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Blu-ray Review

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One, Two, Three (1961)


Starring: James Cagney, Horst Buchholz, Pamela Tiffin and Arlene Francis
Distributor: Eureka Entertainment
RRP: £19.99
Certificate: U
Release Date: 15 April 2019

One, Two, Three was a hard sell when it came out and even more so today. Any attempt to sum it up soon explains why: ‘madcap cold war and corporate politics satire’… ‘hasn’t always been as famous as Wilder’s other comedies, but (italics mine) it’s among his best’… ‘frenetic’ …. ‘lightning fast pace’… ‘the picture that made James Cagney retire for twenty years.’

What’s not to like? A picture dedicated to impudence toward international crisis which could erupt into World War III, demockeracy,

Marxist goofyness (both Karl and Groucho), Coca-colonialism and, my favourite: peaceful noexistence. Wilder was driven to return to his expatriate homeland to make films (A Foreign Affair [1948] while the dust was still settling, bringing fellow ex-pat Marlene Dietrich along for the ride) and again with this masterpiece of pace, rhythm and penultimate political incorrectness.

Wilder had lost his mother and sisters to the death camps. How can he make jokes about Nazis, the Gestapo, the SS and Adolf? Better to ask, how dare he. But he does and unlike today’s Sarah Silverman making a joke about Auschwitz and falling flat on her horsey face, Wilder comes through as the classic comedic genius he is. In this alone he reminds us why comedy is the highest art, above tragedy. Tragedy evokes pity and self-contemplation, comedy transcends despair with laughter. It is Wilder’s answer to nihilism.

He was hated from the start for his choice of locations: Berlin, when it was still bifurcated East and West, Communist and das Kapitalist, zipped right down the middle at the Brandenburg Gate. Wilder got permission to shoot in the red zone and delivered a car chase -- a gag car chase -- that is still one of my most favourite in all film and TV -- and people aware of my own work in Hollywood action episodic know this isn’t an idle compliment -- interspersed with gags that car-jack the whole form into a realm of Platonic virtual ridiculousness.

Wilder set out to make ‘the fastest movie ever’ and he did. The soporific cannabis brainpan pacing of today is a dullard’s school of comedy by comparison. The director’s first choice for his lead was not Cagney but Cary Grant. No doubt Wilder remembered Grant’s superlative turn in Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday (1940) which in Nano-moments achieves the hyper-drive of this film, but fleetingly.

Wilder wanted nonstop speed. And yes there is a Benzedrine joke too. But Grant passed and Wilder, who always wanted to work with him, had to settle for the only possible contender for fast delivery, Cagney. Perhaps Grant feared the necessity of locomotive pell mell along with the writer-director’s well-known demand for word perfect accuracy; perhaps the icon felt too removed by age from his last Hawksian foray, Monkey Business (1952) or perhaps his pioneering LSD consciousness just found the quick-tongued rapidity no longer cool. Amphetamine here is its own commentary. World War II was fought on it, indeed Hitler’s application of this Euro discovery preceded America’s. By the time Judy Garland’s studio physicians at MGM were getting her addicted in 1939, the Reich land’s military and industrial workers were in full thrall of what would later be called truck driver’s specials or mother’s little helpers. (See YouTube: or Val Kilmer’s history of methamphetamine in Salton Sea [2002] - either way, this is the big pharma Geist no less operative in America where a quarter million veterans came home addicted. There’s more to Wilder’s satire than soft drinks.) Remember, back in those World War II days, cigarettes were good for you too.

It’s natural then that Wilder thought Coca Cola was funny. The pleasure drink of western industrial productivity and efficiency. Cagney’s character heads the Coke distributor in West Berlin and he has his beady eye on being promoted to the super European command centre in London. But the head of all things in Atlanta wants him to babysit his estragon-headed daughter who’s been flung off to Europe to remove her from a dating frenzy at home. Of course daughter Scarlet (and yes, there are Gone With the Wind jokes) finds new trouble right in Berlin. Her new love is Otto, Horst Buchholz, a card carrying Marxist stud from the other side. In other hands, even the brilliant John Le Carré, this setting could only give us, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. For Wilder it’s something unheard of and unimaginable: raucous farce. We’re supposed to be solemn in the face of nuclear oligarchy. Wilder isn’t. He breaks rank with the lockstep consensualism, thumbing his nose at the bracketed absolute truth of despair. And perhaps he opens the gate for Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove (1964) which was not called a picture before its time, like his was.

The jokes are time bound and therefore not understandable to contemporary ears. JFK was still alive, politicians, entertainers, songs were all named, most importantly corporate trademarks were named. This is something apposite of product placement today. Writing students are advised not to do it. Making fun of select deities is acceptable in today’s lukewarm commercial pablum, making fun of corporate identities is a cardinal sin. Some deities you just don’t mess with.

Some dialogue:

Buchholz: ‘Capitalism is like a dead herring in the moonlight, it shines but it stinks!’

Tiffin: ‘He talks like that all the time.’

Cagney: ‘To hell with Chairman Khrushchev and to hell with the Revolution!’

Buchholz: ‘To hell with Frank Sinatra!’

The stunning deep focus cinematography by Oscar nominee Daniel Fapp is a joy to behold. The Eureka 1080p presentation is lucently perfect. The mono track is transferred with all high fidelity nuance, reminding us how pristine high fidelity could be.

Nothing is sacred. Frederick Hollaender, Hollywood orchestral genius, makes a low brow cameo conducting Marxist rock and roll. Aram Khachaturian’s classic Sabre Dance is bowdlerized as the main theme throughout. Armenians hate the movie for this. Lilo Pulver is, to put it lightly, unfeminist. Women-in-Film essayists will be triggered until their machine gun magazine is empty or the barrel melts. Political correctionists will resort to glossa-laic ululation that shatters glass. People who genuflect to the sacred cow of commercial journalism will be reminded it’s always been the cattle flop of hireling dung beetles. Charles Foster Kane taught us that, didn’t he?

Otto: ‘Is everybody corrupt???’

Russian: ‘I don’t know everybody.’

So what is the importance of One, Two, Three? That it exists. It goes boldly where no other comedy went before. In the middle of the shoot, the Berlin wall went up. Wilder could no longer shoot at the Brandenburg Gate. He had to build a replica at Bavaria Studios in Munich. A quarter of a century later a President would say, ‘Tear down this wall!’ Today another President is building a wall. His opponents say that wall is inhumane but they themselves live within gated communities, behind walls. Is there a place for One, Two, Three? I think so, but I don’t know everybody.


John Huff

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