Billy Wilder was on the hottest streak of his career in 1961, bucking the end of the studio era with two masterpieces of vigorous, and vigorously perfect, cinematic scab-scratching, 1959’s Some Like it Hot and 1960’s The Apartment. Both were films rooted in the classical Hollywood traditions of vertiginous pithy screwball comedy and intricately calibrated deep-focus drama, and yet both sneaked in their own silently naughty slices of screw-the-censors panther-wit, be it the deliciously filthy physical gestures lying dormant in Some Like it Hot or the venomous wordplay of The Apartment, a film that also managed to smuggle a visual ejaculation reference past the censors in 1960 (as diabolical in its own way as what master of the macabre Hitch managed to do with Psycho the same year).
Then came One, Two, Three, a work that should have fulfilled its title with a knockout trifecta blow of side-winding cinematic comedy. Three films in three years. Except One, Two, Three was a critical misfire, it remains almost unavailable today, and in the pantheon of Billy Wilder productions, it hardly cracks the top ten for most of the audience members who even know it exists. What happened?
Well, in 1961, even in comparison to the generally good-natured gender-malleability-comedy Some Like it Hot and the suicide-courting The Apartment, the feisty One, Two, Three was treading on enormously unsanitary waters. Specifically, international waters, for Wilder’s perversely manic, almost maniacal screwball comedy unleashes itself right on top of the Cold War, spewing bilious acid with only enough candy-coating to prevent the script from souring into something mean-spirited and unremittingly nasty.
As dangerously energetic and spirited as the film is, the bevy of one-liners are hung on what amounts to a relatively straightforward narrative: C.R. MacNamara (James Cagney), the head of Coca-Cola’s West Berlin operations, is assigned to housing the 17 year old daughter, Scarlett Hazeltine (Pamela Tiffin), of the company head, and his life is laid to temporary ruins when she elopes with virile East Berlin socialist Otto Ludwig Piffl (Horst Buchholz) and returns on the eve of her father’s arrival in Berlin. Lest he can fix this travesty of impromptu capitalist-communist miscegenation within 12 hours, the time of Big Daddy Hazeltine’s arrival, MacNamara’s shot at overseeing all of European affairs for Coca-Cola are likely kaput, to use the slantwise, quotidian German so freely dispersed as both homage to and disdain for Wilder’s origins in the German film industry.
Co-written by Wilder with long-time partner I.A.L Diamond from a Hungarian one-act play by Ferenc Molnár, One, Two, Three’s radicalism is less ideological than nihilistic and all-consuming, perhaps the factor that made it most verboten in 1961, to use a more gravid form of German. The film’s viewpoint of international strife filters through the hot-headed hands of one executive who’d really rather all ideologues and their followers fall into the cracks of the Earth into hell, so long as they purchased a Coke to cool themselves off on the way down. Some of its observations don’t carry as much carnivorous viscosity today as they did in 1961, but the refracting lens of history doesn’t deny One, Two, Three much of its twisted tumult or barbed comic edge. It’s a caustic, almost cocaine-addled nightmare of inalienable ideological turmoil with Wilder working triple-time to alienate just about everyone imaginable by sapping them of their ideological safety.
Wilder’s customary cynicism has arguably never been so all-seeing as in One, Two, Three. His targets, slashed into with gusto and glee, are legion: mind-numbing traditionalist wanna-be Confederates, slap-happy make-a-dollar suit-and-tie Americans who couldn’t care about an ethical or social issue if it meant a penny lost, vituperative and over-zealous braggart Marxists, and side-switching, devilish Russians easily corrupted by the individual wealth possible, although not probable, in capitalist economies. It isn’t exactly satire-by-the-scalpel; the film’s natural disinterest in constructing any sort of moral wagering outside of the apolitical “well, the world sucks, we might as well laugh at it” gene is not always politically astute. Wilder’s all-comers cynicism was a weapon carted out long before he turned to comedies. It was practically the ethos of the ever-tortured noir genre, but the cynicism arguably slides more easily into the darkened corridors of that more fantastical genre than it does in the relatively well-lit halls of comedy. After all, it does well to remember that apolitical gestures are fundamentally political choices in a world born and bred of ideology, and Wilder’s film isn’t meaningfully committed to extrapolating on its verbal punches when all is said and done.
So Wilder’s film avoids some of the more complicated social questions about, say, how Coca-Colonialism can debase valuable collectivist impulses into competitive war zones of beleaguered revolutionaries threatening each other for the paltry sums capitalism doles out to them. The film’s “one size fits all” comic catharsis isn’t primed to rate the respective moralities of different worldviews so much as suck them all into a twisting nether of lashing verbal spitfire. Still, its anti-socialism aside, at least give Wilder credit for punching up too and taking out his capitalist masters while he’s at it, only sidestepping to visually smack his much-hated German specters and to quickly shiv the ribs of the lost cause Southern ideologues who run Coca-Cola in this universe. Perhaps the film’s bevy of Coca-Cola put-downs simply spoke to the latent-Atlantan in me; “That’s going to be the biggest thing to hit Atlanta since General Sherman threw that little barbeque,” on the news that the CEO’s daughter has eloped with a communist, and “That’s just Siberia with a mint julep”, James Cagney retorting to the possibility of living in Coca-Cola’s home city, both positively slayed me.
But it doesn’t do well to quote-hog with a film like One, Two, Three, a brusque and bellicose film that is positively monomaniacal in its psychotic need to push screwball comedy to the limits of narrative storytelling before the head-strong influx of constant imagery and verbal ripostes elevate to an indecipherable mess of surrealist comedy. It doesn’t go overboard quite to that extent, but the finale of One, Two, Three is as frenzied and deranged in its freewheeling, almost stream-of-consciousness storytelling as any comedy this side of the heyday of the screwballs in the 1930s.
Cagney, especially, is a tectonic maelstrom of self-deprecating charisma throughout the entirety of the film, turning the dissident adolescent threats of his more youthful gangster pics into fire-and-brimstone insults. This post-WWII world is one where the backwoods every-man-for-himself individualism of those early gangster pics and their pugnacious brand of almost pre-capitalist shakedowns had transitioned into more hegemonic structures of ordered individualism. But Cagney finds the implicit connections between, say, Tom Powers in The Public Enemy and the insidious, quick-talking MacNamara here. Both will do whatever it takes to get what they want; post-war American opportunism and globalization has simply offered the Tom Powers of the world leather armchairs and high rise offices to do it in.