(Billy Wilder, USA, 1961) 108 minutes


Director: Billy Wilder
Producer: Billy Wilder
Screenplay: Billy Wilder, I A L Diamond,
based on a one-act play by Ferenc Molnar
Photography: Daniel Fapp
Editor: Daniel Mandell
Music: Andr? Previn
Leading Players:
James Cagney (C R MacNamara)
Horst Buchholz (Otto Ludwig Piffl)
Pamela Tiffin (Scarlett)
Arlene Francis (Phyllis)
Lilo Pulver (Ingeborg)
Howard St John (Hazeltine)

Reviews and notes

Wilder's constant obsession with pace in screen comedy found its own answer in ONE, TWO, THREE - a rapid, brutal and over-wrought comic statement on the Cold War. How fast is fast in comedy, Wilder asked himself. Can you machine-gun audiences with sound track satire? Do audiences have the stamina to pay close attention continuously, or must they come up for breath now and then? In London for the British premiere of ONE, TWO, THREE, he remarked that the tendency in contemporary films is length and slowness: 'I think because the critics think highly of European directors like Antonioni who have gotten away with it - the idea that slowness and solemnity are the same thing as profundity.' But he wondered if in ONE, TWO, THREE he hadn't gone too far with his 'experiment in keeping up the tempo the whole time.'

The plot of ONE, TWO, THREE is borrowed from a one-act play by Ferenc Molnar, who would be astonished to think that any hero of his could turn up as the manager of a Coca-Cola bottling plant. Yet that is what the picture's hero is. 'It is a farce that intentionally mocks and reverses every conventional attitude we have, or think we ought to have; virtue is punished, corruption and stupidity are rewarded and the whole German people, as if in a trifling aside, are indicted as lickspittles or martinets, and we sit watching and roaring with delight,' is the way Brendan Gill described the film. 'For this tour de force of fratricidal subversion, we have to thank not only Mr Cagney who makes it shamefully attractive, but, again, Mr Wilder, who produced and directed the picture and who could, no doubt, wring a hearty yock from bubonic plague.' (New Yorker, 6 January 1962) Reflecting on Wilder's ability to make bubonic plague into comedy, Pauline Kael felt that, execept perhaps in a different way in Ace in the Hole, Wilder had 'never before exhibited such a brazen contempt for people.' (I Lost it at the Movies,1965)

ONE, TWO, THREE - termed 'Hellzapoppin in Berlin' by some critics - is a coarsened remake of Ninotchka, with Horst Buchholz playing a Greta Garbo Communist in reverse, and Americans, Russians and Germans competing in petty corruption and shoddy sentimentality.

Wilder's direction is sharp and so furious that the Variety reviewer wondered if even the cream of an audience would catch more than seventy-five per cent of the significance of the dialogue at first hearing. (Variety, 29 November 1961) Cagney, who suffered from acute homesickness during the shooting in Germany, proves himself a good, snappy farceur with a glib, full-throttled characterisation. The staccato delivery wasn't always easy to film, and one speech during a shoe-shine session required fifty-two takes - only seven short of the all-time record with Marilyn Monroe on Some Like It Hot. While Buchholz and Pamela Tiffin fail to register much, Arlene Francis is just right as Mrs MacNamara, and some of the supporting roles are brutally in focus - Howard St John as the tycoon of Coca Colonisation, and Hanns Lothar as a heel-clicking right-hand man. Trauner's art direction contributes importantly to the comedy, notably in a scene set in a smoky East Berlin nightspot, and Andr? Previn incorporates period pop themes like 'Yes, We Have no Bananas' with incongruous effect into his score.

ONE, TWO, THREE was shot in Berlin during the autumn of 1961 at a time when the East-West climate deriorated daily, and before Wilder could yell 'Cut!' the last time, the Berlin Wall was under construction. Permission to shoot in East Berlin was revoked three weeks into production, forcing Wilder to have Trauner build a full-sized replica of the East side of the Brandenburg Gate on the back-Iot of the Bavaria Studios in Munich.

Wilder managed one little revenge. He made a dry run of a shot up to the boundary-line, and then sent word to the heavily armed East German police that they were in the picture, and while it was all right with him, he was afraid it would give audiences the impression that East Berlin was a Police State. That cleared the gate for several hours.

Berlin f?ted the former hanger-on from the Romanisches Caf?, declaring 1 July 1961 'Billy Wilder Day', and the wisecracking director had a field-day - grabbing headlines as fast as he could wring gags out of the mounting political crisis. At an East Berlin Press Conference at the start of the picture, East German officials said they would like to buy The Apartment, a criticism of capitalism that could only happen in New York. 'That's right, it could never happen in Moscow,' retorted Wilder. 'Nobody in Moscow has an apartment he can spare.'

And Coca-Cola? In interviews, Wilder admitted that the soft-drink company would get a lot of publicity, but that its public relations department viewed the portrayal of the firm's bosses as complete idiots with disfavour. He also claimed he had no tie-in with the Coke people but was keeping a promise made five years earlier when Gary Cooper played a Pepsi-Cola salesman in Love in the Afternoon. But who was he kidding? Coca-Cola provided truck banners, supermarket ads and window displays promoting ONE, TWO, THREE throughout the publicity campaign.
- Axel Madsen, Billy Wilder, Cinema One, Secker and Warburg, 1968.

Weblink: Review by Christian Schröder and Henning Eckebrecht

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