Sunday, September 18, 2011

Underrated Movie #132: One Two Three

Title: One Two Three
Year: 1961
Director: Billy Wilder
Writers: Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond, based on the play by Ferenc Molnar
Stars: James Cagney, Horst Buchholz, Pamela Tiffin, Arlene Francis

The Story: A manic Coca-Cola executive in West Berlin tries to babysit his boss’s teenybopper daughter, but she manages to get pregnant by a young Communist firebrand, leaving him one wild weekend to resolve the situation.

How it Came to be Underrated: Many years ago, I was shooting a movie on my college campus over the course of several months. Then one day I turned the corner and found that someone had built a wall in the middle of my primary location. I freaked out. But that’s nothing compared to what happened to Wilder, who was in the middle of shooting several days of scenes at the Brandenburg Gate, only to show up one morning and discover that the East had walled off their side of town in the middle of the night. Not only did he have to go to Hungary to finish shooting, but his frothy comedy about zipping back and forth across the border suddenly seemed out of date and insensitive, hurting its box office and reputation ever since.

Why It’s Great:

  1. Revisiting the satirical antics of his early script Ninotchka, Wilder catches up to a much hotter cold war and his political wit was never more cutting or cutting edge. The Soviets brag about having missiles in Cuba (a year before America found out!) and just about every wild-eyed accusation that Buchholz throws at the Americans (such the CIA starting the Civil War in the Congo) was later proven true.
  2. And in case this whole thing seems out of date to you: he also shows the KGB mistakenly forcing a confession out of loyal communist Buchholz by playing “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Little Polka Dot Bikini” over and over. Which is hilarious, until you realize that the CIA still does this today.
  3. But there’s also an added and prescient wrinkle: America’s northeastern power structure was so busy keeping a wary eye on the East that they missed the real threat to their preeminence: the South. The idea of boorish Atlantans throwing their newfound money and power around was equally horrifying to American sophisticates at the time, and gets milked for all its worth here. (the Coke heiress feels right at home in a Communist parade because they’re all waving balloons that say “Yankee Go Home!”)
  4. This movie is infamous for running Cagney so ragged that he retired for twenty years. If so, it was a great way to go out with a bang. Wilder knew that only Cagney would be able to rattle off the dialogue as fast as he wanted, because he was determined to match the long-lost speed of screwballs like His Girl Friday. Things get so dizzy that the only possible score is the Sabre Dance.
  5. As with Kiss Me, Stupid, Wilder was raiding the Eastern European stage farces of his youth and updating them to (very) modern times. I can’t find a description of the original 1929 Molnar play online, and I can’t imagine what similar situation this could have been adapted from, yet somehow Wilder spotted a parallel and pounced.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Cagney is most famous for gangster roles but he was equally good in musicals like Footlight Parade and Yankee Doodle Dandy.

How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD and available to Watch Instantly.

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