Oh dear. I suppose all directors have their ‘off days’, Hitchcock did (particularly in his later years), so has Spielberg, Ridley has had a few (although his have always looked pretty) so its understandable that the great Billy Wilder would too. Its just that, although I haven’t seen everything -or indeed even the majority- of his output, certainly nothing pre-1940, this is the first of his films which has had me responding with a “ugh, that was pretty terrible.” Indeed, with Wilder’s track record and all the great films of his that I have enjoyed, this film really came as something of a shock, how bad it was. No, I really didn’t care for this one at all. So it would seem that Wilder was only human after all.
I think part of the problem may be its age- a typically sharp-witted comedy, I’m sure, I think part of the problem with this film is that its cultural references, no doubt topical at the time, are inevitably lost and puzzling to viewers such as myself coming to it fresh with the perspective from 2020. Its been close to sixty years, after all. Its still disappointing though- I don’t think the comedy of Some Like It Hot, The Apartment or the Fortune Cookie, for instance, have dated pretty much at all since they first came out. But One, Two, Three just feels dated, anachronistic. Maybe its the madcap pace of the thing- its deliberately a rapid-fire comedy, Wilder and his regular script partner I A L Diamond consciously pushing the pace as far as they could- its relentless really, and ultimately quite tiring, exhausting. When the one-liners drop like lead it just makes the fast pace increasingly irritating. The heightened pace is equalled by the heightened caricatures of the characters, the exaggerated performances. Crucially however, considering its supposed to be a fast-paced comedy, it commits the sin of simply not being at all funny.
Really, I find it quite alarming that this film is how Wilder followed his magnificent The Apartment, one of my favourite films.
I don’t know why, but I find myself comparing this film to Spielberg’s 1941, it seems to suffer the same pitfalls, the exaggerated characters and general hectic pace of the storyline. Maybe you either buy into it or not, maybe its one of those ‘marmite’ films, and maybe One, Two, Three has its fervent fans in just the same way as 1941 seems to, but its telling I didn’t enjoy either of them.
Still, speaking as someone who will defend the oft-maligned Irma La Douce against its detractors, it was a big disappointment. I think its telling that Irma followed One, Two, Three because I can tell it shares some of its irreverent humour and style, you can see a connection between the two. So why does Irma work for me and One, Two, Three doesn’t? Is it as simple as the casting of Jack Lemmon? Maybe it is. I can’t say I was particularly enamoured by James Cagney in his leading role in One, Two, Three at all- indeed none of the cast really caught my eye, they all felt ‘off’ somehow. Everything in this film feels ‘off’, its like nothing works at all.