Director: Billy Wilder
Screenplay: Billy Wilder, I.A.L Diamond
Based on the play by: Ferenc Molnar
Producers: Billy Wilder
Starring: James Cagney, Horst Buchholz, Pamela Tiffin, Arlene Francis
BBFC Certification: U
Duration: 104 mins
Billy Wilder’s American films span a period of nearly four decades and as such some small shifts in style across his body of work are inevitable. Though there is an ever-present sense of genuine danger in Wilder’s tough approach to often taboo subject matter, the gradual relaxation of censorship throughout his later period means that his films from the 60s onwards can at first seem less subtle and more tasteless than his celebrated early classics. With a fairly even split between comedies and dramas in his 40s and 50s catalogue, Wilder’s later work skewed heavily towards comedy and the reduced necessity to disguise his penchant for dirty jokes and visceral satire amongst playful, censor-befuddling wordplay and innuendo sometimes resulted in material that was crass or nasty and has dated rather poorly. This culminated in the moral outrage around Wilder’s limp 1964 film Kiss Me, Stupid, which was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency and deemed vulgar by the majority of critics.
It may be tempting to blame the off-colour tone of some of Wilder’s later work on his writing partner of that period, I.A.L. Diamond. But to accuse Diamond of having a negative effect on Wilder’s writing is deeply unfair, since there is ample evidence that he is a very fine writer indeed and all signs point to the fact that Wilder himself was at least equally responsible for any lapses in taste. The second of Wilder’s long-term writing partners after Charles Brackett, with whom he wrote classics like Sunset Boulevard and The Lost Weekend, Diamond first teamed with Wilder for the rarely screened Love in the Afternoon but their second film together, Some Like It Hot, cemented their partnership when it became a major hit and went down in history as a comedy classic. I’ve made no secret over the years of my unpopular opinion that the universally-beloved Some Like It Hot is one of Wilder’s worst films and for many years I saw it as a turning point in his filmography; the moment when broad farce and overripe vulgarity began to dominate. I’ve since reviewed this position due to some glaring inconsistencies. I still hate Some Like It Hot, I make no apologies for that, but it was followed immediately by Wilder and Diamond’s third film together, The Apartment, which is perhaps the director’s finest film and the screenplay one of the greatest tonal balancing acts between comedy and drama ever set down on paper. After the lumpy excesses of Irma La Douce, Kiss Me, Stupid and Avanti! failed to charm me, I hastily decided that The Apartment was a blip on a rapid downwards trajectory.
This conclusion, concocted with the aid of received wisdom about many films I had not seen, is one I now see as utterly unfair since Wilder’s later films, though often flawed, are also frequently far more interesting than I originally gave them credit for. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, though marred by an uneven tone and an alleged hack-job edit, is a fascinating and often beautifully realised film, while the black comedy The Fortune Cookie is actually one of my favourite of Wilder’s films, tempering its depiction of cynical opportunism with a backbone of moral decency that makes it one of the director’s warmest works. And then there is One, Two, Three, Wilder’s first film following the multiple-Oscar triumph of The Apartment. One, Two, Three was not a commercial success and its pronounced tonal difference from the film that preceded it meant that critical acclaim was tentative. Praise for the film has grown over the years but it is still one of Wilder’s lesser-seen works and one which tends to split opinion between those who see it as the beginning of a downturn in quality and those who hail it as an underappreciated masterpiece. I first saw One, Two, Three immediately after I first saw The Apartment and I must admit I have long laboured under the misapprehension that it was a lesser work. Many years later, I seized upon the opportunity presented by Eureka’s new Blu-ray release of the film to reappraise it.
James Cagney (in his final leading role) plays C.R. ‘Mac’ MacNamara, a high-ranking Coca Cola executive working in West Berlin but angling for a big promotion that would take him and his family to London. Tasked with looking after his boss’s seventeen-year-old socialite daughter Scarlett during her visit to Berlin, Mac is horrified when he discovers that Scarlett has married young East German Communist Otto Piffl, who despises Capitalism and is not shy about espousing his anti-American rhetoric. Having first conspired to get rid of Otto and have the marriage annulled, when he learns not only that Scarlett is pregnant but that her parents are coming to visit the following day at noon Mac finds himself in the position of having to get Otto back and groom him into appearing to be the ideal husband.
