Tuesday, November 29, 2005

ONE, TWO, THREE (1961) - Billy Wilder

60’s Week starts, appropriately enough, with a madcap Billy Wilder romp set smack dab at the beginning of the decade. The Berlin Wall has just been built. The 50’s nuclear family ideal is startling to crumble. Commie paranoia is omnipresent. And so is the Coca-Cola Bottling Company.

James Cagney plays MacNamara, the soft drink giant’s American Man in Berlin (West Berlin that is), pushing Coke syrup on Commies and capitalists alike while lording over a staff of overly-obedient Germans who still have a habit of saluting and clicking their heels every time he asks for a pencil. Everybody loves Coke, so McNamara’s got a pretty cushy job -- he even finds time for a little inter-office “language instruction” from his hot German secretary behind his socialite wife’s back.
But MacNamara’s still not satisfied. He wants to get out of Berlin and into the London office as Head of European Distribution. So he reluctantly agrees to look after his Atlanta Boss’s privileged daughter Scarlett (think a Deep South Paris Hilton) while she’s vacationing in Berlin. This turns out to be easier said than done, as Scarlett has an eye for young beefcake communists, especially young Marxist Otto (yep, Horst Buchholz again, but this time appropriately cast as a German). What follows is the ultimate in Commie Cock-Blocking. MacNamara puts aside Coca-Cola operations in an inspired effort to get rid of Otto and ruin the couple’s impending cross-cultural, capitalist-meets-communist marriage so he can land that coveted London office spot. All before Daddy Coke arrives in Berlin for the annual review.
As you can probably guess, this movie is filled with a lot of verbal gags, political satire, barking corporate heads, and broad, broad stereotypes (especially the Russian Coke buyers). Much of it works, but with zingers flying a mile a minute, some of them are gonna fall flat. Viewed from a modern standpoint, Wilder’s hit to miss ratio is still pretty damn good.
There are elements of Wilder’s wonderful The Apartment present here but relocated to foreign soil. However, there is no sad sack C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) to get behind and much of your enjoyment of the movie does depend on just how invested you can get in the near-irredeemable MacNamara, a corporate company man who’s 1) an adulterer 2) the worst kind of capitalist 3) a unrepentant corporate climber who’s basically trying to break-up a blossoming romance in order to save his job. But, lest we not forget, he’s also played by James Cagney, a man who knows how to sell human frailty with his gung-ho charisma. He seems to be having a whale of a time lampooning his image and references abound to his characters in Yankee Doodle Dandy (a cuckoo clock in his office that plays the tune), White Heat (another threatened grapefruit face-smash), and to his signature vocal-inflection (“Put it there, seee!”).
The movie does drag a bit in the middle but makes up for it two-fold in the last half-hour’s manic makeover attempt to turn young Otto from a scruffy communist into a dapper young capitalist fit to take young Scarlett’s hand-in-marriage (call it Extreme Makeover: Leningrad Edition). This may not be among my favorite Wilder movies (those props still go to Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, and The Apartment), but it’s well worth the time. I didn’t even mind Horst Buchholz, this time.

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