Screened August 14 2009 on MGM DVD in Brooklyn NY
One: Is it backhanded praise to say that One, Two, Three is a movie you don’t even have to look at to enjoy? For the first half hour I just wanted to close my eyes and let the non-stop flow of dialogue carry me along. While Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond are known for their wit (“You will send papers to East Berlin with blond lady in triplicate.” “You want the papers in triplicate, or the blond in triplicate?” “See what you can do.”) it’s the musicality of the banter that captivates me: the compulsive clicking of a subordinate’s heels, Cagney’s numerical method of dictating agendas to associates, and countless little moments where the words turned against their speakers, batted around like a beach ball.
That’s not to say the film lacks for visual interest. Cagney’s office is an expansive executive space over which looms a global map of Coca Cola conquest; it’s stately and big enough to contain Cagney’s booming voice, and eventually becomes a staging ground for one of the most breathless one-set slapstick routines of post-30s Hollywood.
Two: Somewhere around the half hour mark, the non-stop stridency of Cagney’s delivery starts to wear on the ears; and when it’s doubled by Horst Buchholz’ angry young Communist, it’s like listening to two bugles blasting at each other over the Berlin Wall. Arlene Francis plays it a little too straight as the hapless wife. The whole middle section feels like an extended set-up for the next set piece, a late night negotation between East and West set over heavy cigar smoke, dishes of caviar and a table-dancing barefoot blonde in a form-fitting polka dot dress. The whole bar starts shaking to their gyrations, ideology coming undone under pure sexual lust.
Three: Back to that finale, a bravado sequence that moves at the speed of thought, as Cagney’s McNamara improvises his way to transform Horst Buchholz from a wet-behind-the-ears Communist to a spit-polish Capitalist in under 40 minutes. Well, at least it’s supposed to be improvised, but it doesn’t quite feel that way – it sounds and looks thoroughly written every step of the way. All the same, it’s a jaw-dropper, the way it summons every plot and subplot laid throughout what preceded it and weaves it into a three ring circus with Cagney the ringmaster-standin for Wilder. It’s an awesome, relentless juggernaut of a sequence that, allegorically speaking, combines Soviet unilateralism, American showmanship and German efficiency. Looking at it meta, it also evokes the Hollywood studio system at the peak of its creative and collaborative energies; as such, timed at the demise of that same system, it makes for a fitting swan song.
Below: Poster mural inside the Delphi Filmpalast in the former West Berlin, taken during the 2009 Berlinale
WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?
The following citations were counted towards the placement of One, Two, Three among the top 1000 films according to They Shoot Pictures Don’t They:
Fernando Trueba, Nickel Odeon (1994)
Helmut Fiebig, Steadycam (2007)
Katja Nicodemus, Steadycam (2007)
Lars-Olav Beier, Steadycam (2007)
Rob Blackwelder, BobSassone.com (2003)
Bertrand Tavernier, Most Misappreciated American Films (1977)
New York Times, The Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made (2004)
HISTORICAL REVIEWS, PRESS AND PRODUCTION INFORMATION
IT is too bad the present Berlin crisis isn’t so funny and harmless as the one Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond have whipped up in their new movie, “One, Two, Three.” And it is too bad it can’t be settled so briskly and pro-Americanly as James Cagney settles the one in this picture, which came to the Astor and the Fine Arts yesterday.
But the sharpness of wit and satire is less conspicuous than the magnitude and speed of the obvious jokes and comic action as they pour through the film like a cascade. There is nothing subtle about it, least of all about Mr. Cagney’s role, which is that of the deus ex machina (or “mein fuehrer,” as his wife refers to him). It is simply a matter of moving very fast and getting lots of things done, from sales pitching for Coca-Cola to an automobile chase through East Berlin.
With all due respect for all the others, all of whom are very good—Pamela Tiffin, a new young beauty, as Scarlett; Horst Buchholz as the East Berlin boy, Lilo Pulver as a German secretary, Leon Askin as a Communist stooge and several more—the burden is carried by Mr. Cagney, who is a good 50 per cent of the show. He has seldom worked so hard in any picture or had such a browbeating ball.
