ONE, TWO, THREE: Blu-ray (UA, The Mirisch Co. 1961) Kino Lorber
I have come to realize a good many of my most cherished movie memories all derive from one shrewd genius toiling in the craft. For nearly sixty years, Billy Wilder’s artistry has tugged at our hearts, tickled our funny bones and fired our imaginations; delivering the one-two knockout punch of his inimitably chic and cynical wit with razor-backed clarity, picking apart, then piecing back together the foibles and follies of the human condition. Even Wilder’s biggest financial flops bear out the credence of his virtuosity. No movie Wilder ever made was an artistic disaster. In 1986 Wilder, then 80 years young, accepted the AFI’s Lifetime Achievement Award, justly deserved and long overdue, yet proving he had lost none of his vim, vigor or ability to dazzle us with his astute reflections about life, legacy and the legends of Hollywood. Gracious to a fault, Wilder pointed out – among other things – that in life, as in the business of making movies, one “has to take the bitter with the sour” as he watched the Tinsel Town nervously “vacillate between despair and fear” over the latest eclipse from new technologies on the horizon – sound, Technicolor, television, widescreens, 3D and, then, the microchip. But Wilder was as quick to point out that however technologically proficient the hardware became, it would only increase the need for more ‘software’ to follow it – namely, the brilliant minds of burgeoning picture-makers to come up with a constant flow in new entertainments. “So cheer up, fellow picture makers,” Wilder encouraged, “We are not expendable. The fact is, the bigger they get the more irreplaceable we become…for theirs ‘may be’ the kingdom, but ours is the power and the glory!”
Like his contemporary Otto Preminger, Billy Wilder has always been in search of new horizons. Few, if any, of his movies have thus far aged in the interim, perhaps because Wilder’s focus on people first has played to a fundamental, that the intuitions and mannerisms of ‘people’ in general, and regardless of their own generation, are universal; our desires simply understood once all of our artificially ‘manufactured’ complexities are stripped bare, leaving the truer core of our subconscious rife for parody, ridicule and ever so modest clarification. One of Wilder’s most calculatingly caustic confections is One, Two, Three (1961), a thoroughly ribald deconstruction of the Cold War chaos gripping U.S. politics then, teeming in Wilder and his longtime collaborator, I.A.L. Diamond’s thoroughly unapologetic bushwhacking urbanity. From its rapid-fire dialogue, dauntingly spouted verbatim pages at a time (and in a single take) by Cagney’s master manipulator/Coca-Cola exec, C.R. ‘Mac’ McNamara, to its seemingly endless wellspring of Nazi and American Civil War jokes – occasionally cast off in what otherwise would be considered very poor taste, yet under Wilder’s command, fairly drips sly non-conformism run happily amuck, One, Two, Three is a cornucopia of eastern bloc austerity meets western crass commercialism; one unanticipated wisecrack and slapstick routine ladled upon the next. At just under two hours, One, Two, Three has enough ridiculousness, in-house gags and timely political and pop culture smack downs to fill ten comedies, and, about as much kinetic energy to boot.
A fascinating amalgam of 1929’s Egy, kettő, három by Hungarian playwright, Ferenc Molnár, with elements from Ernest Lubitsch’s 1939 Ninotchka (that Wilder co-wrote), One, Two, Three – the tale of a harried Coca-Cola executive, and a real bastard besides, would ruffle a lot of feathers, win some critical praise, but miserably fail to catch fire at the box office. Ultimately, it also marked the unofficial end to star, James Cagney’s career; his comeback, 20 years later in 1981’s Ragtime; a marvelous – if sad epitaph to an otherwise legendary tenure in movies. Cagney’s departure after One, Two, Three was by choice; Cagney, reportedly receiving a ‘wish you were here’ styled postcard from friends blissfully on vacation and, after 30 years in the picture biz, quite suddenly realizing it was quite enough to satisfy his appetite for any more. While Cagney left the movies on good terms, he had very little - ‘good’ or otherwise - to say about co-star, Horst Buchholz, as Otto Piffl, the misguided Socialist campaigner who comes around to McNamara’s way of thinking. “I got riled at S.Z. Sakall in Yankee Doodle Dandy for trying to steal a scene,” Cagney would later recall, “But at least he was an incorrigible old ham who was quietly and respectfully put in his place by our director, Michael Curtiz. No harm in the old boy. But this Horst Buchholz I truly loathed. Had he kept on with his little scene-stealing didoes, I would have been forced to knock him on his ass, which I would have very much enjoyed doing.”
