Wednesday, January 23, 2013

One, Two, Three (1961)

I always love it when I discover really good films that I previously knew little about. Such is the case with Billy Wilder's black-and-white comedy One, Two, Three. The only thing about the film that I knew going into this movie was that James Cagney went into retirement after doing this picture and didn't act again until he was coaxed out of retirement for 1981's Ragtime.

Wilder was coming off a phenomenal decade that saw him direct such masterpieces as Sunset Boulevard, Witness for the Prosecution, Some Like It Hot, and The Apartment. While One, Two, Three isn't quite the classic film that those are, it is still an admirable piece of comedic filmmaking. Wilder's direction is sharp, fast, and stylish, the screenplay is rapid-fire repartee and funny, and the editing is smooth. The black-and-white cinematography was Oscar-nominated.

The success of One, Two. Three rests solely on the capable shoulders of James Cagney. Cagney plays C. R. MacNamara, a Coca-Cola executive in Berlin just before the Berlin Wall was erected. His family wants to return to the States, and MacNamara is hoping for at least a transfer to London. Things look promising when MacNamara's boss Wendell P. Hazeltine, requests that MacNamara look after Hazeltine's daughter Scarlett for a few weeks while she is in Europe. However, just when the Hazeltines are ready to reunite with Scarlett, MacNamara discovers that Scarlett has been slipping away at night to see Otto Ludwig Piffl, a Communist revolutionary. Furthermore, Scarlett and Otto have married and now Scarlett is pregnant. MacNamara concocts a scheme to explain away all these events in a broadly funny farcical manner.

I loved Cagney's performance in this film. His staccato diction was perfect for the fast-talking, wisecracking character. It's a perfect marriage of the right actor for thr right role. Broadway and TV's stalwart What's My Line? panelist Arlene Francis plays MacNamara's icy wife Phyllis. Howard St. John is fun as Coke executive Wendell P. Hazeltine. Pamela Tiffin seemed a bit weak as Scarlett. Horst Buchholz is too strident and angry to garner much sympathy as Otto.

One, Two, Three also offers great insight to the East vs. West debate and well as capitalism vs communism. The script is intelligent without sacrificing humor. Wilder's decision to film the movie at a furious pace pays off handsomely. I wish movie comedies today were this smart. Grade: B+

I watched One, Two, Three via Netflix Streaming on January 15, 2013.

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