The risk of any artistic endeavour is to be superseded by the future; while normally it would be science fiction which is most at danger of being caught out by an unforeseen twist of fate which renders a premise obsolete, the wheels of present history occasionally turn fast, as was the case with the events which overtook legendary director Billy Wilder’s ill-fated One, Two, Three.
A fast-paced comedy of the clash between western avarice and eastern reserve and a cross-cultural car crash of a love story, filming was underway in Berlin when, overnight, the Berlin Wall was erected, derailing the production which was forced to relocate to Munich and requiring a revision of the script to open with an introductory monologue explaining the events depicted took place in the summer of 1960.
A happier time for all concerned, it was nevertheless fraught and stressful for C R “Mac” MacNamara, an executive in the Coca-Cola Company displaced in disgrace to West Berlin, juggling a wife and a mistress and attempting to break his product into the Eastern Bloc, engaged in negotiations with three stern-faced envoys, Peripetchikoff, Borodenko and Mishkin.
Hoping to curry favour at head office to ensure a return to the arms of Uncle Sam, an opportunity is presented when Mac and his family are asked to host the teenage daughter of his manager as she visits from Atlanta, Georgia, the wild and untamed Scarlett Hazeltine, also sent into exile to separate her from her musician boyfriend.
The planned two weeks quickly stretches to two months and while Mac’s sales figures rise, so does his blood pressure as Scarlett returns from a trip to the east to announce her marriage to young Communist Otto Ludwig Piffl and her intention to live with him behind the Iron Curtain just as her parents are due to arrive from America.
Released on Blu-ray by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series, One, Two, Three is a frantic romp which never pauses long enough for the audience to question the unfolding madness, a cross-cultural critique of both Capitalism and Communism, a Cold War comedy where the deadliest ammunition is the fast-flying one-liners.
Playing against type after a long career of gangsters, James Cagney is just as tough as Mac and is clearly at home in this rare opportunity as a comedy lead, too rarely paired with the wonderful by Arlene Francis as his defiant and long-suffering wife Phyllis; primarily a stage actress, her presence here demonstrates she is more than a match for screen veteran Cagney.
Already a star in his native Germany moving into international roles following his appearance the previous year in The Magnificent Seven, Horst Buchholz is dedicated activist Otto while in only her second screen appearance Pamela Tiffin is the feisty Scarlett who becomes besotted with him, and the supporting ensemble make the most of the ample opportunities given them by Wilder and his regular script collaborator I A L Diamond.
Regrettably, in comedy, timing is everything, and as strong as the script and the cast are the initial release in late 1961 fell on stony ground with audiences who had spent a year reading headlines of violence and deaths in the divided city which Berlin had become and One, Two, Three was a box-office failure although Daniel L Fapp’s perfectly framed and lit monochrome cinematography was deservedly nominated for an Oscar.
Eureka’s new edition also contains an appraisal by film scholar Neil Sinyard which puts the film into perspective in Wilder’s celebrated career, while a commentary by film historian Michael Schlesinger provides vast production detail as he enthuses over a film he clearly and justifiably adores.