Such antagonism bodes rather well for the picture, considering McNamara embroiled in a mile-a-minute battle royale to convert this crude-hewn and impressionable Commi into Count Otto von Droste-Schattenburg; an affable son-in-law with a pedigree and oodles of charm to boot. The picture would be nothing at all without Cagney’s sassy showmanship. His McNamara is a real brute; a maniacal puppet master, ingeniously riding buck shod over his sexy but dumb secretary/mistress, Fräulein Ingeborg (Lisolette Pulver), whose umlauts are undeniably scrumptious; his wife, Francis (Arlene Francis), who doesn’t let him get away with a thing and can give as good as she gets, his long-suffering assistant, Schlemmer (Hanns Lothar – a brilliant, and tragically underrated comedian with a very short-lived career), and finally, the cause of all this ‘unhappily ever after patchwork’, Scarlett Hazeltine (Pamela Tiffin, doing nine minutes as the morally loose and equally as obtuse Southern belle) for whom marriage and motherhood are the beginning of the end to headier times as ‘a broad’ abroad.
Cagney’s coronary-inducing diatribes are miracles of concision; Wilder pumping each syllable full of an unusual amount of ‘in-jokes’ and timely political satire that, despite the passing parade of more recent times, can still elicit deliciously bold guffaws from the third row. In retrospect, it is impossible to imagine Cary Grant (Wilder’s first choice for the part) doing Macnamara justice. Grant, whom Wilder greatly admired and longed to work with, would never appear in a Billy Wilder picture; a distinct disappointment for Wilder who considered him one of the greatest actors of his time. Even so, James Cagney is hardly small potatoes, though his reputation in the movies had somewhat diminished by the time One, Two, Three hit theaters. Nevertheless, Cagney’s professionalism set even Wilder in awe, “We knew that we were going to have a comedy, we were not going to be waiting for the laughs. But we had to go with Cagney, because Cagney was the whole picture. He really had the rhythm, and that was very good. It was not funny. But just the speed was funny...The general idea was, let's make the fastest picture in the world...And yeah, we did not wait, for once, for the big laughs. We went through the big laughs. A lot of lines that needed a springboard, and we just went right through the springboard...We just did it, nine pages at a time, and he never fumbled, he never made a mistake.” Despite such high praise, Cagney would suggest in his own biography that the latter assessment of his perfection was not entirely true.
We can perhaps forgive Cagney flubbing a line or two – or even more – as Wilder and Diamond’s script forces him into impossibly complex recitations of facts, names and figures – rattled off with lightning speed and a certain disregard for the mounting decibel points as McNamara repeatedly finds himself getting hotter under the collar; narrowly tolerating incompetence, but Bucholtz’ attempts to scene steal not one iota. With no other stars on tap to fatten the payload for audiences, United Artists and The Mirisch Company began promoting One, Two, Three almost exclusively on Wilder’s reputation. Lest we forget, Wilder had just come off the meteoric success of his multi-Oscar winning, The Apartment (1960); a $25 million dollar cash ringer that allowed Wilder pretty much carte blanche to make whatever pictures he wanted. By comparison, One, Two, Three’s miniscule $5 million return was eclipsed by its $3 million layout; almost $200,000 alone going to Robert Stratil and Heinrich Weidemann’s immaculate recreation of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, after Wilder, who had been granted permission to shoot in and around the famed landmark, was denied access to both it and the bombed out remains of the Eastern block after the infamous ‘wall’ went up – virtually overnight and right in the middle of his shooting schedule. Mercifully, Wilder had already shot the bulk of his amusedly burlesque car chase, depicting McNamara’s daring kidnap of Otto from East German authorities and their pursuit by a ragtag trio of Russian entrepreneurs, Peripetchikoff (Leon Askin), Borodenko (Ralph Wolter) and Mishkin (Peter Capell) after Macnamara performs an idiotic bait and switch; trading Schlemmer for Ingeborg, whom the Ruskies have taken an immediate lecherous liking.
