Berlin, 1961, and the city has been divided between East and West ever since the airlift, but that does not mean there is no intermingling of each half, which is why the wall was built. We join the head of the Coca-Cola company in Germany, C.R. MacNamara (James Cagney), just before that contruction goes up as he relates of his most extreme tussle with the politics of the region, he being a proud capitalist and just next door, the neighbours proud Communists. Still, there are benefits being away from the Atlanta headquarters, he gets the services of an attractive secretary, Ingeborg (Liselotte Pulver), he doesn't pay taxes, and his wife (Arlene Francis) looks after the kids. But one phone call later...
One, Two, Three was probably a comedy that could have benefitted from being so up-to-date, yet actually suffered for it. It was a perfect example of Cold War comedy in a very specific era of the Kennedy years, and because of that it found plenty to laugh at, but as it was being released that wall was built, and the fears of the East West relations hotting up appeared to be justified - the following year the Cuban Missile Crisis was headline news, and nobody found the prospect of the world going to Hell in a handbasket very funny at all. It's telling that the most famous Cold War comedy of the sixties was not this but Stanley Kubrick's Doctor Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
That cult classic found humour in the ultimate conclusion of the international conflict, daring to say what director Billy Wilder did not in this. For Wilder, it was the subject of lampoonery but his version of the bad taste of the premise was more rooted in the sex comedy than anything wrapped up in diplomacy, and he and his co-screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond packed as many in-jokes as they could into its near-two-hours running time, referencing pop culture and the actual situation as it was in '61, not looking forward to how this might play out in the future. Certainly if you were arrested as a dissident behind the Iron Curtain, you would not be tortured with plays of Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.
But this was farce, and more married to a concept of what was considered near the knuckle in the early sixties, with its tale of a seventeen-year-old Cola heiress (Pamela Tiffin) marrying a hotheaded Red from East Berlin, one Otto (Horst Buchholz, probably at the peak of his fame). In that manner it was a resolutely middle-aged, "now I've seen everything!" take on what the crazy kids would get up to if they did not have their parents or guardians around to make sure they did not slip up, for MacNamara is faced with the prospect of losing his job when Scarlett (the heiress, named for Scarlett O'Hara and with the accent to match) is given to his care by his boss (Howard St John), only to disappear for a few days, then reappear the happy bride of Otto, who is spitting venom about the Yankees.
The film gave digs to Kennedy (his hair, though) and Khrushchev (one of his underlings bangs his shoe on the table to demonstrate his approval for an Ingeborg's dancing) which may well be lost on anybody not well versed in the culture of that exact point in time, meaning its sheer cheek would not translate to the twenty-first century when world leaders and personalities alike are regularly held up to ridicule in a way this pioneered. For Cagney, it would be his final film as he had such a bad time making it, struggling with his lines and his co-star Buchholz, who was just as bad tempered as his screen persona, both of which made the great actor believe he had had his day in this motion picture business (he would return - on doctor's orders! - in the eighties for Ragtime). But he did supply the requisite energy for a show that was performed as brashly as possible, the voice of common sense in a world going mad. Trouble was, Wilder didn't twig how mad, and what was daring then is quaint now. Music by Andre Previn (arranged, anyway).
[One, Two, Three has been released on Blu-ray by Eureka. Those features:
Limited Edition O Card slipcase [2000 copies ONLY]
1080p presentation on Blu-ray
LPCM audio (original mono presentation)
Optional English SDH subtitles
Brand New and Exclusive Interview with film scholar Neil Sinyard
Feature Length Audio Commentary by Film Historian Michael Schlesinger
PLUS: A Collector's booklet featuring new essays by film scholar Henry K. Miller, critic Adam Batty, and archival material.]