Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: Celebrate Cold War Week at The A.V. Club with some stellar movies about that decades-spanning conflict.
Billy Wilder was shooting his breathless comedy One, Two, Three in Berlin when the Wall went up on August 13, 1961. His crew had to quickly scurry over to Munich to continue filming. Which points to the perfect timing of the political-themed comedy, that still for whatever reason resides on the definitive B-list of the director’s work. It belongs on the A-list. One, Two, Three, penned by Wilder and his frequent collaborator I.A.L. Diamond, fires countless Cold War wisecracks while serving as a perfect showcase for James Cagney, in his second-to-last movie role.
Cagney was obviously best-known as a cinematic gangster, with another past as a song-and-dance man, but who knew he could be this funny? Here he’s C.R. “Mac” MacNamara, an American Coca-Cola executive in West Berlin, attempting to market his product past the Iron Curtain. Saddled with watching the boss’s daughter (Pamela Tiffin), he is horrified when she hooks up with East German Communist Otto (Horst Buchholz), with the boss due to arrive any minute. The 62-year-old Cagney has about 80 percent of the dialogue, and the entire movie rests on his own frenetic energy and unerring ability to make people follow him no matter what. Getting the Communist arrested, then negotiating to fish him out of prison, then calling on an absolute army of helpers to transform the young man into a suitable son-in-law before the in-laws arrive: Let’s just say that Aram Khachaturian’s frantic “Sabre Dance” (you’ll know it when you hear it) is the perfect soundtrack.
Past the manic frenzy of the screwball comedy are many sly nods to the frosty Cold War relations between the East and the West. Mac bribes his way into East Berlin with a six-pack of Coke. Mac’s office staff, used to following a dictator, still stands in unison when he enters a room, and his assistant and chauffeur both click their heels, S.S.-style. When Otto the proletariat refuses to wear boxer shorts, because they’re “useless,” Mac’s wife slyly nods, “No wonder they’re winning the Cold War.” A few Soviet comrades offer Mac Cuban cigars, noting, “We give them missiles, they give us cigars”; the following year saw the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Although crafting a comedy about such world-altering topics was bound to be difficult, a master like Wilder could pull it off. His unspoken moral is that the American way wins out: Cagney personifies the U.S. can-do attitude, and easily bests every Communist he faces. (Look for many nods to Cagney’s extensive film history: the Public Enemy grapefruit-in-the-face; a cuckoo clock sings his most famous movie song; Red Buttons as an M.P. does a Cagney impression.) The last 30 minutes, especially, with Cagney snapping his fingers to pull off his master plan as various minions scurry around him, is a head-shaking wonder of film comedy. The feat apparently exhausted Cagney: He didn’t make another movie for 20 years, returning to the screen for the final time in 1981 for Ragtime.
Availability: One, Two, Three is available on out-of-print DVD from Amazon or possibly your local video store/library.