One, Two, Three
Having been in the motion picture business for some 30 years, legendary actor James Cagney decided to go out on a high note in 1961: He starred in Billy Wilder's Cold War farce One, Two, Three and then retired from the industry (it would take another 20 years for Hollywood to lure him back, for a cameo in 1981's Ragtime). An odd combination of fast-paced screwball comedy and political satire, the movie offered director Wilder (who fled Germany in 1932 as Hitler ascended to power, several members of the director's family later perishing at Auschwitz) an opportunity to poke fun at Berlin's volatile politics and take a few swipes at his home country's post-Nazi culture; the movie also afforded the 62-year-old Cagney the chance to sink his teeth into one last meaty role while making a few sly jokes about his own public persona in the process. Shot on location in Berlin as east-west relations were deteriorating daily, the film was completed as the Berlin Wall was under construction three weeks into production, permission to film in East Berlin was revoked, forcing Wilder to construct a replica of the Brandenberg Gate on a back-lot in Munich. With that sort of political stress, plus a young co-star who kept upstaging him and one scene that took a total of 52 takes to complete, the aging Cagney may have decided to retire out of sheer exhaustion. In One, Two, Three, Cagney plays C.R. MacNamara, an executive with the Coca-Cola Company's West Berlin office. Having been demoted from his prestigious post as head of the company's Middle Eastern division (the bottling plant was burned down during a riot when Benny Goodman's plane was delayed by a sandstorm), MacNamara is driven to sell the soft drink behind the Iron Curtain. Loud, proud, and every bit the ugly American, he also wants to be named head of Coke's European division, based in London. So when he gets a call from Atlanta asking him to keep an eye on his boss's 17-year-old daughter (Pamela Tiffin) during her visit to Berlin, MacNamara sees it as not just his duty but as his shot at the big time. The girl, however, gets involved with a vocal young communist named Otto Piffl (Horst Bucholz), and MacNamara has to straighten everything out before the girl's parents arrive in Germany, all the while juggling a trio of Russians who want to bring Coke to Moscow, a wife (Arlene Francis) who's sick of traveling the world, and a voluptuous blonde secretary (Lilo Pulver) who wants to take more than just dictation.
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That Coca-Cola is not just MacNamara's employer in One, Two, Three but also a major thematic element is notable. To supply American servicemen with soft drinks during World War II, Coca-Cola set up bottling plants in Europe and the Pacific, giving citizens of other nations their first taste of Coke and setting the stage for the company's phenomenal worldwide growth after the war. By 1961, a bottle of Coca-Cola was with the possible exception of the American flag the symbol that much of the globe most closely associated with the United States. In making MacNamara a Coke executive, Wilder cannily created a character who represents the Cold War ideal of the capitalist American a big-mouthed, xenophobic blowhard bent on global domination. Cagney begins the film with this small history lesson in voiceover: "On Sunday, August 13th, 1961, the eyes of America were on the nation's capital, where Roger Maris was hitting home runs number forty-four and forty-five 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!" Cagney's performance is breathtaking, with some of his lengthy monologues snapping along so fast and furious that one can become almost hypnotized that he's rattling off so much dialogue without a break indeed, the aforementioned scene that took 52 takes is just seven takes short of Wilder's all-time record, directing a befuddled Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot. As the hot-headed young Red, Bucholz seems hell-bent on acting Cagney off the screen through sheer volume and fury; years later, Cagney would remember that this was the only time in his entire career he ever worked with a competitive, uncooperative actor, saying that Bucholz resorted to "all kinds of scene-stealing didos, and I had to depend on Billy Wilder to take some steps to correct this kid. If Billy hadn't, I was going to knock Bucholz on his ass which at several points I would have been very happy to do." With none-too-delicately delivered jokes about the Third Reich as well as digs at both Communist culture and American imperialism, One, Two, Three is about as subtle as a hammer to the head but it's often hilarious, and a delightful cap to Cagney's illustrious career.
MGM's DVD release of One, Two, Three part of their "Billy Wilder Collection" is a spare disc, offering a very nice transfer in either anamorphic (2.35:1) or pan-and-scan options. Like most of Wilder's films, there's not a lot of contrast in his black-and-white presentation, and the entire movie has a soft, monochromatic tone without many deep blacks. There's some occasional scratches and specks, but overall it's very clean. The monaural Dolby Digital audio is sometimes inconsistent in volume, but otherwise very good. The original theatrical trailer is the only extra; it hasn't been restored with any care, but it's interesting to see that the film was sold not so much on Cagney's fame as it was on Wilder's, attempting to lure audiences by invoking Some Like It Hot and The Apartment.