Thursday, December 15, 2011

James Cagney, Cold Warrior

"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."

James Cagney
One Two Three (1961)

I suppose New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther was right.

Crowther — who did have something of a reputation for writing mean reviews at times — wrote that James Cagney was "a good 50 percent" of the movie "One Two Three," which premiered 50 years ago today.

"With all due respect for all the others, all of whom are very good," Crowther wrote, "the burden is carried by Mr. Cagney ... Mr. Cagney makes you mistrust him — but he sure makes you laugh with him. And that's about the nature of the picture. It is one with which you can laugh — with its own impudence toward foreign crises — while laughing at its rowdy spinning jokes."

Other critics of the time used words like "fast–paced" and "frenetic" to describe a film that, more than anything else that was being made in those years, exemplified the best of the old screwball comedies of the 1930s — with a generous helping of international political intrigue.

In fact, writer/director Billy Wilder even acknowledged that he lifted portions of the plot from the classic 1939 screwball comedy "Ninotchka," which clearly had a political subtext. (Wilder had been its co–writer.)

But "One Two Three" was no rehashed remake. It was very much a film of its time, set in Berlin during the Cold War. Wilder and his cast and crew were in Berlin filming the movie when construction began on the Berlin Wall in August 1961, forcing them to relocate to Munich — and inspiring Wilder to write a brand–new introduction, which was narrated by Cagney.

In that monologue, Cagney decried the Communists as "real shifty."

That seemed an apt description, coming from Cagney's character, a Coca–Cola executive in postwar Berlin, where he had been assigned after an unfortunate episode in the Middle East. Viewers learned about that only through dialogue, but Cagney's character clearly carried some baggage on it.

Nevertheless, he seemed to be adjusting. While finagling to be assigned to London, he was busily learning German from his secretary/mistress (Liselotte Pulver), and he worked out a lucrative deal for Coke with the Soviet Union — then he got a call from his boss back in Atlanta.

The boss' daughter (Pamela Tiffin) was coming to Berlin, and Cagney's boss wanted her to stay with him. Cagney agreed — only to discover that Miss Scarlett Hazeltine was no Georgia peach — more like a Southern firecracker.

She was a hot–blooded teenager who wound up marrying an East German communist (Horst Buchholz). That was enough of a headache for Cagney — but then the heiress and her spouse decided they were going to move to Moscow at precisely the time when her parents were coming to Berlin to retrieve her.

Fearing a repeat of the Middle East experience, Cagney arranged to frame Buchholz as a closet capitalist, leading to his expulsion from East Germany. After that, he could clean the young man up and make him presentable for his in–laws.

But Cagney's character learned that, while you may take the young man from the communist state, you can't as easily take the communist state from the young man — so he engaged in some brainwashing of his own, dressing Buccholz like an affluent capitalist and giving him a crash course in the ways of the breed.

Like Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle in "Pygmalion," Cagney succeeded in transforming his Cockney flower girl into a lady.

And, in the end, it appeared that Cagney's character had earned his promotion from Berlin.

In Billy Wilder's hands, it was an uproarious story.

And James Cagney was the perfect choice to pitch it.