One, Two, Three

Studio: Kino Lorber Studio Classics

Jul 05, 2017 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


“Maybe our children can make this a better place to live in, a world where men are created equal, and there’s liberty and justice for all,” says Otto Piffl (Horst Buchholz), noted proud communist, to his wife Scarlett Hazeltine (Pamela Tiffin), daughter of the Coca-Cola Company’s boss. He says this to comfort her, conflicted about the deep corruption in the world, disgusted with the petty backstabbing, both political and personal, especially when it calls into question, for him, the notion of corruption within humanity after someone tells him that even the great communist leaders and thinkers were petty. CR “Mac” MacNamara (James Cagney) chimes in smugly, “Congratulations! You just quoted Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag!” Otto looks back in shock. The film cuts to the same cuckoo clock that got Otto into trouble, with Uncle Sam bursting through the little doorways, singing “Yankee Doodle Dandy”. And so it is that One, Two, Three is undoubtedly another cynical entry into director/writer Billy Wilder’s filmography, but with a more overtly sympathetic portrayal of socialist attitudes.

And why shouldn’t it be? While much can be said of Wilder’s cynical attitude, it makes sense given his background: he, an Austrian German Jew, saw the rise of the Nazi Party before his eyes in Berlin, leaving for Paris and then for the United States. And while he may have played the “my movies are not really political” game, political readings are hard to avoid in many of his films, especially via a Marxist lens. The exploitation of the worker shows up in Sunset Boulevard, the dehumanization of corporate America in The Apartment, and the thirst for exploitation as media circus in Ace in the Hole. These are fed through very human gears, characters acutely illustrated and written, which occasionally takes the edge off. The somewhat maligned Sabrina certainly pokes fun at the focus affluent business owners have and don’t have for the people in their lives, but Wilder was not opposed to imbuing his films with a levity and a sweetness that seems to have been ignored in discourse about him.

One, Two, Three was made and released after East Germany and West Berlin had been split, before the Berlin Wall had been built, and right at the sweet spot of where a Cold War satire could work. It would be at least half a decade before the unfunny and overrated Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb by Stanley Kubrick would rear its warhead, but Wilder saw, at the very least, a very human commonality between even the filthiest capitalists and what could be read as the most desperate of communists. Tracking Mac’s frustration with trying to sell Coke in Europe, trying to finagle a deal behind the Iron Curtain, he’s left to take care of his boss’s ditsy daughter, only to learn she’s married an East German communist, Otto.

Imagine, the daughter of one of the richest men, certainly responsible in some capacity for imperialism and the scourge of spreading exploitative capitalist techniques, marrying a communist, a man of the people, a worker who is keenly aware of the ways in which those in the Congo are being abused! It’s bad optics, and will surely cost Mac the promotion of head of European operations at Coca-Cola. These men are clearly at ideological odds, never mind the manipulation and scheming that Mac does, but even in a screwball satire as zany as this, as fast paced as anything Wilder ever wrote, there’s a surprising bout of melancholy throughout the film. Wilder lays out his sympathies for both men: for Mac to finally feel success and validation, and for Otto and his deep belief that there could be good in this world and that he could be the arbiter of it.

Though audiences at the time would have been most likely to side with Mac, Wilder’s portrayal of him is scathing, though uncruel. He’s a bumbling, greedy fool, which Otto roundly drags him for. But he is empty, as his career has not been what he may have wanted, his power has not necessarily brought him joy, and one gets the sense that, even if Otto’s most passionate socialist speeches are often played for comedy, Mac is sort of listening. Conversely, even if Otto looks completely unkempt and his devotion to the Communist Party, even as it continues to deny agency to its very people and members, Wilder does not completely disregard his optimism and hope. He is skeptical, to be sure, as he sees Otto at the end performing the role of rich aristocrat like slipping into a well-worn boot, but I think he sees something very human in both Otto and Mac, no matter the numbers. 

www.kinolorber.com/product/view/id/4115

Author rating: 7/10

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