Sunday, October 11, 2009

One, Two, Three (1961)

I'm writing this one out of order since I'd like to include it in the Billy Wilder Blogathon at the LAMB. I think I've seen a good amount of Wilder films, especially in high school when I was really getting into Jack Lemmon. I love his rapid-fire dialogue and attention to characters, and impressive range of genre and tone. Armed with various bits of insider knowledge after staying in Germany for a while, I recently watched One, Two, Three, which satirizes the political and social situation in a divided Berlin before the wall went up (it was actually built as the movie was filming in the city).

James Cagney plays Coca Cola executive CR MacNamara, a fast-talking family man whose wife (Arlene Francis) is sick of constantly relocating around the globe for his job. When his boss enlists him to host his airheaded, Euro-tripping daughter Scarlett (Pamela Tiffin) for a few months, it's up to MacNamara to keep her entertained and away from anything unsavory. Unfortunately for him, he isn't able to keep her from secretly marrying Otto (Horst Buchholz), a staunch young Communist from East Berlin. Her parents are on their way to Berlin to pick her up, and MacNamara only has a few hours to convert the unwilling Otto into a respectable, capitalist son-in-law.

I'm not sure why, but I couldn't really get into this movie as much as I feel I should have. It's not bad or boring by any means, it's just not as likable as other Wilder films I've seen. The story is interesting and funny and equally condescending to both capitalists and communists: one is corrupt and unfeeling, the other is easily corrupted and therefore hypocritical. It's spot-on, but felt a bit too cruel. Maybe it's because I visited Berlin not too long ago and have learned about the issues of this time period from a German perspective, but it just seemed a little too mean to both East and West Berliners (not the donut kind, though I do miss those mmm), who had enough to deal with already in 1961. It makes fun of Americans, too, but that's nothing new. This is definitely more of a personal reaction based on recent experiences, and likely not something that would affect most other Americans viewing the film.

The script is excellent, and Cagney does really well with his insanely quick, often ridiculous lines and hyperbolic reactions to the quirky people surrounding him. Unfortunately, his character is a bit too unlikable. He's the central figure, and I think we're supposed to kind of be rooting for him despite his faults, but I didn't care if he was successful or not because he's just all around pretty despicable. I'm not sure if this is Cagney's fault (I was wondering how this might have panned out if Jack Lemmon was in the role, for example), or just how the character is written. He's still very funny though. I liked Pamela Tiffin as the vapid, boy-crazy Southern belle and Arlene Francis as the exasperated wife, and there are a number of enjoyable smaller characters such as the various kooky Germans in MacNamara's employ.

One, Two Three is an interesting depiction of life in a divided Berlin from an American's perspective, with biting satirical commentary and highly entertaining dialogue, but it's missing the charm of films like Some Like It Hot and Irma La Douce, and the intelligence of Double Indemnity or The Apartment. I know Wilder can write and direct remarkable and affecting movies, but for me this just isn't one of them. Still worth seeing though, especially for fans of Cagney or those interested in German-American relations during the Cold War.


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