One, Two, Three (1961)


(director/writer: Billy Wilder; screenwriters: I.A.L. Diamond/based on a play by Ferenc Molnar; cinematographer: Daniel L. Fapp; editor: Daniel Mandell; music: Andre Previn; cast: James Cagney (C.R. MacNamara), Horst Buchholz (Otto Ludwig Piffl), Pamela Tiffin (Scarlett Hazeltine), Arlene Francis (Phyllis MacNamara), Lilo Pulver (Ingeborg), Howard St. John (Hazeltine), Hanns Lothar (Schlemmer), Lois Bolton (Mrs. Hazeltine), Leon Askin (Peripetchikoff), Peter Capell (Mishkin), Ralf Wolter (Borodenko), Karl Lieffen (Fritz, chauffeur), Red Buttons (MP sergeant); Runtime: 108; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Billy Wilder; MGM Home Entertainment; 1961)
“The targets of Wilder’s satire–a vulgar American capitalist culture and an outdated Russian Communist culture–are too obvious to be that funny.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

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and filled with topical gags, it’s creaky as the targets of Wilder’s satire–a vulgar American capitalist culture and an outdated Russian Communist culture–are too obvious to be that funny.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.

Energetic go-getter Coca-Cola bottling plant exec C.R. MacNamara (James Cagney) is the ambitious Berlin head looking to sell the soda to the Russians (virgin territory) and get promoted to be the London head. But his boss in Atlanta, Hazeltine (Howard St. John), won’t let him sell to those dirty lowdown Reds. Hazeltine more or less orders MacNamara to look after his wild party-going underage bimbo Southern Belle daughter Scarlett Hazeltine (Pamela Tiffin), the apple-of-his-eye, and she becomes MacNamara’s house guest during her two-week stay in Berlin. His harried wife, Phyllis (Arlene Francis), who is in the habit of calling him “Mein Führer,” is already upset with her big shot hubby for the attention he shows the oversexed sex-bomb secretary Ingeborg (Lilo Pulver) and now fumes as Scarlett’s visit ruins their family vacation plans to Venice.

Scarlett takes to Berlin and turns the two-week stay into a two-month stay, and secretly crosses over every night to the East Berlin side with the aid of MacNamara’s opportunistic chauffeur Fritz. Then on the day before her parents are visiting Berlin, Scarlet announces she met gung-ho Communist hippie hunk Otto Ludwig Piffl (Horst Buchholz), a belligerent prole spouting the party line, and married him on the other side of the zone. Later it’s learned that she’s pregnant and MacNamara sees his career in ruin unless he takes aggressive action.

Wilder is cynical as usual and Cagney, as the Ugly American, is game at shouting his lines at the highest volume for full comic effect, and though his lines are not that funny the speed of the delivery makes them seem funny. The same goes for the pic which despite some uncanny satirical moments, nevertheless, has dated poorly and seems when viewed today like a relic of the Cold War. One, Two, Three was in production when the Russians and East Germans sealed the border and put up the infamous Berlin wall.

The film bombed at the box office upon its theater release, but in certain circles in America and in Germany has remained sought after as a cult film.