Billy Wilder’s Cold War Comedy

May. 27, 2017
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Billy Wilder was among the most incisive writer-directors from Hollywood’s golden age. Little wonder he was responsible for one of the best Cold War comedies, One Two Three (1961), out now on Blu-ray.

One Two Three is set in the divided city of Berlin, frontline in the struggle between capitalist democracy and Soviet communism. It stars James Cagney as a surly yet wily Coca-Cola executive who markets his product as if it embodied life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. West Berlin, where he is headquartered, is thriving, while East Berlin remains in ruins, its streets filled with Communist Party cadres carrying placards in praise of Khrushchev and Castro. One banner makes a funny comment on U.S. hypocrisy—“Was ist los in Little Rock?”—a timely question that stung America for the violent, much-publicized opposition to school desegregation in the South.

Wilder aims his sharp wit at many targets, including German amnesia over the Nazi period and the banality of American pop culture. Barking at a screwball comedy pace, Cagney’s Coke executive bats ideological fastballs back and forth with a young Communist who married the flighty daughter of the beverage giant’s CEO. The East Bloc receives most of the blows with its hapless bureaucrats, suspicious cops and commitment to economic bankruptcy, but every side takes a hit.

One Two Three gradually gathers momentum until it becomes a fast racing snowball of hilarity, not only from the punchy dialogue but from numerous sight gags, including a cuckoo clock that chimes “Yankee Doodle Dandy” at the top of every hour.

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