Looked at from a distance of nearly 50 years, it is difficult to gauge modern audience reaction to a good bit of One, Two, Three, because the film is a virtual frame-of-reference test for the era in which it was made. The topical references are many. For instance, Scarlett Hazeltine (Pamela Tiffin) asks Phyllis MacNamara (Arlene Francis), “Have you ever made love to a communist?” and gets the response, “No, but I once necked with a Stevenson Democrat.” References to Huntley and Brinkley, Spartacus, Kruschev’s tendency to take his shoe off and beat it on the table at the U.N. etc. may fly right past younger viewers. Then again, so might Cagney invoking Edward G. Robinson’s ending line from Little Caesar (1930) and recalling his own grapefruit bit from The Public Enemy (1931). I don’t think any of this will damage the film, though, because everything is at such breakneck speed that there’s not much time to dwell on individual bits, except maybe, “Any world that can produce William Shakespeare, the Taj Mahal, and Stripe Toothpaste can’t be all bad.” Words to live by. The last time the Film Society ran this — very early on — it was a pretty big hit with all but two viewers. They had been regulars — showing up at every show — but about 20 minutes into this, they walked out and never returned. I would love to know why.
For those familiar with the era, one of the delights of the film is the revelation of what a skillful comedienne Arlene Francis is. At the time—and even now—Francis was thought of mostly in terms of her appearances as a game show panelist (notably What’s My Line?) or possibly as the prostitute in Robert Florey’s Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932). In the latter capacity, she mostly just screamed a lot while Bela Lugosi tried to mix her blood with that of his pet gorilla. That bit was memorable in its way, but it hardly prepares you for her ability to go toe-to-toe with Cagney in One, Two, Three‘s rapid-fire battle of quips. I doubt anyone else could have gotten as much good as she does out of, “This is going to be the hottest thing to hit Atlanta since General Sherman threw that little barbecue.”
The Asheville Film Society will screen One, Two, Three Tuesday, Nov. 3, at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville, hosted by Xpress movie critic Ken Hanke.