tongue-tied lightning

One, Two, Three (Wilder, 1961)

I’ve never hidden the fact that Billy Wilder is my favorite director,  yet it wasn’t until recently that I had seen anything he had done post-1960.  Few of these films have received any substantial praise and I suppose I kept putting them off to avoid having to come to terms with the fact that Wilder is indeed human.  Earlier this month I watched the Fortune Cookie which, while not as uproarious as Some Like it Hot for instance, certainly didn’t have anything wrong with it. So last night I settled down to One, Two, Three.

Well, it turns out 5 years before Godard made a film about the children of Karl Marx and Coca-cola Billy Wilder made a film about Karl Marx and Coca-cola.  The basic gist of the plot is that James Cagney’s Coca-cola executive is going to be fired if his boss finds out his daughter married a communist while staying with his family in Berlin.  The biggest problem with Wilder’s later films, judging by The Fortune Cookie and runtimes, seems to be one of length (One, Two Three is his only 60’s film that clocks in under 2 hours) and so it is with One, Two, Three.

It’s hard to call any of the scenes superfluous, as almost every single set up in the first half of the film pays off in the bravura climax, but you can’t deny that the film takes it’s time getting going.  The boss’s daughter doesn’t arrive until the 20 minute mark and her communist husband isn’t introduced until 10 minutes after that.  The film isn’t finished setting everything up until about the 45 minute mark.  Not knowing what Wilder and his screenwriting partner I.A.L. Diamond were up to I assumed I was in for a mildly amusing somewhat aimless comedy, much like The Fortune Cookie.

The first sign that there might be more to the film comes when Cagney attempts to have Horst Buchholz’s young communist arrested by the Stasi.  The comedic timing here really shines and it offers a glimpse of what is to come.  After a bit more set up we are presented with one of the films big set pieces.  A Felliniesque sequence where Cagney goes into East Berlin and attempts to persuade three lust-crazed Cossacks to help him.  This is accompanied by massive amounts of alcohol, cigars and caviar being consumed, a woman dancing on the table while playing with fire, and a band playing Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance.

Shortly after that the films climax gets under way.  A masterful 40 minute sequence featuring some of the best slapstick and quickest dialogue this side of the screwball era in which Cagney attempts to convert Buchholz from a card carrying communist into the perfect western capitalist.  The majority of this sequence takes place in Cagney’s office set and the choreography is something to behold.  There are more great one liners here than I care to recount but two of my favorites were “Vivisection” “It shouldn’t happen to a dog!” and “When he’s 18 he can decide whether he wants to become a capitalist or a rich communist.”

It’s a fun film and worth seeing for the last 40 minutes alone.  It’s not as finely tuned as Wilder’s masterpieces but it features some of his most exciting comedy.  He takes shots at both idealistic communists and opportunistic capitalists, with some sly nods at a Germany still trying to come to terms with Gestapo rule 15 years later.  Recommended.


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