His fellow is a free-wheeling rascal. His wife (Arlene Francis) hates his guts. He knows all the ways of beating the rackets and has no compunctions about their use. He is brutishly bold and brassy, wildly ingenious and glib. Mr. Cagney makes you mistrust him—but he sure makes you laugh with him.
And that’s about the nature of the picture. It is one with which you can laugh—with its own impudence toward foreign crises—while laughing at its rowdy spinning jokes.
– Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, December 22, 1961
WEST BERLIN — Billy Wilder, producer-director, strode out of his Hilton headquarters here the other day, took a quick look up at the clearing skies and said, in his nervous, impatient way: “Okay. Get your steel helmets, everybody. We’re going back to the Gate.” And with that he jumped into a waiting car and sped to a location site on the Strasse des 17 Juni, near the Brandenburg Gate, followed by the cast and crew of his new comedy, “One, Two, Three,” which he is making here for United Artists release late this year.
While the armament was strictly a figure of speech, it did fit the situation. Ever since Wilder placed the picture before the cameras in early June, he has been engaged in a private war with the East Berlin authorities over permission to shoot a sequence through the gate, which lies entirely within the Soviet sector of “Splitsville,” as the divided city is known to the company…
The project represents the Viennese-born director’s return to his old home grounds. In 1934, carrying a half-filled suitcase, he fled Berlin one step ahead of the Gestapo. Eleven years later, he was back as film chief of the American Information Control Division in Germany. Those experiences inspired the memorable comedy “A Foreign Affair,” with Marlene Dietrich as postwar Berlin’s most attractive commodity.
In many respects, Wilder is a bigger star on his own pictures than any of his actors. Something of an aggressive imp, he achieves his results with a steady barrage of bubbling comments, most of them derogatory, many of them unprintable, but all of them highly quotable. Speaking of one of his associates of some twenty years, for example, he said, “Obviously the man has no talent but I’m used to him.” Another time, after one of the rebuffs at the gate, he commented, “I wonder if they’ll let us shoot there if I have the musical score written by Irving East Berlin.”
Though some of the action of the story, which is an outrageous attempt of American big business to penetrate the Iron Curtain market, takes place in East Berlin, none of the film will be shot there. Thanks to Berlin’s sense of history, there are many places here that have been left just as they were when the Third Reich fell. Some of these areas, particularly those centering on Margareten and Victoria Strassen and the Anhalter railway station, are dotted with gutted buildings and piles of debris and look for all the world like most of the Soviet sector.
– Thomas Wood, The New York Times, July 19, 1961
Playboy: Though it certainly didn’t dwell on the subject of human meanness, One, Two, Three was an incisive satire of both sides involved in the Cold War. Were you concerned, while filming in Berlin, that the authorities on one side or the other might cause trouble?
Wilder: We got to Berlin the day they sealed off the Eastern sector and wouldn’t let people come across the border. It was like making a picture in Pompeii with all the lava coming down. Khrushchev was even faster than me and Diamond. We had to make continuous revisions to keep up with the headlines. It seemed to me that the whole thing could have been straightened out if Oleg Cassini had sent Mrs. Khrushchev a new dress. But we weren’t afraid of creating an incident like Mr. Paar. We minded our manners and were good boys. When they told us we couldn’t use the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, we went to Munich and built our own.
Playboy: Was there any negative reaction to the picture as a flip treatment of a serious subject?
Wilder: Of course. There is a little group of people who always say I’m not Spinoza. The thinner the magazine, the fatter the heads of the reviewers. They were shocked because we made fun of the Cold War. Others objected because it was very quick-paced and they could not catch everything. People either loved it or hated it.
Wilder’s constant obsession with pace in screen comedy found its own answer in ONE, TWO, THREE – a rapid, brutal and over-wrought comic statement on the Cold War. How fast is fast in comedy, Wilder asked himself. Can you machine-gun audiences with sound track satire? Do audiences have the stamina to pay close attention continuously, or must they come up for breath now and then? In London for the British premiere of ONE, TWO, THREE, he remarked that the tendency in contemporary films is length and slowness: ‘I think because the critics think highly of European directors like Antonioni who have gotten away with it – the idea that slowness and solemnity are the same thing as profundity.’ But he wondered if in ONE, TWO, THREE he hadn’t gone too far with his ‘experiment in keeping up the tempo the whole time.’
