One, Two, Three

Cagney reprises the grapefruit scene from The Public Enemy in One, Two, Three

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

13 August

 

Berlin Wall goes up, 1961

On this day in 1961, Berliners woke up to a Berlin divided by a wall.

The capital of Berlin had been partitioned in the aftermath of the Second World War. Like the rest of Germany, but in microcosm, Berlin was parcelled out between the victorious powers – US, UK, USSR and France.

However, Berlin was entirely surrounded by Soviet territory, the allies’ parts of Germany being in the west of the country, and the fear amongst Berliners was that all of the city would be swallowed up by the Soviets.

Stalin had already tried this before, in the Berlin Blockade of 1948, when the Soviets shut the roads which connected West Germany through the Soviet sector and into West Berlin. The allies had responded with a massive airlift and in 1949 Stalin had capitulated.

However, the tone had been set and a huge brain drain out of East Berlin (and therefore out of the whole of the Soviet part of Germany, and indeed the whole of the Soviet Bloc) got underway with anyone who wanted to leave simply having to make it to Berlin.

On 15 June 1961 Walter Ubricht, effectively the GDR boss, had stated that “Niemand hat die Absicht, eine Mauer zu errichten.” (“No one has the intention of building a wall”). On the night of 12 August the border between east and west Berlin was closed and by the next morning workers had erected a physical barrier of fences and barbed wire along the 27 mile (43 km) barrier between the two zones.

The following day the concrete arrived.

 

 

 

One, Two, Three (1961, dir: Billy Wilder)

It’s said that after Billy Wilder debuted Sunset Boulevard, Louis B Meyer was furious with him for showing the ugly mechanical workings of the Hollywood dream machine – “You bastard,” Meyer reportedly shouted. “You have disgraced the industry that made you and fed you.”

Wilder’s films always seemed to have that edge to them, of it not being entirely clear whose side he was on. One, Two, Three is his take on post-War Berlin, a farce played out lightning speed, so fast in fact that it takes two or three viewings to catch it all. It’s worth more.

Jimmy Cagney, 62-years-old but moving like a cat, plays CR MacNamara, the ambitious regional boss of Coca-Cola forced to babysit his American boss’s teenage daughter Scarlett (Pamela Tiffin) for two weeks.

She’s a dizzy thing, attractive and has soon fallen for East German communist Otto Piffl (Horst Buchholz). No problem, thinks big Mac, I’ll incriminate the Kraut by planting the Wall Street Journal on him and get him arrested by the secret police.

It’s at this point he discovers that the girl is in fact pregnant with Piffl’s child. Going to Plan B, cobbled together on the run, Mac now has to somehow get Piffl out of jail and turn him into a Coke-swilling capitalist worthy of the young woman before Scarlett’s daddy arrives.

Strangely overlooked when Wilder films are discussed, perhaps because it moves so fast that a lot of people can’t follow it, the film does suffer from a topicality so current that a lot of the jokes are gone with 1961’s newspapers. But a lot aren’t, and the energy of Cagney is astonishing as he charges around Berlin, getting deeper and deeper into trouble, barking orders, entering scenes and then leaving before his presence has even properly registered.

Wilder was shooting on old turf – in Berlin where he’d lived before the war, and in studios in Munich where he’d also worked after transitioning from journalist to film-maker and before fleeing Hitler for Hollywood.

It’s possibly this journalist’s streak that gives the film its verve – tell the story straight and clear and don’t hang about is what the best sort of journalism is about, after all.

Though as with the best Wilder films there is a knot at the centre that Wilder is exploring along with the neuroses of his subjects, in this case American cultural imperialism, Cagney running all over Berlin like the gangsters he so famously used to portray, because he represents Coca-Cola and can do what he wants. Meanwhile, the East Berlin Wilder depicts is dour, flat, joyless.

Wilder was shooting as the Wall was going up, and while Andy Warhol was creating his iconic Coke bottle pop art. Coke, the great equalizer, in a city where, in the Soviet part of it at least, equality was supposed to be the biggest show in town.

You could dig around like this for hours, finding cultural significance. Luckily the film is so funny you probably won’t want to.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A great and overlooked Billy Wilder comedy
  • A great and overlooked James Cagney performance
  • Horst Buchholz, one of the Magnificent Seven
  • A fine Cold War product

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

One, Two, Three – Watch it now at Amazon

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The Lost Weekend

Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

10 June

 

Dr Robert Smith takes his last drink, 1935

On this day in 1935, an alcoholic doctor called Bob Smith took his last drink. He was 56 at the time and had been drinking heavily since he was a college student, checking himself into drying out clinics periodically in an attempt to kick the habit. He had drunk through Prohibition, thanks to his access to medical alcohol and the profusion of bootleggers. And he’d drunk through nearly 20 years of his wife’s attempts to get him to cut down or stop drinking. It was his wife who encouraged him to attend meetings of the Oxford Group, a Christian organisation that believed in personal responsibility and moral re-armament. It was here that Smith met Bill Wilson, a “recovering alcoholic” (to lock into the language of the almost universally accepted paradigm) who had helped a number of people give up booze. As a result of talking to Wilson, Smith gave up drinking, relapsed badly, had a few drinks on 9 June to stop the shakes. Then, on the morning of 10 June he had a beer to steady his hand while he performed an operation. It was the last drink he would take. The two men, known as Dr Bob and Bill W, went on to found Alcoholics Anonymous.

