Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Target #198: One, Two, Three (1961, Billy Wilder)

TSPDT placing: #987
Directed by: Billy Wilder
Written by: Ferenc Molnár (play), Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond (screenplay)
Starring: James Cagney, Horst Buchholz, Pamela Tiffin, Arlene Francis, Howard St. John, Hanns Lothar, Leon Askin, Karl Lieffen, Liselotte Pulver

Throughout his long and distinguished career, director Billy Wilder has always excelled at drawing impressive comedic performances from actors that we wouldn't typically associate with comedy. His most exemplary accomplishment would undoubtedly be the case of Walter Matthau, who, prior to The Fortune Cookie (1966), was known prominently for his dramatic work, but went on, with Jack Lemmon by his side, to create one of cinema's most enduring and beloved comedic partnerships. No less remarkable is Wilder's transformation of archetypal gangster James Cagney. Defying all expectations, the director managed to wring a frenetic comedy performance out of his leading man, the experience leaving Cagney so utterly exhausted that he subsequently retired from the acting business {and wasn't seen again at all until Milos Forman's Ragtime (1981)}. Though not one of Wilder's greatest efforts, and certainly paling in comparison with The Apartment (1960) of the previous year, One, Two, Three (1961) is a massively enjoyable comedy romp, and few directors other than Wilder were ever bold enough to poke such fun at the aggressively-escalating Cold War.

James Cagney plays C.R. "Mac" MacNamara, a proud veteran of the Coca-Cola Company, who has dragged his family around Europe for the past fifteen years in futile pursuit of the European managerial position. Now located in West Berlin, his goal is seemingly within reach, despite the elevating friction between the Americans and the Communists of the East. Just on the verge of a groundbreaking deal to distribute Coca-Cola across the Iron Curtain, Mac is unexpectedly asked by his boss (Howard St. John) to babysit his hot-blooded seventeen-year-old daughter, Scarlett (Pamela Tiffin), during her stay in Berlin. When Scarlett suddenly announces her marriage to a fierce Communist radical, Otto Ludwig Piffl (Horst Buchholz), Mac realises that he has just hours to transform this unapologetic Yankee-hater into the perfect son-in-law, otherwise his career is as good as doomed. Racing frantically around his office, barking orders with incredible ferocity, Cagney is absolute dynamite in the leading role, the film's hectic conversational pace often reminiscent of a Howard Hawks film, particularly His Girl Friday (1940) {which Wilder notably remade in The Front Page (1974)}.

Though some of the jokes occasionally miss their mark, the screenplay by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond {adapted from the one-act play by Ferenc Molnar} is brisk, intelligent and regularly very funny. The supporting characters each bring a streak of vibrancy to the darkly-themed satire, and, though Cagney always dominates his scenes, each performer complements him well. Schlemmer (Hanns Lothar), an ex-SS member who denies everything, habitually clinks his heels together at every order, despite being asked on multiple occasions to cut it out; Phyllis MacNamara (Arlene Francis) resents her husband's neglect of his family, and verbally articulates her frustration by referring to him as "Mein Fuhrer"; Fräulein Ingeborg (Liselotte Pulver) is Mac's sexy, ambitious secretary, and Wilder certainly knows how to make good use of her. Filled with amusing characters and situations, and more film references than I was able to count, Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three is surefire Cold War entertainment, and fans of James Cagney will relish the opportunity to witness Rocky Sullivan playing the comedian.

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