One, Two, Three

US (1961) Dir. Billy Wilder

“Any world that can produce the Taj Mahal, William Shakespeare, and Stripe toothpaste can’t be all bad.”

You’d think that but there is always something to spoil the good things in life, and it is usually politics. The Cold War and the bifurcation of Germany in the 1960s are such examples but it also gives artists a great starting point to sharpen their satirical knives – until of course their work is banned in some territories for being too political.

In West Berlin, a top executive for Coca-Cola C.R. “Mac” MacNamara (James Cagney) is eyeing a better job in the London office, hoping an upcoming deal to sell Coke in Russia will impress the board. Using his sexy young secretary Fräulein Ingeborg (Liselotte Pulver) as bargaining leverage, the deal is set to go through, but then Mac gets a call from his superior Wendell P. Hazeltine (Howard St. John) that changes everything.

Hazeltine is sending his 17-year old daughter Scarlett (Pamela Tiffin) to Berlin so Mac can keep an eye on her. Scarlett is a wayward but slightly ditzy girl who is soon tamed until she is caught with her new husband, militant Communist Otto Ludwig Piffl (Horst Buchholz). As Mac tries to annul the marriage and get rid of Otto, Scarlett discovers she is pregnant, just as Hazeltine announces he coming to Berlin to see his daughter.

When one thinks of farcical comedies, usually the bawdy British stage capers of Ray Cooney and Brian Rix come to mind. The US never seemed to quite “get” the same level of nuance and silliness of the farce, which may explain why One, Two, Three failed to follow the success of its Oscar winning predecessor The Apartment.

Based on a 1929 Hungarian one act play Egy, kettő, három by Ferenc Molnár, with a few plot strands borrowed from Wilder’s own screenplay for 1939’s Ninotchka, the basis for much of the jokes may be topically political – the Berlin Wall was constructed during filming – but the last thirty minutes or so is very much in the same vein of the British farce, with characters running in and out of one room, interruptive phone calls, hiding things, people in a state of undress, etc.

No doubt Wilder was being subtly provocative by choosing something so internationally renowned as Coca-Cola for the symbol of American capitalism, which didn’t sit well with rivals Pepsi, so he included a couple of mentions during the film, including a real zinger for the last line. Wilder doesn’t actually hold Coca-Cola up for criticism, nor is he flag waving for the US, but he does side more with western values than those of a rather confused Europe.

Mac may be at a later stage in his life and has everything, a high pairing job, authority, a patient wife Phyllis (Arlene Francis) and two kids, but he yearns to have that plum job that will put him higher up the corporate ladder and bring further sweet rewards. So, when Hazeltine says Mac “won’t be forgotten” in the discussion for the London role, he is determined not to let anything jeopardise his chance at a promotion.

So when tearaway Scarlett reveals she has “married” card carrying party member Otto, Mac has to act fast as he knows Hazeltine won’t stand for any Commie nonsense so the boy must change. There is an amusing dichotomy to highlight the absurdity of this clash of ideals, with Scarlett used to her affluent lifestyle, the benefits of which she wants to use to fulfil Otto’s Communist agenda for their baby. Then again, Scarlett is only six weeks pregnant – the length of time she has known Otto – so there is no hurry.

Otto is not the only European political trope being mocked, since Mac is surrounded by efficient German staff who stand every time he walks into the office in synchronicity and wait until told to sit again. Mac’s assistant Schlemmer (Hanns Lothar) is the comic totem of this, clicking his heels together whenever he enters or leaves Mac’s office like a soldier on parade. He’s actually a nice guy and very funny because of how much loyalty and boundless energy is in his gangly frame.

It is fair to say that the true humour is found in such characterisations than the political satire, which is very on point if a little old since Wilder already covered this before but the changes in Germany offered a chance to update some of the references. The sexual politics of Ingeborg strutting her stuff to woo the Russians won’t sit well today, not in the least her willingness to be used in such a way, possibly assuaged by the fact the joke is on the Russians.   

James Cagney was left exhausted from making this film, actually retiring for 20 years, and it is not hard to see why, he is on the go for the whole film, is in practically every scene, and rattles off every line like a telex machine on double speed with unrelenting precision. The support cast are also wonderful, notably Liselotte Pulver, Pamela Tiffin and Hanns Lothar, though Cagney hated Horst Buchholz for his unprofessionalism and trying to upstage everyone.

For what looks like a throwback screwball comedy, there is a lot to this film that requires in depth analysis which I can’t provide inside 1000 words, and when pondering the level of witty gags, caustic commentary and sly deconstruction of political foibles, it could be Wilder was too clever with for audiences in 1961, who maybe wanted The Apartment pt 2 and resented they didn’t get it.

Hopefully modern film fans will be a little more open to seeing this diverse side of Billy Wilder in One, Two, Three and appreciate the genius behind this blistering paced, farcical satire as well as the boldness of its cynical voice giving the testy background it plays out against. An underappreciated entry from the Wilder oeuvre that deserves more love.