Shot in Germany on the cusp of its own grand division (indeed, the Berlin Wall would go up just days after principle photography on One, Two, Three had begun), Wilder felt compelled to author a memorable social commentary to open the picture, employing Cagney’s voice-over, “On Sunday, August 13th, 1961, the eyes of America were on the nation's capital, where Roger Maris was hitting home runs #44 and 45 against the Senators. On that same day, without any warning, the East German Communists sealed off the border between East and West Berlin. I only mention this to show the kind of people we're dealing with—real shifty!” under which a montage of images emphasize the Eastern block’s contempt for President Kennedy and the United States with banners literally unfurled; balloons, emblazoned in propagandized ‘Yankee Go Home’ slogans, released en masse into the stiff western-bound breeze. In hindsight, it’s a minor wonder Coca-Cola – then, as now, the most popularized and high-profile ‘brand name’ in the world - allowed Wilder to depict their chief executive as something of a deliciously deviant and thoroughly Machiavellian company whore. C.R. McNamara has no heart. He’s all business, or rather, all about getting back to business after a rather bad run of things. Coca-Cola has bounced the McNamaras from Beijing to Bangladesh and all points between, with C.R.’s little woman, Phyllis thoroughly tired of it. Just once she would like to see an episode of ‘Gunsmoke’ in English! In fact, Phyllis has all but decided to leave her husband, take the kids and move back home to Georgia.
To ease his headaches as a husband and father, and hopefully stem the tide of a messy divorce, Macnamara, presently embroiled in a flagrante delicto with his stenographer, Ingeborg, has decided to send his wife and kids abroad on an extended holiday. Unhappy chanced, Coke’s Atlanta-based head honcho, Wendell P. Hazeltine (Howard St. John) has a new directive for his head of bottling in Berlin. Not only does Hazeltine put the kibosh on C.R.’s plans to open a new Russian-based facility that could net the company millions, but he also instructs Macnamara to show his wayward teenage Lolita of a daughter, Scarlett, ‘a good time’. Scarlett certainly needs no help there, departing from her Air France flight already well acquainted with the plane’s amiable captain and crew, and using McNamara’s hat to host a lottery among these amiable suitors: the grand prize - a night out with her. Phyllis helps draw the name of Pierre (Jacques Chevalier) – the navigator. But the plan for their nighttime revelry is immediately nixed by Macnamara. Insulted, Pierre turns to Phyllis, saying, “Madam, as a woman I appeal to you!” to which Phyllis, without missing a beat, slyly smacks back, “As a matter of fact – you do!”
Macnamara entrusts Scarlett’s welfare to his chauffeur, Fritz (Karl Lieffen), who secretly begins driving her back and forth between the eastern and western blocks of the city under the cover of night. Hence, when both Scarlett and Fritz fail to turn up one sunny morning, the tenability of McNamara’s position within the company becomes precariously perched on Hazeltine’s planned Berlin holiday to be reunited with Scarlett and see about McNamara’s move up the corporate ladder to a high-ranking position in London, England. Calling out the National Guard, pulling strings with every contact at his disposal, and, using his sway with the press to shine a spotlight on Scarlett’s whereabouts, hopefully bring her back before the Hazeltine’s plane can land, Macnamara is startled to find Scarlett already waiting in his office. Having spent nearly two months secretly involved with Otto Piffl, a Bolshevik sympathizer, Scarlett now makes the announcement she and Otto were secretly wed the night before. Disturbed by her impetuosity, Macnamara is left downright fuming when he realizes Otto is a dyed in the wool Communist who spouts diatribes and threats against crony capitalism and Coca-Cola colonialism. Otto is an affront to everything Macnamara stands for with gusto. The guy even has a cuckoo-clock in his office with a miniature flag-waving Uncle Sam that plays the Star-Spangled Banner. Diametrically opposed to Otto’s filthy anti-western declarations, Macnamara plots to have the couple’s marriage annulled by the times the Hazeltines arrive.
