Not every great movie becomes a cultural touchstone. Some simply escape notice, some are obscured by time, and some are actively suppressed. In this column, Jared adopts a few orphaned films in need of a good viewing.
Cagney, surrounded by a uniformly qualified cast, plays a Coca-Cola executive trying to move his product into the communist market, when he’s tasked with babysitting his boss’s näive, impressionable—actually, let’s just go ahead and call her stupid—daughter.
One, Two, Three takes place during the Cold War, with scenes on both sides of the Berlin border. The sudden construction of a certain wall there interrupted filming and destroyed much of the comedy’s box-office appeal. Though a comedy about a global crisis made during that crisis may not always make money in its own time (see also: Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be), history may be kind enough to increase its value, transforming a bleeding-edge satire into a fascinating time capsule. For this transformation to take place, however, the satire must be great to begin with, and luckily that duty rested in the hands of its director and co-author, Billy Wilder.
Wilder’s body of work includes some of cinema’s most beloved comedies, but Wilder doesn’t really shoot comedies; he shoots sober, calculated documentations of an insane world. One, Two, Three gives us a few examples of this. Firstly, in how he deals with the problem of laughter. In a live theater, you can pause for laughter, and if you need to extend the pause or skip it altogether, you are afforded that agency. In television, you can add a laugh track, so that even if a joke doesn’t take, it at least won’t be followed by complete silence. Film is not allowed these luxuries*, and there is nothing more painful than the morbid silence following a D.O.A. gag. You either have to have an instinct for how long audiences will laugh at a joke—an instinct that quickly disintegrates once you’ve watched the scene sixty times in the editing room—or, you can do what Wilder does here, and say “Fuck pauses. Fuck laughter. Just keep the thing moving.”**
Rather than suffocating his film with distinct punchlines and pauses—the conventions of an alien medium—he instead suffocates the audience with their own laughter, which takes advantage of the durability unique to his medium. It’s the Marx Brothers’ approach to farce. Let the folks miss a gag or two or twenty. It’s film. If they miss something, they can buy another ticket and see it again. I started out making notes of especially funny lines and moments to share with you, but I’m afraid I was overwhelmed by them and had to give up about fifteen minutes in.
On top of that, and ultimately necessary to the success of this picture, is Wilder’s precision, both as a director of actors and of images. It’s easy to aim for breakneck pacing and it’s just as easy to end up with sloppy execution. The seemingly intuitive staging and framing of One, Two, Three is exactly what Great Guy was missing. The mark of a great director is that you can pause their film at any random point and the composition of the image, now removed from its context, will still tell a story. I paused this film many times before I simply stopped taking notes. Images of ex-Nazi Coca-Cola employees standing at attention for their chagrined employer; of untethered balloons that say “YANKEE GO HOME” drifting into the sky; of Russian spies who lean in and menacingly glare at your face even as they shake your hand and say hello. It’s an amazing, impossible list of details to compile. Oh, and you know what? The dialogue’s pretty swell, too.
*I’m not sure why there’s some kind of rule against laugh tracks in film, but I wish there was a rule against them in general.
**Not an actual quotation of Billy Wilder.