Monday, September 10, 2012

Sowing My "Wilder" Oats 3: Because We Can't All Be as Clever as Billy Wilder: One, Two, Three, and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes

I'm back, everybody, for my third installment of my depressingly lamely titled look at the work of the late, great Billy Wilder. I've been having a lot of fun writing these, and even more fun watching the movies. I've watched a dozen of Wilder's films so far, and the guy hasn't let me down yet.

One, Two, Three, by Billy Wilder, 1961

One, Two, Three came immediately after Wilder's triumphant one-two punch of Some Like it Hot and The Apartment, and because of that, it was bound to disappoint at the time of its release. Though it was well received by critics, the satirical Cold War comedy didn't perform well in the box office, and is a relatively obscure title in Wilder's body of work. It's too bad, too, because One, Two, Three deserves to be seen.

Set in West Berlin, One, Two, Three is the story of C.R. Macnamara, or just Mac, a hard working international representative for Coca-Cola, played by James Cagney. He has spent the last several years circling the globe with his family, spreading the joy of Coke wherever he goes. His wife wants to take their kid back to America, but he's vying for a big position in London. This job depends on his ability to introduce the cola to the Soviets.

Then the Coke bigwig back in Atlanta calls with a new task: keep an eye on his boy-crazy daughter, Scarlet (Pamela Tiffin), who he is sending to West Berlin to get her away from some low-life or another that she's taken to. A couple months later, Mac's boss calls with the news that he's coming to visit himself, and Mac discovers that Scarlet has been sneaking into East Berlin and has secretly married Otto Piffl (Horst Buchholz), a hardline Communist who constantly spews his anti-capitalist sentiments to everyone within earshot. Mac must now find a way to clean up this mess without losing his job and causing an international incident in the process.

One, Two, Three is a relentlessly fast-paced comedy, about as screwball as a movie can get. Cagney is on fire, too. Most of the movie is on his shoulders, and it must have been exhausting, because this movie actually did drive him into retirement. He's constantly scrambling around, talking quickly with ridiculous amounts of dialogue, and orchestrating deftly executed comedic setpieces with his costars.

Wilder lets the jokes fly fast, and as such, there's little time for the emotion of some of his deeper works, but he still makes sure to cram One, Two, Three with a healthy dose of social commentary. He takes swipes at the Soviets and the Cold War itself, and even a few digs at the nature of capitalism. Mac's German right-hand man who claims to have been conveniently absent for the entirety of World War 2 is another great gag.

Since I haven't in previous entries, I thought this would be a good place to mention I.A.L. Diamond, Wilder's co-writer for every movie he made (except one) from 1957 all the way to his final film in 1981. Diamond was a perfect fit for Wilder's sensibilities, and together they crafted a long series of sophisticated comedies. One, Two, Three is an extremely smart and ridiculously precise comedy, and easily one of Wilder's most ambitious films. It's well worth your time.

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, by Billy Wilder, 1970

I've been a fan of Sherlock Holmes for a long time. He's my favorite character in all of literature. I was intrigued by the idea posed in the title of Wilder's film, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. What goes on when Holmes isn't solving mysteries? What keeps him ticking (besides cocaine) when he isn't occupied by some case? Well, to be honest, this film doesn't really go very far to answer these questions.

Robert Stephens stars as Holmes, and Colin Blakely as Dr. John Watson, whose chronicle of Holmes' adventures in The Strand Magazine has made him a celebrity. At the start of the film, a bored Holmes is intrigued by an invitation to the Russian Ballet. Backstage after the show, the star ballerina, Madame Petrova, makes him an offer: she wants him to give her a child. Flustered by this prospect, Holmes turns her down and gets out of dodge.

This only makes up the first act of the movie. After that, a different woman comes knocking and Holmes and Watson embark on a new case that involves the Loch Ness monster, German spies, and even Queen Victoria herself. It's all a very good, somewhat comedic Sherlock Holmes adventure, and as clever as you would expect from Wilder and Diamond, but we've seen it all before. That first act is where the movie should have been found. I wanted to see a deeper exploration of how Holmes would have dealt with this request from the ballerina.

It's too bad about that, but the movie is still very fun. Stephens and Blakely make an adequate Holmes and Watson, and additionally, Christopher Lee plays Sherlock's brother Mycroft, which is some very cool casting. Genevieve Page plays Gabrielle, the woman who sets Holmes off on his mission to Scotland, and steals his heart.

I guess I don't have a great deal else to say about The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. I wish the movie was actually about his private life, but at least it's a Sherlock Holmes movie, and very well crafted. It was made fairly late in Wilder's career, at a point when directing jobs appeared to be thinning out for him. It had been four years since his last film. Maybe he was losing some of his fire at this point. This is far from a classic, but it's still very good.

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