He plants a balloon with the slogan Ruskies Go Home on the exhaust pipe of Otto’s motorcycle and hides the cuckoo clock in his sidecar. Hence, when the East German police stop Otto at the Brandenburg Gate, they immediately suspect he is as a defector from the West and imprison him for a motley and torturous interrogation of the facts. It all seems to be going according to plan until Macnamara learns from Dr. Bauer (Henning Schlüter) Scarlett is carrying Otto’s child. How will he explain this to the Hazeltines? Quick on his feet, and with a bout of verbal diarrhea to match, Macnamara now brokers a deal with his Russian contacts, Peripetchikoff, Borodenko, Mishkin – whom he was previously forced by Hazeltine to stiff in their big ‘Coke’ deal. Now, he must rely on the Russians to stage Otto’s bold kidnapping from the East German headquarters, in trade for Ingeborg’s ‘services’ – if not entirely secretarial. The daft Ingeborg agrees to go along for the ride…to a point. She performs a rather bawdy striptease inside East Berlin’s Grand Hotel Potemkin. However, as dawn breaks, Schlemmer switches places with Ingeborg and, from a distance, looks rather convincing to the half-drunken Russian agents. Too late they discover they have been had for the price of a few cheap bottles of vodka; the trio making pursuit after McNamara’s car, careening through the streets of East Berlin, but crashing into the Brandenburg Gate; thus allowing Macnamara and company their escape.
Now, Macnamara sets about transforming the extremely reluctant Otto into the heir apparent of an exotic aristocrat; forging birth certificates and other papers to assure the authenticity of the claim and buying up half the better men’s clothiers in town to outfit Otto in all the finery befitting a gentleman of his station. At first, Otto vehemently resists being forced to play the organ grinder’s monkey. But when Peripetchikoff resurfaces, exposing Otto to eastern promises of total party loyalty as equally a myth, Otto begins to warm to the idea he has been had by both sides. Indeed, Otto truly loves Scarlett and is in love with the idea of having a son to carry on his name. At the last possible moment, and with literally moments to spare, Macnamara, Otto, Scarlett, and, Fritz rush to the airport to greet the Hazeltines. Otto illustrated he has been an amiable quick study, ingratiating himself to Wendell and Melanie (Lois Bolton) Hazeltine with Scarlett thoroughly obtuse and playing along to fool her own parents. Bolstered by McNamara’s money and lies, Otto presents himself as the ideal millionaire’s son. Worse, at least for Macnamara, who lies about ‘the Count’ already working for Coca-Cola, despite his noble birth and lineage, Wendell takes an immediate liking to the boy and elects to place him in charge of the London operations – the post Macnamara was gunning for. Even so, Macnamara wins too, realizing what is most important to him. He is reunited with Phyllis and his children, bound for a plane back to America, vowing to be a better husband and father besides. Reaching into a nearby Coca-Cola vending machine for a nice cool drink, Macnamara is appalled when the machine spits out a Pepsi-Cola bottle instead.
