ONE, TWO, THREE (Billy Wilder, 1961)

One, Two, Three is Billy Wilder’s most consistently hilarious and most gorgeous comedy. Partly drawn from Ferenc Molnár’s 1929 play Egy, ketto, három, the film received a monkey-wrench from history when the Communists put up the Berlin Wall during the on-location shoot, requiring that the film, whose action freely passes back and forth between the non-Communist and Communist sectors, be converted into a year-earlier flashback. This cataclysmic political change, however, perfectly suits the transformational nature of Wilder and co-scenarist Izzy Diamond’s thematic material.
     Hoping to secure a promotion (and therefore linked to rat-racing C.C. Baxter in Wilder’s previous The Apartment, 1960), C.R. MacNamara, a Berlin-based Coca-Cola executive, is hosting his boss’s 17-year-old daughter, Scarlett. A deal he is pushing to have Coke distributed behind the Iron Curtain causes MacNamara to be a lax substitute-guardian; Scarlett, pregnant, drifts into marriage to poor, unkempt Otto Piffl, an East German Communist beatnik. With Scarlett’s folks flying in from Atlanta, MacNamara frantically attempts to remake Otto into an image of both enterprising capitalism and titled nobility.
     The breakneck pace conforms to the instruction that heads the script: “This piece must be played molto furioso.” The underpinning delight, on the mark (a double-meaning there), is how Otto’s ideological resistance flows into complicity with the effort to turn him into a rich capitalist. Horst Buchholz is spectacularly funny as Otto.
     Communism takes all sorts of jabs from MacNamara, who mercilessly verbally assaults Otto, “the Kremlin Kid,” whom he instructs, when the boy threatens to agitate Coca-Cola workers into rebellion, “Pull up your pants, Spartacus.” But MacNamara is a sleaze who cheats on his wife and is perpetually driven by self-interest. For him, democracy is synonymous with corporate profit.
     James Cagney, as MacNamara, perhaps gives his most brilliant performance.


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