Also available in The Billy Wilder Collection Boxed set (129.96), with
The Apartment, Avanti!, The Fortune Cookie, Irma La Douce, Kiss Me Stupid, The Private Life of
Sherlock Holmes, Some Like it Hot and Witness for the Prosecution.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
One, Two, Three is Billy Wilder's Hellzapoppin' ode to Cold War politics, the classy
comedy with the machine-gun pacing. He brings on the jokes, gags, puns and political jabs
so quickly even his perfect cast of fast-talking farceurs has a hard time keeping up with him. To
paraphrase a third act one-liner, the theme is that everything is 'hopeless, but not
serious' - few of the jokes have real bite, and they're at the expense of pompous Commies and
Capitalists alike. The film is so funny, its appeal wasn't even compromised when the Brandenburg
gate closed right in the middle of production, marking the beginning of the Berlin Wall. Wilder was
forced to build a stand-in Gate set on a sound stage. 1
In his last main-career film, James Cagney is an electric dynamo of pushy, motor-mouthed
aggressiveness, whether playing tricks on the East Germans or warming his way into his sexy
secretary's glockenspiel. One, Two, Three gives Jimmy the Gent a thorough workout;
its complicated shenanigans build to verbal and action climaxes
that put other anything-goes comedies to shame. Oh yes, it's really funny, too.
Nervy, bossy Berlin Coca-Cola exec C.R. MacNamara (James Cagney) is stymied by
his Atlanta supervisor Hazeltine (Howard St. John), who won't let him sell The Pause that Refreshes
behind the Iron Curtain, and expects him to take in his daughter Scarlett Hazeltine (Pamela
Tiffin) on short notice. MacNamara's vacation is ruined, putting him in hot water with his wife
Phyllis (Arlene Francis), who already knows her husband is getting schnitzel on the side with his
assistant, Ingeborg (Lilo Pulver). But nothing can compare with the catastrophe that ensues when
Scarlett announces she's pregnant - by an East German beatnik named Otto Ludwig Piffl!
A twisted, wild takeoff on the basic idea of Ninotchka, One, Two, Three is Billy Wilder
and I.A.L Diamond running in top form after their home run with the sentimental
(The Apartment) of the previous year.
There's probably no direct connection, but during a Soviet visit a Russian
reporter praised Wilder's criticism of the American system, where a worker has to
use sex and his apartment to get ahead. Wilder retorted that The Apartment could never
happen in Russia - because there's no such thing as an available apartment!
Wilder normally didn't come out with opinions on politics. He'd participated in the de-Nazification
of Germany for the Army, and made a good comedy called A Foreign Affair out of the situation,
mostly stayed away from topical themes, especially after the backlash of his rather subversive
film noir Ace in the Hole.
But in One, Two, Three he comes out swinging at every pitch available. It's everything American
versus everything Eastern-bloc: baseball, soft drinks, Huntley & Brinkley, Gone With the Wind
and the Pledge of Allegiance - versus Commisars, party dues, propaganda, missiles, caviar, trains
that don't run on time and pitiless interrogators using The Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weenie Yellow Polka
Dot Bikini as a torture device. Americans are arrogant, pushy, boorish, ignorant, sex-obsessed and
success-driven, while the East Germans and Russians are sneaky, arrogant, paranoid Marx-spouters
who hate The Wall Street Journal and want Yankee to Go Home. In between, Wilder gets in a few
merciless jabs at the efficient West Germans - every West Berliner seems to have a guilty secret
in their closet. A reporter is revealed to be ex-S.S. officer. MacNamara's own assistant clicks his
heels at every command and lets slip that he used to be a pastry cook in the S.S., " A very bad
pastry cook." MacNamara: "Schlemmer! You're back in the S.S. again! Smaller Salary!"
Cagney is nothing less than marvelous, changing comedic gears at the drop of a cuckoo clock and
keeping us breathless with his limitless energy. Wilder pulls in references so fast our radar
picks up on only the top 20%: grapefruits in the kisser (Public Enemy), a bowler and an
umbrella stored away for a big promotion (Mister Roberts). Red Buttons contributes
some of his most worthy screen time doing a great Cagney imitation. Cagney's still so spry
on his feet, once or twice we almost think he's about to break out in a dance. Cagney made a lot of
great pictures during his Warners' heyday, but few demonstrated his comedy talent to the
degree seen here.
The much-maligned Horst Buchholz is intense & frenzied as the commie punk who doesn't wear underwear,
spits in disapproval of Coca-Cola diplomacy, and wears a wedding ring that was "Forged from the
steel of the
guns of Stalingrad!" Pamela Tiffin has her best role as the air-brained jet-setting
Southern belle likely to fall in the sack with every Otto or Pierre available. She's ready to be an
impoverished Communist bride, but only if she has the proper tableware like back home in Atlanta.
Arlene Francis also shines with perfect delivery as MacNamara's patient but wisecracking wife, trying
to find out what 'Schwanger' means and mimicking Scarlett's hysterical laugh. Lilo Pulver (Liselotte,
previously seen in Sirk's A Time to Love and a Time to Die) is the tall, stacked sexpot
secretary who gives Wilder a chance to lampoon lust, German-style. She's a borderline nympho who
laughs like a stevedore and snaps out some of Wilder's earliest raunchy humor:
MacNamara, staring at Ingeborg's chest: "Don't look now, but your goose pimples are showing."
Ingeborg: "That's nothing, you should see my sister!"
Angular Hanns Lothar plays Schlemmer, MacNamara's heel-clicking functionary, who'd probably jump
out of a window if ordered. Completely corruptable Commisars Leon Askin, Ralf Wolter and
Peter Capell provide the crass example MacNamara uses to eventually convert Otto Piffl to
Freedom-loving Western ways ... after a short detour into aristocratic decadence, via
an arranged adoption by the monocle-snapping Count von Droste Schattenburg. In short, Communist
ideology proves too inflexible for warm-blooded humans, and MacNamara wins his case.
The set piece of the film is an eight-minute stretch where MacNamara does a high-toned makeover on
the beatnik Piffle, bringing in a parade of tailors, barbers, haberdashers, etc., and rattling off
pages of exacting dialogue with perfect articulation and precision - precisely as Wilder wrote it
(it reportedly took many takes and some strained tempers). This dovetails into a mad car chase to
the airport and a sharp finish. Audiences laugh - and then quiet themselves to not miss out on the
next joke - Wilder's pace leaves little room for reaction time, just a raised eyebrow or a
The amped-up pacing works because it's not forced on the material - the agitated Germans are inspired
to lunatic levels of efficiency by MacNamara's demands, unlike the Italians of
Avanti! who are always trying to
down. 43 years later, with its topical subject matter now considered ancient history,
One, Two, Three still keeps audiences breathless and laughing.
MGM's DVD of One, Two, Three is sharp, detailed and nicely
tuned to Wilder's B&W Panavision comedy grayscale. It has a very punchy English track, and also
dubbed tracks in French and Spanish, with the dubbing talent working overtime to keep up
with the quick patter. You can tell MGM has upgraded its general transfer/encoding specs in the
last couple of years: besides having a better image than The Apartment and Irma La Douce,
it has an adequate number of chapter stops, instead of the old standard of 16, no matter how long
The only extra is an amusing original trailer that billboards Wilder as a comedy genius. The disc is
a flipper with a pan-scan transfer on the flip side, which hopefully will keep square screen squares
happy. I'm for the wide expanses on the Panavision side.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
One, Two, Three rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 4, 2003
1. The same goes for the airport
a motorcycle injury by Horst Buchholz threw off the schedule and didn't allow Wilder to shoot on
location at Templehof.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson