ON DVD & BLU-RAY
One, Two, Three (1961) dir: Billy Wilder Blu Ray (Eureka!)
Coca-Cola meets the Cold War
James Cagney plays C.R. MacNamara, a Coca-Cola executive stationed in West Berlin during the Cold War era. He spends his time attempting to break through into the Eastern European market while conducting an affair with his secretary, Fräulein Ingeborg (Liselotte Pulver), behind the back of his long-suffering wife Phyllis (Arlene Francis).
One day, he receives a call from his boss, Wendell P. Hazeltine (Howard St. John), who asks him a favour. He is attempting to distract his boy-crazed teenage daughter Scarlett (Pamela Tiffin) by sending her on a lengthy tour around the various Coca-Cola offices in Europe - and Berlin is her next scheduled stop. Reluctantly, he agrees to take this precocious young lady in for a while.
A couple of months’ later, he discovers that she has been taking regular trips across the Iron Curtain with the bribed assistance of his chauffeur. She has been eloping with a young, fervent East German communist named Otto Piffl (Horst Buchholz). MacNamara, who realises that he’s done for if Hazeltine finds out that his daughter has been allowed to marry someone who stands against the American Way that Coca-Cola symbolises, frantically sets about trying to rectify the situation.
Watch a trailer:
Classic Billy Wilder on speed
This farcical comedy has distinctive echoes in at least two of Billy Wilder’s earlier classics: firstly, in the East-West romance of Ninotchka (1939) which he co-wrote and secondly, in the satire of infidelity and office politics that was The Apartment (1960), which he co-wrote with I.A.L. Diamond and also directed. In common with the first of those two, its attitudes towards the contemporary Capitalism vs. Communism divide seem overly stereotypical when viewed nowadays. On the other side of the coin, when compared with the latter of those two, it’s not quite as charming because it lacks a likeable audience identification figure such as the engagingly put-upon C.C. Baxter (played by Jack Lemmon).
On the other hand, as with 1963’s Irma La Douce - another Wilder/Diamond collaboration that also received a recent Blu Ray treatment courtesy of Eureka Entertainment - it proves that even their secondary output offers plenty for viewers to relish. In this case, the comedy works so well because it rat-a-tats along at a great sprint courtesy of James Cagney’s empowered, rapid-fire performance. He basically plays the kind of boss who would leave the average minion feeling exhausted after spending two minutes in a room with him - on speed. It’s the kind of film that both requires and rewards close listening; you daren’t lose focus unless you miss yet another great one-liner.
Not all of the comedy is verbal, however. There are a couple of manic, slapstick races and chases here as well as a few running gags which pay off handsomely later on. Pay attention to that cuckoo clock which plays Yankee Doodle Dandy, as well as those Yankee Go Home balloons. The latter, in particular, hits a late punchline which is surprisingly risqué for this era in Hollywood. As I mentioned in my review of Irma La Douce, Wilder often enjoyed pushing the envelope of acceptability.
James Cagney is the clearly the star of the show here but, nonetheless, the entire cast gives spirited performances. While some of them are exceedingly hammy, especially Horst Buchholz’s strident Communist fanatic and Pamela Tiffin’s ditzy Southern Belle, they fit in well with the overall manic tone. Other standouts include Arlene Francis as MacNamara’s sarcastic, world-weary wife and Hanns Lothar as his obsequious, heel-clicking assistant.
The film also provides a fascinating snapshot of Berlin during the height of Cold War-era tensions. Most notably, the East Germans constructed the Wall partway through filming. Wilder and his crew did successfully manage to capture a good deal of footage from before the day when it was erected - a time when people could freely cross from one side to the other via a simple checkpoint. However, the ensuing political climate meant that its comedic tone left contemporary audiences with a sour taste in the mouth and doubtless contributed to its failure at the box office. It has remained rather overlooked since then and, as such, I hold out some hope that Eureka’s release will go some way towards rectifying the situation.
Runtime: 108 mins
Dir: Billy Wilder
Script: Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond, from a play by Ferenc Molnár
Starring: James Cagney, Horst Buchholz, Pamela Tiffin, Arlene Francis, Howard St. John, Hanns Lothar, Liselotte Pulver, Red Buttons
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
Both the image and sound are pin-sharp. There are some white specks and other minor blemishes visible at times but otherwise, this looks very good
Audio Commentary by Film Historian Michael Schlesinger
Schlesinger gives an enthusiastic, trivia-filled commentary on a film that he describes as being a “greatest hits package” of Billy Wilder tropes. While nominally based on a Hungarian play written by Ferenc Molnár, it only bears a tenuous resemblance to the original source material. Indeed, Wilder himself boasted that it only used one line from it.
Wilder got permission from the Communist authorities to film in East Berlin, an experience which he described as being like “making a picture in Pompeii while the lava was falling down on you”. The scenes which were shot in this part of the city include the car chase, some of the sequences revolving around the Brandenburg Gate checkpoint and the opening footage of a real-life parade. When the Berlin Wall was erected (without prior warning being given to the filmmakers), the production had to relocate. Some scenes were filmed in Munich, West Germany and others in the United States. A recreation of the Brandenburg Gate was built in Munich at a cost of around $200,000. A huge set representing Berlin’s now-defunct Tempelhof Airport was constructed on a Hollywood soundstage.
Wilder originally wanted Cary Grant for the role of C.R. MacNamara but he turned it down. The role went instead to James Cagney, who was in his early 60s at the time of filming. He kept limber for the high-energy part by tap-dancing on an empty soundstage each morning. Nonetheless, the demands of the role coupled with Wilder’s perfectionism resulted in him deciding to retire from the movie business for 20 years. Hanns Lothar, who played his onscreen assistant, was 32 at the time. This was his only English-language film and, sadly, he passed away shortly before his 38th birthday due to kidney failure. On a happier note, actresses Liselotte Pulver and Pamela Tiffin are still alive today. They are 89 and 76 years of age respectively.
The film received both positive and negative contemporary reviews and its distributor (United Artists) didn’t know how to pitch it to an audience. Cagney was no longer a huge box office draw, the title One, Two, Three was too abstract to describe the plot and (as I mention in my review) the contemporary political climate made it difficult to sell as a lighthearted comedy. As a result, it only made around $5 million on its original theatrical run, a sum that wasn’t enough to cover its production budget (which was inflated by the fact that sets had to be built when the Berlin locations were no longer available) along with marketing and distribution costs.
Neil Sinyard Interview
The Professor of Film Studies at the University of Hull takes a look at Wilder’s One, Two, Three - and, in particular, its similarities and recurring themes in common with the director’s other films. Wilder reportedly wanted to make “the fastest comedy on record” (while I can’t verify if this is the case, it’s certainly pretty damn fast) and (perhaps facetiously) attributed its box office failure to the fact that he thought Coca-Cola was funny but that audiences didn’t share his view.
A trailer and a collector’s booklet round out the extras.
One, Two, Three is a great, underrated Billy Wilder comedy. The extras here are modest but informative.