This final gag was likely the result of Wilder’s contact with Joan Crawford who was frankly appalled the picture should be so heavily weighted as a ‘promo’ piece for Coca-Cola. Crawford had, by then, married Pepsi-Cola’s President Alfred Steele and was, ‘unofficially’ its goodwill ambassador (officially, a member of its Board of Directors). Cagney’s involvement on One, Two Three had been spurred by his fond recollections of New York City’s Yorkville district with its German population and Billy Wilder’s promise the picture would be shot entirely in Berlin and Munich. But Cagney’s verve quickly cooled when he began to clash with Horst Bucholtz scene-stealing antics and Wilder’s insistence honing Cagney’s line delivery to a finite science. The breaking point for Cagney came during the scene where Macnamara fires off a litany of commands to Ingeborg while selecting the various regalia for Otto’s first ‘cute meet’ with his in-laws. As Wilder’s script was law, and this pivotal sequence had only been written days before it was to be shot, it’s not unusual Cagney should have flubbed his lines – badly. Unwilling to allow his star even the slightest deviation from the screenplay, Wilder badgered his star through 57 grueling takes of the same lines until nothing less than total accuracy had been achieved. Having loaned his boat to Rolie Winters, a very good friend, and received a postcard inscribed with Winters’ thanks and a ‘wish you were here’, Cagney concluded out loud, “What the hell am I doing here? I’m through!” At the end of filming, Cagney unofficially bowed out of picture-making for the next 20 years.
Even after principle photography wrapped, Wilder faced a minor quandary when Coca-Cola threatened a lawsuit for copyright infringement over UA’s poster art, depicting an America flag sticking out of a bottle of their carbonated beverage. In reply, Wilder turned to Saul Bass, who created the iconic image of a crudely rendered woman holding three balloons in front of her chest with the words ‘One, Two, Three’ emblazoned on them. When it finally premiered, One, Two, Three had the backing of a good many critics, including the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther, Variety (the showbiz Bible), writing, the “story is fast-paced, high-pitched, hard-hitting, lighthearted farce crammed with topical gags and spiced with satirical overtones; so furiously quick-witted that some of its wit gets snarled and smothered in overlap…but the total experience packs a considerable wallop” and Time magazine, calling it “a yell-mell, hard-sell, Sennett-with-a-sound-track satire of iron curtains and color lines, of people's demockeracy, Coca-Colonization, peaceful nonexistence and the Deep Southern concept that all facilities are created separate but equal.” Alas, the review that mattered most to Wilder, and the one to wound him the most thereafter, came from noted critic, Pauline Kael, who not only critiqued with caustic abandonment, but thoroughly crucified the picture. Kael’s cruelties aside – and she was impertinently cruel indeed – the public did not immediately warm to One, Two, Three either.
Debuting mere weeks after Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg, the screenwriter of that movie, Abby Mann, found One, Two, Three so utterly tasteless he felt obliged to apologize for it at the Moscow Film Festival. Indeed, the picture was even banned in Finland; its politicos morbidly concerned with even the faintest whiff of impropriety to strain their alliance with the Soviet Union. Not surprising, the picture fared poorly in Germany then, where Wilder’s peppery anti-Nazi humor was still a sore spot. Indeed, Wilder’s inference there is no such thing as ‘the good German’ during WWII – every German, even a bumbler like Schlemmer, guilty of passionate misguided allegiance to Adolf Hitler – smites pretty hard. “Some of the East German police were rude and suspicious. Others were suspicious and rude!” Leave it Wilder to whitewash an entirely generation in a few simple, nail-spitting words. Inexplicably, One, Two, Three also did rather poorly in the U.S., although when it was reissued in France and Germany in 1985 it proved a runaway smash – particularly in West Berlin.
Viewed today, one can more clearly see the farcical forest for its proverbial trees; Wilder and Diamond chopping their way through a whimsical, and oft silly, yet salacious quagmire of political and romantic entanglements; their astringent jocularity leading to all sorts of absurd predicaments for our long-suffering…um…hero. If anything, Wilder presents his characters as atrociously flawed, yet genuine. Coming off the meteoric success of The Apartment, One, Two, Three arguably had no place to go but down. That it impossibly failed to catch on with the public as it should have then is not so much of a mystery when one considers the genteel respites and introspection lent the former Oscar-winner; qualities wholly lacking herein as Wilder, replacing the tenuous balance of a careful narrative structure with even more calculating comedy, occasionally hits well below the belt and, on occasion, goes for the crotch. Don’t get me wrong. One, Two, Three is funny as hell. But its unrelenting discharge of clever insults and wry intellect can get a tad tiring before we get to the end. Cagney’s McNamara is something of the least memorable of all the rank parodies of his own movie-land tenure gone before and since; the old Warner Bros. gangster gone legit…well, sort of…but making more than a handful of well-timed references to those halcyon days when his caricatures of thugs, mugs and disreputable goons set a tone and standard in American movies for crime bosses. There is even a scene where Macnamara threatens Otto with a grapefruit – a reference to 1931’s Public Enemy that had Cagney ruthlessly smash the now infamous fruit into costar, Mae Clarke’s kisser. Arguably, McNamara’s only real crime is he wants success – badly; repeatedly denied him by a blindsided power structure conspiring above his means and logic to defeat even his most ruthless efforts to attain the brass ring. In this, I suppose McNamara is not unlike ‘Enemy’s’ Tom Power’s; bitter, lonely and spinning his wheels within a social structure unlikely to heel to his demands.
