One, Two, Three (1961): Billy Wilder’s Satire of Cold War and American Imperialism

Set in the months before the Berlin Wall was built, One, Two, Three is Wilder’s witty farce, satirizing such timely issues as Coca-Cola and Big Business, the politics of the Cold War, and above all, American economic and cultural imperialism.

Other targets include the notorious Soviet red tape, Communist and capitalist hypocrisy, Southern bigotry, the German “war guilt,” rock music, and even Cagney’s own screen image.

Wilder and frequent collaborator I.A.L. Diamond loosely adapted their sharp screenplay from an old play by Ferenc Molnár (better known for Lilliom).

In his last major starring film, James Cagney plays Coca-Cola executive C.R. MacNamara, assigned to manage Coke’s West Berlin office.  But MacNamara dreams of a transfer to London, and to achieve that he must curry favor with his Atlanta-based boss, Hazeltine (Howard St. John).

MacNamara agrees to look after Hazeltine’s dizzy, impulsive daughter, Scarlett (Pamela Tiffin), during her visit to Germany.

Weeks later, on the eve of Hazeltine’s visit to West Berlin, Scarlett announces she’s gotten married to a hygienically challenged East Berlin Communist, Otto Piffl (Horst Buchholz).

MacNamara has Piffl to be arrested by the East Berlin police and gets the marriage annulled, only to discover that Scarlett is pregnant.

In rapid-fire “one, two, three” fashion, MacNamara must arrange for Piffl to be released by the Communists and successfully pass off the anti-capitalist Piffl as an acceptable husband for Scarlett.

Time is running out: MacNamara must do all this in 12 hours, all the while trying to mollify his wife (Arlene Francis), who has learned of his affair with secretary Ingeborg (Lilo Pulver).

Due to the shifting political context, some of the one-liners have dated.  But Cagney’s energetic performance holds the whole thing together. Though this was supposed to be Cagney’s very last film, in 1981, he made a comeback in a supporting role in Milos Forman’s Ragtime.

Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond adapted their screenplay from a play by Ferenc Molnár (better known for Lilliom).

Red Buttons appears in an unbilled cameo as a military policeman.

The voice of Sig Rumann emanates from the mouth of actor Hubert Von Meyerinck (the Count von Droste-Schattenburg). ~

Running time: 110 minutes.

Directed by Billy Wilder

Written by Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond

DVD: July 15, 2003

MGM Home Entertainment