Now That’s What I Call Kino #4 – The Absurdity of the Cold War Conflict in One, Two, Three (1961)

At the start of Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s screenplay, the title page reads “This piece must be played molto furiouso, suggested speed: 110 miles an hour – on the curves – 140 miles an hour in the straightaways.” Having adapted Ferenc Molnar’s Hungarian one-act play of the same name, One, Two, Three (1961) was destined to increase the pace of Wilder’s previous comedies. And following his success with The Apartment (1960), Wilder was in a place of free rein regarding his next project. Winning three individual Oscars and becoming the first person to win Best Picture, Director and Screenplay – Wilder’s decided to make his next project a European-based political satire.

“Let’s make the fastest picture in the world,” Wilder had said, clearly unfussed on whether the audience missed a joke or two. The effect of relentless gags is consistent, meaning that the audience would have no choice but to give in. This Marx Brothers-esque comedy took it to another level that previous successes like Some Like It Hot (1959) achieved. Scoring One, Two, Three to Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance (a pristine 171 BPM), the constant gags and jokes would roll off the tongue as well as the varying scenarios that Wilder’s character would find themselves in. Set in present day 1961, James Cagney plays C.R. MacNamara, a Coca-Cola executive in West Berlin who’s looking to earn a promotion within his business.

Cagney cracks the whip in the Coca-Cola office, greeted by a standing ovation each time he passes his workers. His schedule is never-ending: having to juggle a nuclear family, a mistress, a country-wide branch and rival Soviet businessmen (all within the first 10 minutes). Whilst MacNamara is able to keep all these afloat, the stakes get pushed when he is asked to take care of his boss’ socialite daughter Scarlett (Pamela Tiffin). MacNamara’s stress brushed off on Cagney himself, who had decided to retire from acting after his stunt in Wilder’s film. Cagney, who had made his career in gangster movies and musicals, was pushed to the very test and was quoted in the New York times as never having worked as hard in any picture. MacNamara was a free-wheeling rascal and perfect for Cagney to play, albeit as demanding as it may have been.

Whilst Cagney continued the high-stakes energy that this picture demanded, the real-world consequences had a damning effect on the outcome of One, Two, Three. Wilder’s focus on the Cold War, more importantly the differences of West and East Berlin, had begun to be filmed around the same time as the construction of the Berlin Wall. Initially filmed in Berlin, principal photography was then moved to Munich after the Soviets began construction. It may not have been enough to cease production, but it would cause a great discrepancy for viewers when witnessing Cagney and his associates yo-yoing between both sides of Brandenburg Gate.

Wilder knew the area well, having been a screenwriter in Berlin in the late 1920s. His script didn’t go easy on jokes at the natives’ expense, mocking the German’s yielding to Cagney’s authority. He further explored the varying differences in West and East Germans, exaggerating their found love of either capitalism or communism. MacNamara’s assistant Schlemmer (Hanns Lothar) was a stereotype of German loyalty, clicking his heels and standing tall each time MacNamara may ask a task of him. Subsequently, on the other side of the border is young socialist Otto Ludwig Piffl (Horst Buchholz), who despises the American ideal and fetish of West Berlin. His regular rants denouncing the American way would cause a shock into the system for domestic viewers who had already sat through an opening montage of a Communism parade celebrating Fidel Castro and the Soviet Union. ‘Yankee Go Home’ balloons rise into the sky, the same way fireworks would be dealt on Independence Day.

MacNamara, Scarlett and Otto fued in MacNamara's office
MacNamara, Scarlett and Otto fued in MacNamara’s office. Image Courtesy of MGM.

One, Two, Three recorded a loss of $1.6 million at the box office and critics and audiences alike felt it was a sinister depiction of the Cold War tension. Bosley Crowther, a critic for the New York Times stated “It’s too bad the present Berlin crisis isn’t so funny and harmless as the one Wilder and Diamond have whipped up in their movie.” [1] Americans weren’t ready to laugh at themselves, or at their socialist rivals, finding in-jokes of our American lead being nicknamed ‘Fuhrer’ by his wife Phyllis (Arlene Francis) appalling. As well as this, Wilder made the age divide in America clear with the youthful southern Scarlett falling in love with comrade Otto. Young Americans weren’t obsessive over the WWII aftermath or the ‘political threat’ that a communist powerhouse could potentially have for the Red, White and Blue. She jokes that she washes his shirt and he broadens her mind, but their quick marriage and thus consummation of it was a real worry for blood-boiled Yankees. Otto’s constant dismay of America, comparing capitalism to a ‘dead herring in the moonlight’ wasn’t usual comedy dialogue for the Golden Age. The rise of independent counterculture films was not active in mainstream media until the end of the sixties, Wilder was ahead of the curve in criticising his peers as well as their opposition.

Audiences were surprised to see Wilder so ready to criticise, having seem him as an American filmmaker with his award-winners like The Lost Weekend (1945). Despite his films being produced in Tinseltown, his criticism of the American way of life was not new. Sunset Boulevard (1950) was a heavy critique on the Hollywood Studio system and its effects on its talent and his feel-good showstopper The Apartment was really a depiction into the loneliness of Americans post World War II. People forgot that Wilder’s style was more inclined into the European way of filmmaking. Wilder was born in Austria-Hungary and English was really his second or third language. Wilder found an absurdity to all these conventions that were seen as American. America was just as cheap as its counterparts, with ‘Eenie Weenie Polka-Dot Bikini’ being of better use as a tool for torture rather than a vinyl pressing.