The plot of ONE, TWO, THREE is borrowed from a one-act play by Ferenc Molnar, who would be astonished to think that any hero of his could turn up as the manager of a Coca-Cola bottling plant. Yet that is what the picture’s hero is. ‘It is a farce that intentionally mocks and reverses every conventional attitude we have, or think we ought to have; virtue is punished, corruption and stupidity are rewarded and the whole German people, as if in a trifling aside, are indicted as lickspittles or martinets, and we sit watching and roaring with delight,’ is the way Brendan Gill described the film. ‘For this tour de force of fratricidal subversion, we have to thank not only Mr Cagney who makes it shamefully attractive, but, again, Mr Wilder, who produced and directed the picture and who could, no doubt, wring a hearty yock from bubonic plague.’ (New Yorker, 6 January 1962) Reflecting on Wilder’s ability to make bubonic plague into comedy, Pauline Kael felt that, execept perhaps in a different way in Ace in the Hole, Wilder had ‘never before exhibited such a brazen contempt for people.’ (I Lost it at the Movies,1965)
Wilder’s direction is sharp and so furious that the Variety reviewer wondered if even the cream of an audience would catch more than seventy-five per cent of the significance of the dialogue at first hearing. (Variety, 29 November 1961) Cagney, who suffered from acute homesickness during the shooting in Germany, proves himself a good, snappy farceur with a glib, full-throttled characterisation. The staccato delivery wasn’t always easy to film, and one speech during a shoe-shine session required fifty-two takes – only seven short of the all-time record with Marilyn Monroe on Some Like It Hot. While Buchholz and Pamela Tiffin fail to register much, Arlene Francis is just right as Mrs MacNamara, and some of the supporting roles are brutally in focus – Howard St John as the tycoon of Coca Colonisation, and Hanns Lothar as a heel-clicking right-hand man. Trauner’s art direction contributes importantly to the comedy, notably in a scene set in a smoky East Berlin nightspot, and Andr? Previn incorporates period pop themes like ‘Yes, We Have no Bananas’ with incongruous effect into his score.
ONE, TWO, THREE was shot in Berlin during the autumn of 1961 at a time when the East-West climate deriorated daily, and before Wilder could yell ‘Cut!’ the last time, the Berlin Wall was under construction. Permission to shoot in East Berlin was revoked three weeks into production, forcing Wilder to have Trauner build a full-sized replica of the East side of the Brandenburg Gate on the back-Iot of the Bavaria Studios in Munich.
Wilder managed one little revenge. He made a dry run of a shot up to the boundary-line, and then sent word to the heavily armed East German police that they were in the picture, and while it was all right with him, he was afraid it would give audiences the impression that East Berlin was a Police State. That cleared the gate for several hours.
– Axel Madsen, Billy Wilder, Cinema One, Secker and Warburg, 1968.
One, Two, Three is the smoking gun that proves Diamond did it. That is, ruined Wilder by downgrading his work to processed shtick. Today, One, Two, Three is as dated as a rerun of Pete and Gladys. It was just as dated when it came out, at least according to Pauline Kael. Reviewing it in 1961. she wrote, “It was shot in Berlin and Munich, but the real location is the locker room where tired salesmen swap the latest variants of stale old jokes. ” A typical howler: The Russians reject a shipment of Swiss cheese because it’s full of holes.
