Directed by Billy Wilder
Written by I.A.L. Diamond
There was a frenetic energy to the dialogue and performances of the bygone era. I’d venture to say it started with Howard Hawks rhythmic banter in “His Girl Friday” (1940) and it’s without a doubt Billy Wilder (director) and I.A.L. Diamond (writer) bore witness to this American style of storytelling. Or perhaps Hawks saw Ernst Lubitsch’s treatment of fast-talking characters in films like “Trouble in Paradise” (1932) and did his damnedest to replicate it.
Whomever it was, the style took a firm foothold in the cinema of the late 50s and early 60s. And I think it really reached its heights in Wilder’s “One, Two, Three.” In the film, C.R. MacNamara (James Cagney) is head of the Coca-Cola plant in West Berlin, who’s job becomes threatens if he doesn’t take proper care of the boss’s daughter while she visits Europe. Scarlett (Pamela Tiffin) is both flirtatious and rebellious. She sneaks out one night and begins a love affair with an East Berlin commie. A ripe set-up for comedy.
I.A.L. Diamond’s screenplay is really more of a stage play. I’m always fascinated by this particular director-writer’s combo inherent ability to economize their storytelling. There’s a handful of sets in both this and their previous masterpiece “The Apartment” (1960) and Wilder makes ample use of the wide shot. Perhaps both being foreigners (Wilder had moved from Berlin himself and Diamond from Moldova) on new grounds compelled them to be stringent.
“One, Two, Three” may be the closest autobiographical work to Wilder himself. What intrigues me is Wilder’s truly sympathetic and loving admiration of America…and it’s capitalistic greed. Wilder emigrated from Berlin after the rise of Hitler’s fascist regime. His entire family perished at the hands of the Nazis. America, for Wilder, was sanctuary. Given this context, it’s easy to see why Wilder cast James Cagney (the stereotypical tough American gangster) as the patriarch of Coca-Cola, fencing off with Otto, the communist vigilante. Despite Cagney’s reputation of being a stubborn brute in American cinema, Wilder suggests he’s more human than even the youngest, brainwashed political pawn of a fascist regime.
MacNamara and Otto play extremists in both their respective corners. One is a mercenary for the symbolic mecca of Capitalism and the other a crusader for the children of Communism. Wilder, having lived through the Communist era in Berlin, pokes fun at the entire autocratic system. In the wrong hands, this film could come off as lofty propaganda - a lazy byproduct of the McCarthy era. But given that both writer and director have had their time in both sides of the world, it’s both comically observant and strikingly authoritative on the subject.
“One, Two, Three” is brilliant in its criticism of both sides of the coin. MacNamara is a tyrant and womanizer, but Otto is a ignorant, hopeful, romantic to both Scarlett and the nation’s dictator. Neither are perfect, but we root for MacNamara because he has something everyone has - somebody to serve. And he actively does it. Where Otto simply parrots a long string of political slogans, MacNamara fights on his hands and knees in an explosive and earnest desperation to please his boss and his family.
James Cagney’s character reflects the ultimate paradox of capitalism: offering everyone a chance for enterprise (at any cost), yet keeping them slavishly attached to something beyond. In this case, a chance for MacNamara to move his wife and family to London.
As far as political farces go, this could be the crowning achievement in the lauded company of “Dr. Strangelove”(1964) and “To Be or Not to Be” (1942).I won’t give away the ending, but it’s one of two things:
1. The best prop gag in the history of cinema and 2. The best use of breaking the fourth wall.
I’m reminded by a little exchange that happens when, upon endlessly working, MacNamara’s team finally transforms Otto into a bourgeoise. Otto protests: “I will not have my son grow up to be a capitalist!” To which Scarlett, the rather aloof daughter, replies: “When he’s 18 he can make his mind up whether he wants to be a capitalist or a rich communist.”