 

 

 

The Lost Weekend (1954, dir: Billy Wilder)

Ray Milland’s finest hour is also one of the best films about addiction ever made. Milland plays the writer who tries to ease his way out of writer’s block by easing his way into a bottle of hooch. Except he’s not drinking just one or two; he’s the sort who goes on gigantic benders, “bats”, as he calls them, a word that will later take on a more sinister hallucinogenic hue. The action opens at the New York apartment Milland’s Don Birnam shares with his brother Wick (Phillip Terry). And from the look on Wick’s face as he announces that he’s going away for a few days, we know that he’s expecting Don to hit the sauce as soon as his restraining presence is out of the way. Even though Wick has found and disposed of Don’s hidden stash, Don does, on money he steals from the cleaning lady, leading to a weekend of drunkenness and degradation that is mortifying to watch. Billy Wilder and writing partner Charles Brackett inject a devilish glee into most everything they do. In The Lost Weekend it manifests itself in the way that they keep shooting bottles and glasses as if they were beguiling sirens calling Don to his doom.

The film so concerned temperance groups that they petitioned the studios not to release it. They were worried that a depiction of a man driven to the very edge by his excessive drinking would somehow encourage drinking. And in the blue corner there was the drinks industry, who offered Paramount $5 million to destroy the negative. Paramount wavered and Wilder’s pleas to release the film eventually won them over. What the critics, who raved over it, and the public got was an impeccably crafted work, the black and white cinematography by John Seitz running from deep focus naturalism to wonky expressionism as Don Birnam slides towards the chasm. It’s a sparsely populated film – the bottle is Don’s real concern, not other people – the characters who stand out being those who come between him and his true love. Apart from Phillip Terry as the concerned brother, we meet Jane Wyman as the supportive girlfriend convinced that Don is sick, Howard Da Silva as the barman whose say-so gets Don a drink, and Frank Faylen as a tough orderly at the drying-out tank where Don ends up. Certainly Milland never produced a finer performance, fictionally channelling Wilder’s real concerns about the drinking of Raymond Chandler (Wilder and Chandler had worked together on Double Indemnity) into a compassionate portrayal of a man who’s bright, smart but fatally weak.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The Wilder/Brackett screenplay
  • Milland’s best (some say his only) performance
  • John Seitz’s groundbreaking cinematography
  • Another great Miklos Rozsa score

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Lost Weekend – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Double Indemnity

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

18 April

 

Miklós Rózsa born, 1907

On this day in 1907, the celebrated and prolific film composer Miklós Rózsa was born, in Budapest, Hungary. His mother was a pianist and his father was a wealthy industrialist. Young Miklós was performing in public and composing at the age of eight. After studying in Leipzig, Germany, he moved to London, where fellow Hungarian, the producer Alexander Korda gave him his first film to score, 1937’s Knight without Armour. Rózsa went to Hollywood with Korda to work on The Thief of Bagdad, then went on to work on several Billy Wilder films, including Five Graves to Cairo and Double Indemnity. In 1945 three of his scores (for Spellbound, The Lost Weekend and A Song to Remember) were nominated for an Oscar (Spellbound won). Among the films that Rózsa then went on to score were The Killers, The Naked City and Ben-Hur, the last winning him his third Oscar. He continued working on film scores into the 1980s – Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid was his last – his tally of completed works by then standing at over 90. He was also a prolific writer of concert works.

 

 

 

Double Indemnity (1944, dir: Billy Wilder)

No matter how resistant you are to old films, films in black and white, the arch histrionics of Barbara Stanwyck or Fred MacMurray’s big chump persona, within five minutes of the beginning of Double Indemnity you will be hooked. It is close to being the perfect film, devastating in its logic, with a script that is as hard-boiled as it is playful. The key scene comes immediately after the opening credits, when insurance salesman Walter Neff (MacMurray) tries to sell a policy to feisty bright dame Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck). Immediately we know where we are and what’s going on – though he doesn’t know it, Neff is the anti Philip Marlowe, a wiseguy who isn’t quite wise enough. He’s got the hat and the patter and he’s very sure of himself. He’s his company’s top salesman and has earned the right to swagger. And as we sit back and watch, there he is being absolutely and exquisitely worked over by a woman he can’t believe is trading flirtations with him, a hot babe who wears an ankle chain – woo hoo.
By the end of the scene Walter – how that name sounds when Stanwyck purrs it – is trussed up tighter than a capon, and is on the way to agreeing to sell Mrs Dietrichson’s husband an expensive life policy before murdering him. After that they’ll cash in and start a new life together. This last bit doesn’t seem even faintly likely to happen, given the slipperiness of her and the over-eagerness of him – and the cinema code of the time would never let such a thing happen either – so what Neff and Dietrichson are doing and what we’re watching are two entirely different things. We know it, Wilder knows, we know Wilder knows we know it. And so on. Only Neff and Dietrichson seem oblivious. It’s a slo-mo car crash of a film noir – one of the first of the genre – with director Billy Wilder constantly teasing, holding off the awful moment of reckoning. Enter Edward G Robinson as Walter Neff’s boss Barton Keyes, a cigar-smoking pernickety investigator who, from his slightly stagey delivery and bookish persona, seems to be operating in a different film. He’s the one whose simple questions, adherence to protocol and actuarial tables starts to uncover their scheme – what potential suicide, he asks, jumps off a train travelling at 15 miles per hour to kill himself? Or was he perhaps helped to jump?
And from that observation onwards Walter and Phyllis are done for. The film is about process – how Neff and Dietrichson first tie each other into murderous knots, and then how Keyes unpicks them. Raymond Chandler rewrote James M Cain’s pitiless story, adding all the juicy to and fro between Neff and Dietrichson (Phyllis: “I think you’re rotten”. Walter: “I think you’re swell – as long as I’m not your husband”.) and even if it wasn’t at all satisfying in terms of cast and plot, the dialogue alone would make it double-worth it.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • One of the first and best film noirs
  • Raymond Chandler’s dialogue
  • Miklós Rózsa’s score
  • Cinematography by John F Seitz (The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard)

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Double Indemnity – at Amazon