Wilder: One, Two, Three (1961) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Wilder: One, Two, Three (1961)

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MacNamara (James Cagney) is a managing director for Coca Cola in West Berlin in 1961, just before the Wall is put up. When Scarlett (Pamela Tiffin), the daughter of his boss, comes to West Berlin, MacNamara has to look after her, but this turns out to be a difficult task. After MacNamara has found out that Scarlett is seeing an East German communist named Otto (Horst Buchholz), he goes to extreme lengths trying to conceal this from the girl's father in order to save his job

One Two Three 1961 Ryan COMMENTARY w/ Rating
One, Two, Three is the best Mel Brooks movie that Mel Brooks didn't make. This is not an insult to this film or Billy Wilder because there are few people that I love more than Mel Brooks firing on all cylinders. One, Two, Three is a movie that doesn't stop from the beginning to the end thanks to the manic performance of James Cagney. This movie's pace makes Some Like It Hot look like a leisurely stroll.

Is the movie as funny as Some Like It Hot or some other Wilder comedies? Not really but the movie has given you 4 more jokes before you realize the first one wasn't funny so it isn't as noticeable. This is a film that fights a war of attrition with the audience because only 1 out of every 5 jokes are funny but there has to be over 100 lines/gags/jokes in the film that Wilder and Diamond threw at the audience to see what would stick. I enjoyed the film but I wouldn't put it near the top of Wilder's library but it definitely keeps your interest.

The first thing I want to ask you Danny is, do you think this movie and the themes of the Cold War was ahead of its time? There are stories that mention how popular this film was after the fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany, did Wilder make it 30 years too early?

Danny no longer writes for Can't Stop the Movies, and can be reached at his fantastic site Pre-Code.com

OneTwo1 DannyCommentaryBannerShortI've seen One, Two, Three plenty of times, and it'd definitely a great deal of sound and fury. It seems like it should be funny, and Cagney's attitude is hilarious, and the spirit of the piece will leave a smile on your face at the very least.

Billy Wilder is once again throwing back to the 1930's, this time taking the screwball comedy and giving it a Cold War twist. Unfortunately, where Some Like It Hot had jazz, here we have the spinning plates music. Where The Apartment was Pre-Code melodrama and cynicism to its logical conclusion, One Two Three is A Foreign Affair with Coca Cola and its heart in a different place.

The main thrust of the film is to poke fun at the international mess that was Germany in in the early 60's. No one comes across as particularly well, though the Russians are shown to have morals and intelligence somewhat equitable to the many balloons they float off. While the Americans here are sarcastic and conniving, that's at least a few dozen steps above the rest, giving the film more of a propaganda feel than we ever got back in Five Graves to Cairo.

That doesn't mean Wilder is above throwing in some movie references for his own satisfaction. Cagney gets to riff on Edward G. Robinson's famous final line from Little Caesar, and one of the songs played in the East German catina was Humphrey Bogart's theme from Wilder's own Sabrina. Also noticeable are all the allusions to Wilder's own screenplay for Ninotchka, so sizeablethat he could probably have sued himself for plagiarism. This film even has some cross dressing thrown in, making it slightly worrisome that Wilder seems to be quoting himself so recently at this point.

The best thing about One, Two, Three after James Cagney's unbeatable bluster and the supporting actresses is its filming location. Berlin is the perfect setting for creating a big bombastic attempt to make the Cold War seem kind of hot, a divided city upping all of the tension and giving the perfect atmosphere for a confrontation.

So, Ryan, after seeing the many leers on display here, do you really think all men are really this horny in real life?

OneTwo5 Ryan COMMENTARY w/o RatingThe men in this are one small step away from becoming the wolf in the Tex Avery cartoons. One, Two, Three seems to be saying that the cold war could have been ended with boobs and bottles of Coke and the truth from that might not be that far off. I did love the look of the film in a post WWII pre Berlin Wall Germany. Much like A Foreign Affair Wilder make the perfect time capsule movie by showing Berlin from a very specific time in history.