– Sam Staggs, Close-up on Sunset Boulevard: Billy Wilder, Norma Desmond, and the Dark Hollywood Dream. Macmillan, 2003. Page 368
The reason why One, Two, Three, set as the Berlin Wall was going up, seemed crass to Pauline Kael in 1962 is that its manic scenario exploited a situation which had complex political dimensions. With distance, Sinyard and Turner in 1979 read the film as mirroring America’s evolution from Virgin Land to Superpower. With greater hindsight, this dynamic screenplay not only simplifies the ragged conflicts of German and American history, but recalls the most manic of ’30s Hollywood screwball comedies. As is usual with Wilder, no distracting camerawork or cutting is allowed to stand in the way of dialogue, which cuts its cloth to fit MacNamara’s (and Wilder’s) myopic odysseys.
– Richard Armstrong, Billy Wilder, American Film Realist. Macfarland, 2005, Page 5.
Though it was rumored that Wilder and his “One, Two, Three” star James Cagney didn’t get along, [Charlotte] Chandler [author of Nobody’s Perfect: Billy Wilder, A Personal Biography] says they liked each other, though the veteran actor didn’t like the rapid-fire dialogue he had to deliver. “I remember when I spoke with [the film’s costar] Horst Buchholz, he said he found James Cagney dancing one morning as fast as you can imagine. Cagney said he was dancing that fast because it helped him get up to speed verbally.”
– Susan King, Los Angeles Times
>An odd combination of fast-paced screwball comedy and political satire, the movie offered director Wilder (who fled Germany in 1932 as Hitler ascended to power, several members of the director’s family later perishing at Auschwitz) an opportunity to poke fun at Berlin’s volatile politics and take a few swipes at his home country’s post-Nazi culture; the movie also afforded the 62-year-old Cagney the chance to sink his teeth into one last meaty role while making a few sly jokes about his own public persona in the process…
As the hot-headed young Red, Bucholz seems hell-bent on acting Cagney off the screen through sheer volume and fury; years later, Cagney would remember that this was the only time in his entire career he ever worked with a competitive, uncooperative actor, saying that Bucholz resorted to “all kinds of scene-stealing didos, and I had to depend on Billy Wilder to take some steps to correct this kid. If Billy hadn’t, I was going to knock Bucholz on his ass — which at several points I would have been very happy to do.”
– Dawn Taylor<, The DVD Journal
Revisited today, Billy Wilder‘s 1961 farce One, Two, Three is a Cold War poltergeist, rattling chains in the vanished spook house that was West Berlin. Indeed, this artifact from the era of geopolitical competition and nuclear crisis, sufficiently prescient to conjure the idea of Soviet missiles in Cuba, was actually in production when the Russians and East Germans sealed the border and ringed Berlin’s western zone with a double-tiered wall…
Wilder never made a movie with more one-liners, and Cagney never had to talk faster (“put your pants on, Spartacus,” he snarls at Buchholz during a marathon fitting session). But while the jokes are largely verbal, One, Two, Three is not without its visual treats. A onetime Berliner, Wilder makes better use of the dead zone around derelict Potsdamer Platz than any director before Wim Wenders. The entropic mise-en-scéne of East Berlin’s imagined Grand Hotel Potemkin suggests a red Sunset Boulevard: An ancient dance band plays a German version of “Yes We Have No Bananas” while a couple of Rosa Klebb clones crowd the floor and a few bewhiskered comrades contemplate their chess games.
Not so far from the contemporary worldview of Mad magazine, One, Two, Three was essentially good-natured. By the time it opened in late ’61, however, the nation was gripped by war panic. The New Yorker nervously suggested the filmmakers had pitched their “circus tent on grounds that threaten to become a cemetery,” and other reviews were notably hostile. Abby Mann, who wrote the screenplay for Judgment at Nuremberg (the season’s other cine-statement on postwar Germany), deemed Wilder’s jape so tasteless, he felt obliged to apologize for it at the Moscow Film Festival. Such publicity notwithstanding, One, Two, Three proved a financial disappointment.
The movie may be manic, but it lacks the sustained velocity to be a great farce. Still, One, Two, Three looks forward to the 1960s’ two great black comedies, anticipating Dr. Strangelove in its cynical realpolitik and The Producers in its relentless Nazi baiting. Adapted for the stage in West Berlin and re-released in West Germany during the mid ’80s, it even became a cult film—something to hang on the still-extant wall.