But One, Two, Three is a distinct time capsule with no soft center of redemption, even for Cagney’s McNamara; his forced acquiescence at the end – going home to the wife and kiddies – is a rather tragic surrender of all the blood, sweat and tears he has poured into yet another failed venture; this one delivered with a rather back-handed proviso of sending him right back to where his life’s journey began. Wilder’s ‘take no prisoners’ political commentary, somewhat cartoonish and in spots unreservedly obnoxious, slices like a buzz saw through a snow pea into that monolithic perceived model of German efficiency. Wilder, to put it mildly, was not a ‘fan’ of Germany in general and Germans in particular. Distilling the malice and aggression of Soviet totalitarianism into a sort of uncharacteristic and chummy public-school détente between McNamara’s mid-century rotten capitalist and their trio of oversexed and portly hardliners (vaguely reminiscent of the Borscht-belt and vodka slathering fops in Ninotchka), makes the Ruskies more ‘dumb’ than funny, while the chronic browbeating Wilder gives the postwar ‘reformed’ German class is enough of an assault on the funny bone to markedly suggest that if the tables had been reversed, with Wilder in charge of the concentration camps, he would have likely killed ‘em all with kindness. In many ways, One, Two, Three is Wilder’s sweet revenge for having been forced to flee Hitler’s Germany; their loss – Hollywood’s distinct gain. In the end, One, Two, Three remains a ferocious farce, governed by Wilder’s embroidered passion to make fools in tandem of the Ruskies, Nazis and despicably profligate American capitalists. Yummy stuff, if very strange bedfellows, indeed!
Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release is welcomed and pleasing. While minor age-related artifacts are perceived throughout this release, and composited opticals suffer from an obvious downgrade in overall visual crispness; the results herein will surely not disappoint. One, Two, Three is not a particularly ‘engaging’ movie from a visual standpoint, Daniel L. Fapp’s cinematography serviceable without ever drawing attention. Wilder’s focus is on performance, not style and this hi-def presentation presents us with an accurate account of the urban decay of East Berlin, and the bustling decadence of its thriving western counterpart. Contrast is bang-on solid and yet lacking in full delineation; close-ups impressive, but long and medium shots settling into a sort of homogenized tedium that never lends razor-sharpness to any of the tonal textures in this B&W photography. There is a light smattering of film grain – more obvious during nighttime photography; also, some rather distracting ‘built-in’ flicker during the scene where McNamara and Ingeborg arrive at the Grand Hotel to woo and slew the Russians with their bait and switch. The DTS mono herein is what you might expect, nominal but adequate for a mostly dialogue-driven movie. Extras include a somewhat perfunctory commentary from film historian, Michael Schlesinger; his thoughts scattered and rather thinly dispersed on back story; more often than not offering nothing more engaging than a blow-by-blow of what’s happening on the screen. We get two odd featurettes: Billy Wilder and Volker Schlondorff Discussing One, Two, Three and Billy Wilder on Politics and One, Two, Three. At barely under 10 min. we get Wilder’s wry wit infrequently diluted by Volker’s pedestrian questioning. Lastly, there are several theatrical trailers to wade through. Bottom line: for Wilder completionists, One, Two, Three is an essential. This Blu-ray, while hardly perfect, is the best the movie has ever looked on home video and is recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)