Sunday, October 02, 2011
#211: One, Two, Three
James Cagney, the original angry young man takes a departure from his forte and jumps head-on into this Billy Wilder comedy made in 1961. Wilder teams up with I.A.L Diamond, his long standing screenwriting partner once again as the two draw a fine adaptation of a Hungarian play from the 1920s and set it against the backdrop of Cold War of the 1960s in Berlin.
Cagney plays McNamara, a crafty senior official of the Coca-Cola company, an undeniable symbol of thriving American capitalist tendencies in the Berlin of early 60s. McNamara had been passed over for promotion in the company once in spite of a clean record and all he is looking for now is to make the next appraisal count. His dream work destination is London, a place at odds with his family who want to go back to their hometown in Atlanta. While McNamara carefully plots his strategy towards his professional goal of London, his boss' teenage daughter Scarlett (Pamela Tiffin) visits Europe and McNamara gladly accepts to take care of her. His intention is to use this as yet another tool to impress his boss. It doesn't turn out to be such a smart move when Scarlett falls in love with a firebrand but a comical socialist Otto (Hurst Bucholz). And suddenly McNamara now finds himself laden with three unenviable tasks- of securing his promotion, ensuring that his family doesn't desert him and hoping that his boss' daughter gives up Otto.
Billy Wilder superbly uses the real context of the Cold War and weaves through numerous gags in his screenplay producing what to my mind is a movie far funnier than the more acclaimed Some Like It Hot. It is a delightful surprise to see Cagney pull off a role that was tailor-made for someone like a Jack Lemmon. Cagney's character doesn't take himself seriously and pulls you towards his lofty ambitions and opportunistic morals The movie revolves around McNamara even as other funny characters such as Schlemmer, McNamara's trusted secretary (Hanns Lothar) are making you laugh every time they come on-screen. The exchanges between the boss and the secretary are particularly side-splitting. Hurst Bucholz's Otto naturally comes across as a self-obssesed idealist living in his own world and while that helps his character, he is still the weakest link in the movie. That the writers struggled in this one section where McNamara is preparing Otto for meeting Scarlett's parents doesn't help matters either. That part lingers on endlessly towards the second half of the movie and could've been either presented or edited better. But barring those 10-15 minutes, One, Two, Three is one breeze of a movie.
For some reason when people talk about Wilder, One, Two, Three isn't one of the top names that springs to people's minds. The fact is it should because of its effortless wit, inventive gags and memorable characters. If anything, it is yet another testament to Wilder's genius that he could make something like this and yet it would struggle to find a place in most Wilder top three lists.