For most film fans there’s always one director who’s seemingly always been there. Perhaps they directed a formative favorite or maybe it was a movie their family always watched. Their work is comfortable, faithful and familiar. For me, that figure is most certainly Billy Wilder. Some Like It Hot is a formative comedy for me (as it is for many!), while Sunset Boulevard is one of the works which helped me fall in love with Old Hollywood. Most can name their favorite Billy Wilder film. However, as I fell deeper into Wilder’s work, one movie emerged as my favorite and it always surprised me how little I heard it mentioned by others: One, Two Three. Over the last number of years, I’ve put it on my list of goals to change that! I need it to get the respect it deserves.
This under-seen gem follows C.R. MacNamara (James Cagney) an upper executive with Coca Cola based out of the company’s Berlin office. His life is thrown into a tizzy when his boss’ teenage daughter Scarlett (Pamela Tiffin) is sent to live with him. It seems the young woman needs to be distracted from an engagement to a boy her father describes as a “pimply faced basketball player”. However, the two week visit turns into a two month stay and just when things seem to be wrapping up, MacNamara finds himself in a conundrum when Scarlet turns up with a husband from East Berlin (read: a Communist) named Otto (Horst Buchholz). Much to “Mac’s” frustration, not only is she married, she’s also pregnant. And to make matters worse, her parents are on their way to Berlin to bring her home. Arlene Francis, Hanns Lothar, Leon Askin and Lilo Pulver co-star in the movie. Billy Wilder directs the picture from the script he co-wrote with I.A.L. Diamond.
One, Two, Three stands as the end of a cinematic era. As an actor, James Cagney enjoyed a prolific career with credits going back to the early days of ‘talkies’. He took home an Academy Award for his work in Yankee Doodle Dandy and was nominated another two times beyond that. One, Two, Three was Cagney’s last film before he retired and is often cited as being an unpleasant experience for the actor. However, I’m going to mention something surprising here… in a career that includes dozens of legendary films, Cagney reaches new levels of brilliance in One, Two Three and I would argue he was rarely better than he is in this film.
Throughout the picture, Cagney’s performance as C.R. MacNamara is a thing of tightly wound beauty. The character is manic to the extreme with Cagney achieving staggeringly funny line delivery at a blistering pace. The role is remiscent of a Pre-Code Cagney and his problems with the role aside, it feels smart, funny and even in his last starring vehicle, he’s functioning at his highest level.
However, the cast around him is equally good, if a bit under-rated throughout their careers. Probably the most striking is Pamela Tiffin as Scarlet Hazeltine. The actress is best known for her work in the youth fair of the early 1960s like: State Fair, Come Fly with Me, For Those Who Think Young and The Lively Set. One, Two, Three comes very early in Tiffin’s career. She’d only appeared in one film before this one, Summer and Smoke in 1961 which starred Laurence Harvey and Geraldine Page.
Tiffin gives a big performance in One, Two, Three which really does stand out in the scope of her other films. She plays the comedy big and her accent is even bigger. Through all this though, she brings an innocence to the role which not only plays into the character, but nails the comedy in a selfless manner. She’s often teeing up a bigger laugh for other actors, particularly Cagney. Though, this isn’t said to discount her performance. Scarlet is potentially a very tricky character in the hands of another actress, but Tiffin handles the part with ease (despite her relative lack of experience) injecting an innocent sweetness into the often flighty teenager.
The entire cast shines in the picture, really lacking any weak performances. Horst Buchholz tackles a tricky comedy role as Scarlett’s husband Otto. While the young actor worked in Europe for the better part of the previous decade, One, Two, Three came just a year after his Hollywood breakout in The Magnificent Seven. At the same time, German performers Hanns Lothar and Liselotte Pulver are equally good in their Hollywood debuts.
Historically, One, Two, Three is a complex feature, set during a very tricky time. Wilder’s script comes neatly sandwiched between World War II and the onset of the Cold War, both of which are notably visible in the movie. World War II is in the film’s not-so-distant past. Buildings in exterior shots are still damaged from the war and there are a number of references to “Adolph”. At the same time though, the Cold War is just starting to build and the brunt of the narrative revolves around the perceived threat of Communism (through MacNamara’s particularly Americanized perspective).
On Sunday, August 13th, 1961, the eyes of America were on the nation’s capital, where Roger Maris was hitting home runs #44 and 45 against the Senators. On that same day, without any warning, the East German Communists sealed off the border between East and West Berlin. I only mention this to show the kind of people we’re dealing with – REAL SHIFTY!
The script is very aware of the fact that World War II ended roughly 15 years before. The German characters, particularly Schlemmer (Lothar) see alot of this relatively harsh humor directed towards them. At the same time thought, there’s a winking sense of snark directed straight back at MacNamara. To call One, Two, Three an example of an American savior narrative would be an oversimplification of the movie, at least when viewing it through a contemporary perspective.
So much of the strength in this script comes from the power and intelligence of these supporting characters. Throughout the film, MacNamara is an incredibly forceful presence, but no one shrinks back from his manic portrayal:
Otto: Capitalism is like a dead herring in the moonlight. It shines, but it stinks!
Scarlet: He talks like that all the time. (To Otto) Tell him about Coca-Cola Colonialism.
Otto: As Chairman Khrushchev said on the 40th anniversary of the revolution…
MacNamara: To hell with the revolution and to hell with Khrushchev!
Otto: The hell with Frank Sinatra.
This results in an equity between these characters. Sure, Scarlett does need MacNamara to smooth the road after her quickie marriage and illegitimate pregnancy, but just as much, MacNamara needs to save himself. If his plan doesn’t go over smoothly, his rather cushy career is over.
Though, what has long been the most interesting element of this film for me has been the treatment and construction of the many women in the script. There are three main, named women in the narrative: Scarlet, Ingeborg (Pulver) and Phyllis MacNamara (Arlene Francis).
I absolutely adore all of these performances individually, because each feels fully realized and completely independent. I’ve already discussed how rich and layered I find Tiffin’s performance as Scarlett. This isn’t easy in a movie about teenage illegitimate pregnancies… just look at A Summer Place or Blue Denim. In fact, each of these women portray character types which can (and have been) problematic in the past: the pregnant teenager, the put upon wife and the sultry secretary.
In another film, this could be a recipe for (at best) overwrought melodrama or (at worst) poorly defined, unoriginal characters. While the narrative is very geared around MacNamara (as at some level are these women’s stories); at the same time though, these women are tuned into their own needs. There’s a very real sense each are busy living their lives and have their own stories outside of the plot, which just so happens to involve “Mac”. These women are a very human, they’re savvy and not one ever truly falls into any of the issues which often plague women characters during this period.
MacNamara: Yeah, I’m the new vice president in charge of bottle caps. They’re kicking me upstairs.
Phyllis: That’s something I’ve always wanted to do myself…
Billy Wilder is one of the legendary directors of Hollywood cinema. His career is defined thanks to his work on timeless classics like Some Like It Hot, Sunset Boulevard and Sabrina; however, a dive into his filmography shows another layer of fun in the slightly deeper cuts, especially a hidden gem like One, Two, Three. If you’re a fan of Billy Wilder, make sure you add this one to your list.
One, Two, Three is available to purchase, here!
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Podcaster, film historian, and general lover of all things classic film and television. Studying the contributions of women behind the camera in classic television.
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