The opening narration of the film was copying the style of the French New Wave which was changing film-making drastically. New Wave directors like Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut were not shy in their criticism of American movies, trying to radically oppose the techniques and values to which they had held.  When MacNamara is made aware of Otto and Scarlett’s endeavours, he proves to turn Otto into a well-functioning capitalist by giving him an adopted Count for a father, a well-paying job and an expense of suits.  Otto becoming the son-in-law for the boss of Coca-Cola may be to some the American way of winning, but in reality shows the absurd inability to acquire the means to succeed in a capitalist world. Counts and Lords are not ready for hire, even with their titles being rendered meaningless. MacNamara locates Count von Droste Schattenburg (Hubert von Meyerinck) working as a toilet attendant and pays him off to adopt Otto. Otto is given a promotion within his first utterance at his father-in-law despite having never worked a day for Coca-Cola in his life. But based off MacNamara’s recommendation and his affiliation, he can climb higher than anyone else. Otto hasn’t sold his soul to the world of capitalism, merely been brainwashed by it to appease the other 1% that he will now call his family. Americans, Russians and Germans are all seen as the same in One, Two, Three – brothers in petty corruption and lasciviousness. It can be quite plain to see why general audiences couldn’t find the humour that Wilder and Diamond were diving into. It wasn’t favourable to anyone, Pauline Kael labelled the film as overwrought, tasteless and offensive, claiming “it pulls out laughs the way a catheter draws urine.” [2]

Despite being based around the Coca-Cola company, it was directly going against the fundamentals that the business supposedly stood for. “American Coke is up there with Elvis Presley, the neon-rimmed diner and the Chevrolet Corvette” quotes Adam Batty, but Wilder thought the idea of Coca-Cola was just inherent funny; “and when I drink it, it seems even funnier to me.” [3] Coca-Cola was a placeholder for any American company, focusing on profit. Consumerism was its satirical target and people munching down on buttered popcorn and soft drinks weren’t ready for the finger to be pointed at them. MacNamara may be our protagonist of the film, but he is not necessarily the hero. His constant haggling and non-stop resilience highlights the devastating ways of getting on top in the West of Berlin. He doesn’t work the hardest, merely just finds everything at the cheapest price.

MacNamara is meant to be the typical American hero with the perfect family and values, attempting to sweep his adultery and many other flaws under the rug. He focuses on his promotion so much that he doesn’t realise his family have packed their bags and are ready to go home without him. He insistently mocks his Russian counterparts and German workers, but keeps to the same business model that they do. The ending of One, Two, Three may seem to be perfect, with Scarlett and Otto welcomed into the Coca-Cola family and MacNamara gaining a promotion, but the American way winning out is really just a shortcoming. Cagney’s motives are fuelled by greed, focusing on “just cash, no culture” as he says during one of his negotiations. The final moments of the film perfectly summarise the corporate greed that Wilder was adhering to; Cagney buys four Coke bottles from a vending-machine, with the final bottle accidentally being a bottle of Pepsi-Cola – a rival brand. The reason for this joke, though, is that Joan Crawford protested the film being based around Coca-Cola and demanded an inclusion of Pepsi-Cola, for whom she was a board member of. Wilder’s statement on American’s focus for profit was proven true with the behind-the-scenes involvement of his movie, allowing an advertisement to finalise the closing moments.

James Cagney holds a Pepsi-Cola bottle in disbelief in the closing shot
James Cagney holds a Pepsi-Cola bottle in disbelief in the closing shot. Image Courtesy of MGM.

One, Two, Three isn’t just a no-holds-barred dig at America though, finding a perfect medium between them and the Soviet Union. The personification of the Soviet Union is labelled by three businessmen (Leon Askin, Ralf Wolter and Peter Capell). They are nothing but stereotypes alluding to the real world events that the USSR was partaking in. When offering MacNamara a Cuban cigar, they state “we send them rockets, they send us cigars.” Unbeknownst to Wilder and Diamond, a year later Russian missiles were discovered in Cuba.

They are not keen on replicating the Coca-Cola formula, only mildly interested. Spies are implemented throughout the film but fail to crack the code of the Coca-Cola formula. They had attempted to steal it, but those analysts defected and now live in Florida. Whilst American capitalism is seen as selfish, narcissistic and fake – the communists of One, Two, Three are trying by any means necessary to copy the steps of this cash-focused society. Their final joke of the film comes when MacNamara offers them the chance to defect like their previous analysts. They think of their loved ones, more specifically their mother-in-law and wives being shot for their cowardice…and so happily oblige.

But Billy Wilder was not just making a political critique of Western/Eastern differences, he was making a joke out of everything he possibly could. Andrew Sarris, an author who birthed ‘auteur theory’, claimed that Wilder is too cynical to believe his own cynicism but Wilder is finding the comedy in everything he possibly can. The fourth wall is shattered with multiple inside jokes relating to Cagney’s previous acting roles. In an uncredited role, Red Buttons does an imitation of Cagney’s gangsters as well as MacNamara going full The Public Enemy (1931) when he threatens Otto with half a grapefruit. And, in case you forgot you’re watching James Cagney, a cuckoo clock at the centre of his office chimes out ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ every few scenes or so – commemorating his Oscar win.

Wilder isn’t playing sides with One, Two, Three, but having fun with the free rein he was given. Like the Yankee Doodle cuckoo clock, his view on the Cold War is loud and unaltering. From the surface it may seem a great declaration for the land of the free, but given time it becomes a cheap icon of false patriotism, highlighting the mechanical flaws in its own work.

Header Image Courtesy of MGM.