Billy Wilder, an Austrian Jew who was writing scripts in Germany until he emigrated in 1933, returned twice to make political comedies: the 1948 A Foreign Affair, with Marlene Dietrich superb as a world- and war-weary frau; and this cockamamie satire of Cold War relations. C.C. MacNamara (James Cagney, in his last film for 20 years) is head of West Berlin operations for the Coca-Cola Company and dreams of a promotion to run all of Europe. But his boss’s daughter (Pamela Tiffin) is in love with scruffy Otto, an East German communist (Horst Buchholz) who wants to whisk her off to Moscow. MacNamara must transform the Rednik into a European gentleman while negotiating with a Soviet apparatchik. Wilder and co-screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond packed the film with dozens of Cold War jokes (The apparatchik boasts that “We have trade agreement with Cuba: they send us cigars, we send them rockets”) and Soviet-poverty gags left over from Wilder’s script for the Garbo Ninotchka. (Otto says his Moscow supervisors “have assigned us a magnificent apartment — just a short walk from the bathroom”). It’s frenetic fun with a suitably bitter aftertaste.
Wilder was shooting in Berlin the morning the Wall went up, and the crew had to move to Munich. When the movie opened that December, the writer-director appended this preface: “On Sunday, August 13th, 1961, the eyes of America were on the nation’s capital, where Roger Maris was hitting home runs #44 and 45 against the Senators. On that same day, without any warning, the East German Communists sealed off the border between East and West Berlin. I only mention this to show the kind of people we’re dealing with — REAL SHIFTY.” Reviewers found One, Two, Three pretty shifty too: they denounced it for political insensitivity). According to the Village Voice‘s J. Hoberman, liberal screenwriter Abby Mann (Judgment at Nuremberg) “deemed Wilder’s jape so tasteless, he felt obliged to apologize for it at the Moscow Film Festival.” The irreverent tone may have alienated critics of the day, but the movie now looks like the highest, most ruthless form of comedy: world politics played as uncompromising farce.
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