Best known as James Cagney's final film for two decades, ONE TWO THREE is a loud, wacky farce that packs a lot of energy but pales against some of Billy Wilder's great comedies like SOME LIKE IT HOT and THE APARTMENT. The story of a Coca-Cola executive attempting to establish a soft drink market in East Berlin, ONE TWO THREE was undoubtedly much funnier in 1961, when the Cold War was in full swing. Jokes about "bouncing baby Bolsheviks" and Karl Marx just don't fly that well today. The film remains watchable for Cagney's performance which, although not as explosive as I had been lead to believe, is still one of his most energetic. He seems to summon the vitality of some of his 1930s performances for this one final fling (so he thought) in front of the cameras.
It was during the filming of ONE TWO THREE that Cagney suddenly realized he had had enough of acting. He would not act again until being coaxed out of retirement for 1981's RAGTIME. Despite his obvious ambivalence on the set, he still found time to coach young actress Pamela Tiflin on technique, sharing with her his pithy number one rule for acting: "You walk in, plant your feet, look the other fella in the eye and tell the truth". According to his autobiography, Cagney by Cagney, Tiflin was a delight to work with while Horst Buchholz was the only actor in Cagney's career to give him any trouble. Cagney recalls Buchholz doing little things to steal scenes: "I had to depend on Billy Wilder to take some steps to correct this kid. If not, I was going to knock Buchholz on his ass...". The film tends to bear out his opinions. Tiflin, once you get used to her over-the-top southern accent, is quite good, while Buchholz, so ingratiating in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, seems desperate for attention in his part as a card-carrying East Berliner who hates capitalism and everything Cagney's cola executive stands for.
One would want James Cagney's last picture (which it was for two decades until the unexpected RAGTIME appearance) to be another ROARING TWENTIES or ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES. One would also want Billy Wilder's only film starring the great Cagney to be another SOME LIKE IT HOT. But ONE TWO THREE is merely a dated farce in a decade that would soon be filled with dated farces. As one of those, it's an okay picture. As either a Cagney or Wilder film, it is a disappointment. ½ - JBBilly Wilder James Cagney The Stuff You Gotta Watch Home Page
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Cagney stated that Buchholz was the only actor to ever give him trouble on the set. Chapters before, however, Cagney mentions clocking Leo Gorcey in the forehead with his elbow to dissuade him from ad-libbing unscripted gags that threw Cagney off his rhythm.
Cagney doesn't say much about Billy Wilder in his book beyond sharing a discussion with the director where Cagney gave his own views on how to pace dialogue. But I would have to believe that a man who says "Plant your feet, look the other fella in the eye and tell the truth" probably got along well with a man who said "Grab em by the throat and never let go."
Perhaps he saw it later in life, but at the time of his autobiography, published in 1977, he still hadn't seen ONE TWO THREE.