I have a weird quirk with this movie in that I always remember it in color and then I am surprised when it is black and white. Before watching this film I was thinking about writing about how this was the first Wilder picture I really liked that was shot in color only to realize that it was in B&W. I think it is because the movie is so hyper and very much a 60's film that I always picture it with the technicolor. Have you even seen a movie where the style of it feels like it should have been filmed in a totally different way?

OneTwo7 DannyCommentaryBannerShortOnly a third of Wilder's movies are in color, and it probably hurts One, Two, Three a bit more than most of them. While it's trying to be a throwback to the screwball films of the late 30's, it looks flat in its shades of black and white, with only the German scenery standing out.

But the vividness of the performances do make up for it to an extent. I think the young couple here, with Pamela Tiffin as Scarlett in particular, really hold their ground. It's hard to make vapid seem believable, and I think she pulls it off.

I do think One, Two, Three is a valiant attempt to be fun. I think it's easier to dismiss nowadays since it clings so fiercely to the capitalistic ideal, which seems more romantic than some of the comedies Wilder has churned out. Cagney really rips into his role, but his age and less-than-appealing character make it understandable why this precipitated a mini-retirement for him afterward.

Ryan, that makes me wonder though: have you seen any of Wilder's movies after this point? Because this may be the last of his with such a vibrant pulse. While there are a few gems after this, I think we're moving into the smooth jazz section of his career... whether he likes it or not.

OneTwo4 Ryan COMMENTARY w/o RatingI haven't seen many after this and some I wished I hadn't but I have to agree with the "smooth jazz" description. The one that I have seen and liked is The Fortune Cookie and it doesn't have the same feeling as his earlier work. It was a good movie because of the cast but it isn't his best. I think a truer statement would be that starting with One, Two, Three his movies don't feel as much like "Wilder films". Like I said in the beginning, One, Two, Three feels more like a Mel Brooks film than anything else.

Something that we have not talked about but I would love to hear your thoughts about are the opening credits of the film. Was he trying to make them seem like a TV sit-com? They looked very close to what the opening of something like Leave it to Beaver and it can't be on accident. Was Wilder threatened by the encroaching TV or was he leveling some attacks at it like he does for Coke and the commies?
OneTwo9 DannyCommentaryBannerShortIf Billy Wilder were still alive, he'd probably be searching his desk for something to stab you with. He detested television (Baxter's viewing of Grand Hotel in The Apartment was apparently based on his own ire), and you accusing him of such is cruel.

That being said, the movie's opening with the smiling actors in front of their names is another throwback to the 1930's, though it was ruthlessly redone hundreds of times in generations of sitcoms. The spinning plates music doesn't help, since that became associated with chintzy variety shows in the last few decades.

On the other end of the spectrum, Ryan, what do you think of the ending? The Commie has turned Capitalist, and everyone appears to be fine with how things worked out. Do you think the last gag worked? Or did it suddenly remind you that Pepsi exists?

OneTwo6 Ryan COMMENTARY w/o RatingI loved the ending. It might not be an all time classic like "shut up and deal" or "nobody's perfect" but it does get that last joke in. Our hero has valiantly defeated communism and reconciled with his family so what greater threat does a man in a free market society have than his greatest foe, the competition. In a lot of films, the ending would have come off as cheesy but with the go for broke One, Two Three it fit right in. I loved seeing Cagney in a Wilder film and enjoyed the humor but ultimately I would have to put this film in the middle of the Wilder canon. Where do you think this movie's proper place would be when speaking of the whole library?
OneTwo3 DannyCommentaryBannerShort
I think this is in the upper middle, carried by its manic nature and the fact that it's impossible not to watch Cagney (and wonder how close he was to a heart attack the entire time). I also think that this movie is a pretty good approximation of the screwball comedies of the late 30's, so much so that I think it's time to go watch one.

I'm interested in what you're going to say about next week's movie, Ryan, since it's probably one of the most overlooked in Wilder's oeuvre. Is that good or bad? I guess we'll find out.

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Next week: Irma La Douce (1962)

The Films of Billy Wilder

Posted by Danny

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