The Lady Friend and I were talking to other day about movies, as we do, and somehow Dr. Strangelove came up. And in a way that suggested that it was a socially unacceptable thing to say, she mentioned that she didn’t like it. And then the floodgates opened: “Soooo boring! And slow! And heavy-handed! And WTF???”
I don’t hate Dr. Strangelove, but I also don’t disagree with her. It is slow and boring, and it’s over-the-top without ever really picking up speed. (It’s still beautifully filmed, plus I kind of enjoy Peter Sellers’ clownish wheelchair Nazi gag. Also the names are great — “General Buck Turgidson.”)
But last night the New Bev was playing a double bill of Billy Wilder films. The top of the bill was so-so, a nasty little comedy about a faked insurance claim that wastes Jack Lemmon and leans very heavily on an excellent performance by Walter Matthau. (Cliff Osmond is also great as a very determined private detective.)
And then on the bottom of the bill there was One, Two, Three, a film I’d never heard of, but which I now think might be my favorite Wilder. Certainly it’s his funniest and fastest, a Cold War farce that starts at a pretty high level of energy and then halfway through throws on the afterburners and doesn’t look back.
James Cagney plays a Coca-Cola executive in West Berlin assigned to looked after his boss’s wild daughter, who has apparently been living a little too fast in London and Paris. At first it seems to be going well, but when Cagney discovers that the girl’s been sneaking out to go visit a boy on the other side of the Wall, he moves decisively to put a stop to it — only to discover, repeatedly, that he’s half a step behind her. American ingenuity, organization, decisiveness, and sheer brass win out over both Communism and the bureaucratic hierarchy of capitalism, but not without the help of an army of merchants, two very efficient and loyal West German Coca-Cola employees, some propagandizing balloons, and what appears to be a rather generous expense account.
The script, by Wilder and longtime partner I.A.L. Diamond from a play by Ferenc Molnár, is a spectacularly engineered machine, springing off jokes reliably every 10 to 20 seconds — sometimes they’re so close together you miss the next one if you laugh at the first — while all the time building speed in the smooth, almost unnoticeable way of a BMW passing traffic on the autobahn. By the end, the action is screaming along, the jokes are flying at you in a gorgeous, arcing spray, Cagney and his uniformly fine supporting cast are moving toward their climax with the grace of Olympians, and all’s right with the world.
One, Two, Three skewers Cold War politics, but unlike Strangelove it doesn’t see both sides as equally mad or the human race as doomed. In fact Wilder, an Austrian Jew whose parents died in Auschwitz, and Diamond, the son of Crown Heights immigrants, will have no truck with moral equivalence. Sure, the management of the Coca-Cola Company is ridiculous, and sure, Cagney’s character feels the sting of his failure to ascend the corporate ladder. And at the climax of the film, he essentially gives up his career aspirations, allowing himself to be “promoted” into a desk job at the Atlanta headquarters, in order to spend more time with his wife and help his boss save face. But he’s also the epitome of the savvy American businessman, handling crisis after crisis with grace and ingenuity and some good-natured grumbling. He’s also clearsighted enough to greet the young ideologue’s party-line pronouncements with amusement rather than a competing ideology, and in precisely his lack of political dogma and his open, friendly nature he comes to represent the very best America has to offer the rest of humanity.