One, Two, Three

Movie Information

The Asheville Film Society will screen One, Two, Three Tuesday, Aug. 24 at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of the Carolina Asheville. The show will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.
Genre: Comedy
Director: Billy Wilder
Starring: James Cagney, Horst Buchholz, Arlene Francis, Pamela Tiffin, Howard St. John, Hanns Lothar
Rated: NR

Taking a 1929 Ferenc Molnar play, retaining the basic plot and moving it to the Cold War era and Berlin divided by the Wall, Billy Wilder crafted what may well be his funniest movie with One, Two, Three (1961). It’s certainly his fastest-paced film and one built around the most manic performance James Cagney ever gave—and that’s saying something. The basic idea, of the manager of the Berlin Coca-Cola bottling plant having to deal with a visit from the company president’s over-sexed Southern Belle daughter, is a nice start. Having to break up her whirlwind marriage to a scruffy communist is better. Having to get the husband back and make him presentable when it turns out she’s pregnant is the stuff of great comedy, and that’s what this is.

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, Stripe toothpaste, 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.

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.”

It’s not all Cagney’s show by any means, but he’s definitely the whirlwind force that drives the film. Unfortunately, it was also an experience that was so taxing—not entirely due to the notoriously uncooperative Horst Buchholz—that it prompted Cagney to retire from movies altogether, returning for a small role in Milos Forman’s Ragtime (1981) and the 1984 TV film Terrible Joe Moran (where his voice was dubbed by Rich Little). Ragtime is a pleasant coda to a great career, but as the real send-off, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better one than One, Two, Three.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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8 thoughts on “One, Two, Three

  1. DrSerizawa

    I saw this when I was about 12. I don’t remember much except for some silly chase and how upset my parents were because the word “damn” was said so many times which for me worked in the movie’s favor.

  2. Ken Hanke

    I saw this when I was about 12

    You should perhaps see it again.

    because the word “damn” was said so many times which for me worked in the movie’s favor.

    See? You were a child I could identify with.

  3. DrSerizawa

    TCM to the rescue. It’s going to be shown on Oct 25.

    “This is going to be the hottest thing to hit Atlanta since General Sherman threw that little barbecue.”

    Hmmmm. That sounds like another good little line to work into daily conversations.

  4. Ken Hanke

    Hmmmm. That sounds like another good little line to work into daily conversations.

    Don’t live in the south, do you?

  5. DrSerizawa

    Don’t live in the south, do you?

    No, but I am fully aware that the “War Of Northern Aggression” has never ended and that “The South Shall Rise Again.”

    It’s better not to argue.

  6. One of my favorite films from one of my favorite directors of the “pre-auteur” area. We’ve got as many Wilder films as we could find.

  7. Ken Hanke

    It’s better not to argue.

    I debated the wisdom of even quoting the line on that basis.

  8. Ken Hanke

    “pre-auteur” area

    There is no pre-auteur area, just different terms.

    And Wilder’s getting a workout. No one planned this, but the HFS is show Sunset Blvd. on Sunday.

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