– J. Hoberman, The Village Voice
Certainly there are other films that Billy Wilder made that I love more than One, Two, Three (Sunset Blvd. is in my all-time Top 10), but the more I see it, the more I realize that Wilder may never have made a movie that’s as much fun. James Cagney may have achieved stardom in gangster films, but if you put all those together, I doubt the machine gun fire contained within would come close to equaling the speed of the rat-a-tat-tat dialogue that he fires in this Cold War (and cola war) comedy. No wonder Cagney decided to quit movies for 20 years after this — he must have been exhausted and needed that long to catch his breath…
No Wilder film moves like One, Two, Three does with pacing that is downright remarkable. On top of that, there are subtle messages about capitalism, communism and just about everything in between. When a jaded Otto realizes that one of his communist comrades is ready to leap to the west side of Berlin, he asks, “Is everyone in the world corrupt?” to which the defector replies, “I don’t know everybody.” With One, Two Three, Wilder bottled a concoction with more fizz than any bottle of Coke. Really, it was Wilder’s last truly great film, yet many people haven’t seen it. They don’t know what they’re missing. One, Two Three is the real thing.
James Cagney is the whole dynamic show in this hilarious Billy Wilder satire (1961) on Coca-Cola diplomacy in divided Berlin. The plot is something about a Coke executive (Cagney) who has to chaperone the boss’s daughter (Pamela Tiffin), who is infatuated with one of Berlin’s ever-present communist students (Horst Buchholz), who is in turn dedicated to destroying everything symbolized by Coca-Cola, etc, etc. The pace is blistering, and Wilder’s deep-seated hatred of Germans has never been put to more comic use.
– Don Druker, The Chicago Reader
I suspect that One, Two, Three fizzles out frequently for younger audiences. So much of the humor is topical, referring to events that were current in 1961, or have a cultural frame of reference for adults of that era. While it is fascinating to see a film that takes place in a divided Berlin before the wall went up, gags about Nikita Kruschev probably require explanation for some. Jokes about Adlai Stevenson and Chet Huntley may seem obscure. Too many of the jokes concerning Pamela Tiffin‘s ditzy character of Scarlett refer to Gone with the Wind, although the jokes about Southern contempt for Yankees are still funny. Lilo Pulver, the tall, blonde, gum chewing secretary, remains sexy and funny, periodically recalling Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot, especially in a scene where Hanns Lothar has to wear her clothes for a temporary disguise.
This is the featherweight comedy film on the Cold War that James Cagney decided to end his illusturious film career on, only to come back twenty years later to make in 1981 Ragtime. Billy Wilder (“Avanti!”/”Buddy Buddy”/”Irma La Douce”) directs this zany but heavy-handed sitcomlike comedy that’s based on an obscure play by Ferenc Molna. It’s cowritten by Wilder and regular writer I.A.L. Diamond. Despite being fast-paced, hard-hitting, and filled with topical gags, it’s creaky as the targets of Wilder’s satire–a vulgar American capitalist culture and an outdated Russian Communist culture–are too obvious to be that funny. It’s a futile attempt at farce to return to Ninotchka territory, that drags its heels through an overlong hardly funny middle-part and a crudeness that is hard to overcome. Cagney as the harried but crafty executive is splendid, delivering one-liners with machine-gun rapidity and being the entire force of the film.
– Dennis Schwartz, Ozu’s World Movie Reviews
One, Two, Three is Billy Wilder’s most consistently hilarious and most gorgeous comedy… The breakneck pace conforms to the instruction that heads the script: “This piece must be played molto furioso.” The underpinning delight, on the mark (a double-meaning there), is how Otto’s ideological resistance flows into complicity with the effort to turn him into a rich capitalist. Horst Buchholz is spectacularly funny as Otto.
