
Out of all of Billy Wilder’s comedies, this one easily takes the cake as the most politically engaged. Wilder aims to tear down both capitalism and communism here, in an era where Cold War tensions between America and Russia were at an all-time high. The aforementioned James Cagney stars as C. R. “Mac” MacNamara, a Coca-Cola executive stationed in Berlin. One day, his boss played by Howard St. John, orders Mac to keep a watchful eye over his frivolous teenage daughter, Scarlett (Pamela Tiffin). All is well and good until Scarlett falls in love and marries an anti-capitalist rebel (Horst Buchholz), who both plan to run away together to Moscow. Mac catches wind of this and plots to get Scarlett back, and teach the rapscallion communist a lesson in manners.
Wilder packs loads of dialogue, spoken at 90 miles an hour by James Cagney. It’ll take about three re-watches for me to pick up on all the low-brow jabs at capitalist and communist culture. Cagney himself is a bundle of energy, never once taking a breather to slow himself down. He is always shouting down orders for his secretaries to pencil down, always zipping from location to location to find the next piece of the puzzle. This is such a larger-than-life performance that Cagney took a twenty-year break from acting. He was so worn out by the end of the production, re-emerging for his final performance in 1981 for Miloš Forman’s Ragtime. In the excellent commentary track supplied by film historian, Michael Schlesinger, Cagney practiced tap-dancing to get into character, and you can definitely sense that the practice helped his performance.
Speaking of which, Schlesinger notes in the commentary that One, Two, Three is a greatest hits compilation of Wilder’s. I don’t see myself disagreeing with him on that point, everything that Wilder was interested in politically is featured in One, Two, Three. Nazis, Stalinism, corporatism, you name it, One, Two, Three nicely condenses these themes into hilarious sketches. One inspired skit involves MacNamara planting his cherished Yankee-Doodle-Dandy cuckoo-clock onto Otto’s sidecar, along with a balloon reading “Russki, go home” on his exhaust. As soon as Otto passes by the East German police, they arrest him on promoting Anti-Communist propaganda. Most of the episodes ridicule communist or capitalist laws that feel very satisfying once the viewer picks up on Wilder’s commentary.
The other reason why I think One, Two, Three doesn’t become a wearying farce is that Wilder is presenting a world that is elaborate and alive. Right down to the smallest details, One, Two, Three’s characterisation never fail to be one dimensional. MacNamara’s German chauffeur clicks the back of his heels S.S. style, the car of the Russian henchmen falls to bits as they chase MacNamara across Berlin, and the dynamic between Cagney, Tiffin, and Buchholz allow for wonderfully specific riffs on American history. When Scarlet informs the newly-transformed Otto about meeting her father, she warns him that her dad has very strong opinions on certain topics. One, for example, is the civil war. Otto wouldn’t know about this period of history anyway, and MacNamara butts in at the end of the conversation to say, “if the subject comes up, just say it was a draw.”
My only problem with One, Two, Three is that since the film is set in a distinct time and place, some of the jokes fail to land is you don’t have the prerequisite historical knowledge. For example, when the East German police interrogate Otto for his propaganda crimes, they repeatedly play the novelty song, Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini. Back then, the American population loved the song, landing in the Billboard Hot 100. When I watched One, Two, Three, I found myself confused because I have no idea what the song is, or why it would cause someone like Otto to go into a screaming frenzy. Luckily, most of the jokes land. However, there is the odd sight gag or political jargon that is honing in on popular culture at the time, that dates the humour.
One, Two, Three is a fun Billy Wilder adventure. As the latest addition in Masters of Cinema’s Wilder reissues, this might be one that history has overlooked. At least with works like Double Indemnity or Witness for the Prosecution, you can call those two definitive films in the film noir and court-room drama genres. As for poor One, Two, Three, it’s not the definitive Cold War satire. Three years later, Kubrick would come riding in on an Atom bomb with Dr. Strangelove. And yet, I don’t think Wilder is raising the bar that high to make the ultimate Cold War satire. Sure, he has a lot of things on his mind that he wants to put to bed. But at the same time, I get the impression that this isn’t award-worthy, sophisticated Wilder we’re getting, this is uncut, firing-on-all-cylinders Wilder. And even for an overlooked film, One, Two, Three is still an entertaining work that deserves to be reassessed within Wilder’s excellent body of work.