The stage is set for a plot that could easily tip over into a hokey farce or rise to the occasion of being an ingeniously constructed comedy. With a tight, one-liner stuffed screenplay, a game cast and a risqué political subtext, Wilder manages to make sure One, Two, Three is far more the latter than the former. Farce is one of the trickiest types of comedy to pull off because in constructing a suitably intricate plot, the writer must know exactly when it is time to escalate proceedings and just how far they can go before breaking point is reached. The necessity to put so much effort into the plot can also mean that the characters involved emerge as thin stereotypes whom the audience care little about and, for farce to work, there has to be at least some connection with those acting it out if the embarrassment and urgency are to be felt as keenly as they must be. Wilder and Diamond’s script, undeniably the major trump card here, cleverly gets round these problems by presenting us with characters who are broadly drawn but not absolute clichés. There are familiar plot wrinkles here, such as a smart but opportunistic businessman who is sleeping with his secretary, but said secretary is herself a smart, opportunistic character and not the offensive, empty-headed sex object used so liberally in 60s comedies. Mac’s wife Phyllis, played wonderfully by an underused Arlene Francis, is not a ball-breaking monster designed to make us sympathise with her adulterous husband, but rather a dignified, perpetually-amused onlooker who is aware of her husband’s infidelities and reaches her breaking point with them in her own understated way, a plot point which is played more for dramatic tension than thigh-slapping “ain’t-marriage-a-racket” laughs.
Broader stereotypes are to be found in the heel-clicking efficiency of the German staff or Otto’s slogan-spewing Commie but these are all part of the film’s political themes and Wilder uses them to poke fun at every nationality involved in the Cold War. A cuckoo clock with the bird replaced by an Uncle Sam figurine is a central symbol of American patriotism at its tackiest and Wilder and Diamond cleverly incorporate it as an important plot point. The divisions between East and West Berlin are played for laughs too, which ultimately sealed One, Two, Three’s fate with audiences when its production coincided with the erection of the Berlin wall. When the film came out amidst this turmoil, it was seen by many as utterly tasteless and mean-spirited. Although it can often improve satire if the political situation being parodied is at its height, the brand of broad but politically-significant farce being offered up here probably aged better with some distance from newsreels filled with grim repercussions. That said, had the wall gone up before production began on One, Two, Three, it is unlikely Wilder would have been deterred. On the contrary, Wilder made a love-triangle comedy in which one of the protagonists was an ex-Nazi only a few years after the end of World War II so there’s every indication he would have seen the escalation of the Cold War as even more reason to push on with a comedy making fun of it.
Ultimately, the political underpinnings of One, Two, Three have aged better than a couple of its broader moments. Wilder just about gets away with Lilo Pulver’s secretary being used as a bargaining chip between leering businessmen by making their lascivious grotesqueness and failure the real butt of the joke, although there are a couple of shots where we are invited to join the businessmen in their objectifying gaze. A gag about a Military Police officer being driven to instantaneous madness when he mistakes two coloured balloons for a woman’s breasts is the one moment when the wheels really come off the wagon but it’s a brief moment of silliness that arrives amongst a gloriously well-oiled third act and as such is forgivable. A scene involving Otto being tortured using a recording of Brian Hyland’s novelty hit Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini also fails in turning a serious subject into light comedy by carelessly taking it too far in the other direction.
But for all these slip-ups, One, Two, Three really comes into its own in its final act. Forced to turn Otto into an acceptable son-in-law for his boss, Mac has to orchestrate a full makeover in a matter of hours while also dealing with a series of emergencies that keep arising. This is the point where the film goes ballistic, making excellent use of Cagney’s ability to fire off dialogue at machine-gun speed. If executed wrongly, farce that escalates to this extent can become repetitive or annoying but Wilder and Diamond do a phenomenal job of pulling together little plot strands you never dreamed would come back again so that everything seems to happen naturally and there is enough variety in the events that occur to ensure that endless pratfalls never need to be employed. Virtually every character who has already appeared in the film, plus a few last minute additions, gets to play a part in this fantastic final third and the dialogue continues to be as fizzily effective throughout rather than stepping back to let the physical comedic elements do all the heavy lifting. It’s fast and furious but nothing is left dangling, resulting in a satisfyingly neat conclusion.
It’s easy to see why One, Two, Three, a film about division, also divides critics. Its particular brand of farce, however well delivered, is difficult to make as thoroughly elegant as the deft comedy-drama split that characterises Wilder’s best work. But Wilder completely commits to his mission statement here, making One, Two, Three one of the fastest-paced comedies ever put on screen without sacrificing the eloquent, witty dialogue that he’d come to be known for. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a masterpiece but its certainly a great comedy that shows how Wilder’s intelligent approach can enliven what could have been an excruciating mess of flailing limbs and mugging faces.
One, Two Three is released by Eureka Entertainment on Blu-ray on 15 April 2019. Special features are as follows:
• Limited Edition O Card slipcase [2000 copies ONLY]
• 1080p presentation on Blu-ray
• LPCM audio (original mono presentation)
• Optional English SDH subtitles
• Brand New and Exclusive Interview with film scholar Neil Sinyard
• Feature Length Audio Commentary by Film Historian Michael Schlesinger
• PLUS: A Collector s booklet featuring new essays by film scholar Henry K. Miller, critic Adam Batty, and archival material