A review requested by Rich B, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

Who knows how these things happen? To an average viewer, Billy Wilder is one of the most well-known directors in pre-1967 American cinema, and James Cagney is one of the most recognisable (or at least memorably-parodied) actors of his generation. The satiric farce One, Two, Three from 1961 is the solitary collaboration between these two icons, and it showcases some of the absolute best work either man ever put onscreen. And yet it's the next best thing to invisible, barring the odd Turner Classic Movies screening, and a short-lived, out-of-print DVD. You'll forgive me if I have a hard time keeping my Sagelike Critic hat on, when my Passionate Advocate hat is sitting right there, but I'll do my best.

The setting is Berlin, right before the Wall was built, a fact which severely inconvenienced the filmmakers, since the film came out right after the Wall was built. This necessitated the addition of an opening monologue spoken over a montage of life in the divided city by Cagney:
"On Sunday, August 13th, 1961, the eyes of America were on the nation's capital, where Roger Maris was hitting home runs number 44 and 45 against the Senators. On that same day, without any warning, the East German Communists sealed off the border between East and West Berlin. I only mention this to show the kind of people we're dealing with: real shifty!"
Sure, it's a little flop-sweaty, but it ends up benefiting the film anyway: it neatly sets up all the things we're going to be indundated with for the next hour and fifty minutes or so. There's the political angle, of course, contrasting the film's views of Americans and Communists: the former as self-obsessed and convinced of the absolute value of their popular culture, the latter as treacherous but not exactly wicked: more like they're annoying jerks that you can't get away from, so you have to be sure never to show them your backside and count the silver after they've left. There's also the matter of Cagney's delivery of the speech, a spectacularly quick bit of patter laced with put-upon annoyance, and between these two things - a sarcastic, cynical gloss on Cold War political one-upmanship and a take-no-prisoners pace - we've got pretty much everything that One, Two, Three has on its mind in capsule form. And oh, how glorious it is.

It's a fine successor to the genial sharpness of the great 1939 Ernst Lubitsch film Ninotchka, co-written by Wilder - with Charles Brackett, whereas One, Two, Three was co-written by I.A.L. Diamond, and the differences between the movies show a clear difference between the collaborative teams. But the core is the same, approaching the gulf between the central ideologies of the 20th Century with a bitter cynicism about both sides, though not therefore suggesting that they're morally equivalent; thus the conviction that the only way to properly address the cruelty and violence of Soviet totalitarianism is through plummy humor. If it sounds like this means that the film is dated and loses a lot of its punch without the viewer of more than 50 years later putting in the work to contextualise it: well, that's exactly the case. In fact, I can not say anything against the complaint that One, Two, Three is too much a time capsule of long-expired attitudes towards long-dead political concerns, for many of the best jokes are predicated on exactly those things. But damn, what a time capsule! Sarcastic, flippant satire and the Cold War went well together: though they're up to completely different things and have virtually no tonal overlap, I'm still compelled to put One, Two, Three alongside Dr. Strangelove as being not just a great attempt at caustic social commentary through the broadest of comedy, but also one the funniest movies of the '60s, a decade when American films had a notable and pervasive difficulty with being funny.

Herein, Cagney plays "Mac" MacNamara, a Coca-Cola executive living in West Berlin with his justifiably resentful wife Phyllis (Arlene Francis) and their two children, attempting to break into the Eastern Bloc market; this would be an unprecedented victory for a Western corporation. His days are a constant trial of verbally fencing with a team of obstinate Soviet functionaries while prodding his assistant Schlemmer (Hans Lothar), a former SS officer desperately trying to forward the fiction that he was one of the good Germans, and flirting with his overly receptive secretary Fräulein Ingeborg (Lilo Pulver). Then one day, things explode: he's assigned the joyless job of chaperoning his boss's daughter, Scarlett Hazeltine (Pamela Tiffin), during her short German vacation. This balloons to two months (glossed over in a ballsy cut), by which point the 17-year-old has gone missing and then returned with a horrible secret in the form of a new husband, Otto Ludwig Piffl (Horst Buchholz). Mac is able to use his connections and a good amount of chicanery to get their marriage dropped into the memory hole, but then the second bomb drops: Scarlett is pregnant. And this Mac's mission abruptly changes: now he's got to mold Otto into an idealised old money capitalist, at the risk of being fired with extreme prejudice.

The opening two-thirds of One, Two, Three (as far as I took that little précis) are terrific farce, paced like lightning and embroidered with some of the best dialogue in Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond's collaboration, but it's all a warm-up for the last push. Here, the film turns into the most maniacal, unyielding high-speed comedy since The Lady Eve in 1941, anchored by Cagney's literally indefatigable performance. For all that the film is a triumph of tremendously well-paced directing and editing (by Daniel Mandell, whose abrupt clipping and diving between shots is a perfect example of how much tight cutting can do for comic timing), this is an actor's movie: nothing that goes well could be enough to save the film without a sterling performance in the central role, and nothing could go poorly enough to torpedo it with that performance in place. We can see, in fact, exactly the proof of my second point: the film does suffer from one intolerable misstep in the form of Buchholz, whom Cagney openly detested. Whether it was Buchholz's one-note portrayal of a boorish young ideologue that earned Cagney's ire, or if he retrenched to that portrayal in retaliation against his co-star, I cannot say, but the result is the same: Otto is flattened with the film's most tedious, shrill characterisation.

And it just doesn't matter. Cagney's work is so boisterous that he raises the energy in every scene he's in, which is all but two of them, or maybe three. His rat-a-tat-tat deliveries, escalating in frenzy along with the confusion and thorniness of the plot, are virtuosity and nothing less; his gesticulations are beautifully frantic but perfectly focused within that ("Cagney's finger snapping is tight as hell", I find in my notes, and that's no less than true). The work was intense enough to drive one of Hollywood's all-time greatest troupers into retirement; Cagney wouldn't appear onscreen again until he took a small role in Ragtime, in 1981. It's exactly the performance you'd like to assume would lead to such an action: there's nothing left behind, only furious activity, operatically loud line deliveries, and constant movement. This is not a cast of slouches - Francis and Lothar give particularly excellent performances, I think - but love the film or find it meanspirited and/or tiring in its relentless pace (I could never defend it against either complaint), Cagney is the focal point of everything, and his work is astonishingly committed.

Comedy being the most subjective of all things, I can do no more than posit that One, Two, Three is one of the funniest movies of its generation, and hope that's enough - it's less perfect than Wilder and Diamond's script for Some Like It Hot, but with a much greater pool of quotable lines (one of the reasons I haven't mentioned any is because I couldn't whittle my list of favorites down to less than a top 10); and not so emotionally probing as The Apartment, but it does a better job earning its sourness. And let us not compare it to the films in the director's career following it, for there was an immediate drop-off in quality from which he never fully recovered.

Unquestionably, the film is dated, and some of its finest touches no longer land: one particularly great scene is a delicate parody of the way that the word "pregnant" was once a cinematic taboo, without which it's just a protracted "the German fella can't speak English" bit that's barely even a gag. And for anything made up so completely of white-hot political references, the further we go from those topics, the less it's going to work. I suspect that much of One, Two, Three was already showing its age by the time Lyndon Johnson was inaugurated President. But what works is magnificent: the speed, the ingenious twists in the last act, the great line readings, the total lack of restraint on Cagney's part. This is as precious to me as any other midcentury comedy, and its lack of widespread prominence is a grievous lack.