Tensions between the Soviet Union and America were coming to an all time high, while Wilder was making One Two Three. The filming of the movie was actually interrupted by the building of the Berlin Wall. So of course Wilder took the opportunity to do what he always did, and make the whole thing look as ridiculous as possible.
Wilder was coy about One Two Three’s ambition, in Cameron Crowe’s Mammoth interview with him he expresses no more ambition then “To make the fastest film in the world.”
It wasn’t that it was unheard of to poke fun at the tense relationships between America and USSR. Wilder had even done it before himself, cowriting Ernest Lubitsch’s Ninotchka, with the famous tagline “Garbo Laughs” was probably the most famous version of this and a few years later Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove would be the ultimate version of it.
What was unusual, and something even Kubrick didn’t tread upon, is the fearless way that Wilder posits that the entire Cold War is one big put on. That the ideologies on both sides are a put on. False platitudes, mouthed by unthinking simpletons after they’ve been drilled into their heads by wiley conmen. Only a real smooth operator like Cagney can survive with any kind of sanity intact.
This was James Cagney’s last film, aside from a brief appearance in the film Ragtime twenty years later. And he picked a real winner to go out on. It’s not just that his last one was a great movie, it’s that his last film was a movie that was tailor made to showcase what a unique actor he was, the entire film is based upon his staccato rhythms and swagger.
It was on the set on this film that Cagney delivered his famous maxim on acting, “Walk into the room, plant your feet, look the other guy in the eye and tell the truth.” A statement that makes me sorry that he and Wilder didn’t make more then the one film together.
Wilder was nothing if not a truthful director. That truthfulness is often mistaken for misanthropy. But Wilder always much too amused by people far too much for that. Wilder’s targets in One Two Three, are almost excluisively ideological and institutional. Both the vapid “late stage capitalism” of the heiress, and the fire and brimstone idiocy of Piffle are seen as the province of easily duped stooges. Daringly Wilder goes so far as to suggest that Nazism and the old aristocracy it replaced was the exact same thing. There’s not a character in the film unwilling to sell out what they believe in, when the opportunity presents itself. Only the amoral Cagney, who subscribes to no higher allegiance then the Coca Cola Company makes it through the film with any kind of dignity intact.
This all makes the film sound very dour and serious, which it’s not. Instead it’s one of the quickest farces ever made. If Wilder did not succeed in making The fastest film ever made, he came very close. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have some very sharp teeth. The film’s most famous shot reveals has a “dancing” potrait of Khrusecv fall to reveal a dancing portrait of Stalin.
It’s a shot that to me, sums up the Wilder technique, revealing the truth with a laugh.