You really can’t say enough about James Cagney’s performance here. While he will always be remembered for the gangster films, where he was usually riveting and added a dimension to the characters that other actors almost never could, Cagney was an extremely versatile performer who was adept in musical and comedic roles as well as drama. In One, Two, Three, he really excels and is able to give full justice to the madcap lunacy found in the screenplay written by Wilder and his frequent collaborator I.A.L. Diamond. It’s difficult to imagine any other actor who could pull off this role half as well as Cagney. On the surface, MacNamara is not a likeable character, but Cagney manages to make him simply gruff and grumpy in a way that the viewer can’t help but like the guy regardless of whether you like what’s he doing, reminiscent of the persona Walter Matthau later would adopt in many films. The rapid-fire delivery Cagney uses to such good effect here is a logical continuation of the style he developed in his gangster roles.
The set piece of the film is an eight-minute stretch where MacNamara does a high-toned makeover on the beatnik Piffle, bringing in a parade of tailors, barbers, haberdashers, etc., and rattling off pages of exacting dialogue with perfect articulation and precision – precisely as Wilder wrote it (it reportedly took many takes and some strained tempers). This dovetails into a mad car chase to the airport and a sharp finish. Audiences laugh – and then quiet themselves to not miss out on the next joke – Wilder’s pace leaves little room for reaction time, just a raised eyebrow or a quick breath.
– Glenn Erickson, DVD Savant
ABOUT THE MGM DVD
The best-looking disc in MGM’s “Billy Wilder DVD Collection” and the second-most handsome of the Wilder titles available on the format thus far (edged-out by Sunset Blvd.), One, Two, Threepreserves Daniel L. Fapp’s Oscar-nominated cinematography with tremendous clarity of detail and contrast. (Sadly, Fapp received the film’s only Academy nod.) Ignore the pan-and-scan side of the disc in favour of the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer; I just wish I knew why MGM keeps replacing original logos with the ’90s-era growling Leo: it makes no sense to introduce a b&w movie with a splash of colour, for starters. Source material is in excellent condition with the exception of irregular blotches that could be water damage. (It’s doubtful the immersed viewer will notice them, anyhow.) The 2.0 mono soundtrack potently reproduces Wilder’s sixties composer André Previn’s riffs on Richard Wagner and Aram Khachaturyan, and Cagney’s voice lacks the shrill quality one anticipates from previous viewings. One, Two, Three‘s theatrical trailer rounds out the disc.
– Bill Chambers, Film Freak Central
ABOUT I.A.L. DIAMOND
The writer-director Billy Wilder, impressed by the skits Diamond wrote for a Writers Guild dinner, asked him to cowrite a screenplay. Wilder had worked with several writers since his breakup with the writer-producer Charles Brackett, but had failed to find the ideal collaborator. Though their personalities were dramatically different, Diamond’s withdrawn, introverted qualities proved to be the perfect balance for Wilder’s extrovert nature. They not only shared a common European immigrant background, but the same dry sense of humor.
Beginning with Love in the Afternoon, their partnership spanned 25 years and a dozen films. While popular and critical reception of the pictures varied, their combined talents created some of the best and most enduring comedy/dramas of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Witty dialogue and sophisticated sexual situations marked their stories. They openly challenged the long-standing assumption that allHollywood productions should be family oriented, and provided moviegoers with tasteful, adult entertainment. Their most satisfying pictures combined cynicism with sentiment, playing the two extremes against each other until the softer side of human nature won out. Frequently focused on illicit sex, their scenarios were also about love and the emotional vicissitudes of intimate relationships.
For Diamond and Wilder cynicism knew neither sexual nor age boundaries; it belonged to the middle-aged male (Gary Cooper in Love in the Afternoon and Fred MacMurray in The Apartment), to the youthful bachelor (Curtis and Lemmon in Some Like It Hot), and to the simple working girl (Shirley MacLaine in The Apartmentand Irma La Douce). They poked fun at modern mores (Avanti!), at the American Dream (One, Two, Three), at ambition (Kiss Me, Stupid), and at greed (The Fortune Cookie). Their repeated casting of stars such as Lemmon, MacLaine, and Walter Matthau gave an additional continuity to their work. Particularly effective was the teaming of Lemmon and Matthau in a series of films (The Fortune Cookie, The Front Page, and Buddy Buddy) focusing on male relationships.
– Joanne L. Yeck, Film Reference.com