Sunday, June 22, 2014

One, Two, Three (1961) - "Setzen machen!"

This blog post is hosted by the Billy Wilder Blogathon, hosted by the talented IrishJayhawk66 of Outspoken & Freckled and
Aurora of
@CitizenScreen of Once Upon a Screen.
(By the way, ladies, we love your description of you two smart and lovely ladies describing your fabulous Blogathon: 
“We’re girls gone Wilder!”)

Meet our protagonist, C.R. MacNamara, as played by James Cagney:
“On Sunday, August 1st, 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 the border between East and West Berlin.  I only mention this to show the kind of people we’re dealing with: real shifty!”
"A gift from my employees on the tenth
anniversary of the Berlin Airlift."
Writer/Director/Producer Billy Wilder has long been among my favorite filmmakers because he’s equally deft with both comedies (Ball of Fire; The Apartment; The Fortune Cookie; and drama (Double Indemnity; Stalag 17;Ace in the Hole), and he’s always gleefully unapologetic about ruffling feathers— even if they’re audiences!  I especially got a kick out of the film’s sprinkling of its playful references to our star James Cagney, even including co-star Red Buttons doing a swell imitation of the man himself.

In Cameron Crowe’s book Conversations with Wilder (Alfred A. Knopf),
it’s been said that Wilder and his co-writer I.A.L Diamond claimed that One, Two, Three wasn't so much funny as it was fast: “We did just did it, nine pages at a time, and he never fumbled.”  Apparently another Cagney bio claims that wasn't completely true, but I say the nit-pickers need to lighten up!  Our family fell in love with One, Two, Three and its hilarious pace breakneck pace!

The rollicking cast includes:
  • James Cagney; Oscar-winner for Yankee Doodle Dandy, as well as great performances in White Heat; *Love Me or Leave Me*
  • Howard St. John, who you may also remember from Mister 880, and his memorable dramatic turn as Captain Turley in Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train.
  • Pamela Tiffin (Harper; The Pleasure Seekers)
  • Horst Buchholz (The Magnificent Seven; Nine Hours to Rama)
  • Arlene Francis, actress and TV personality (The Thrill of it All)
  • Lilo Pulver (A Time to Love and a Time to Die; a Global Affair)

C.R. MacNamara was tasked with getting  "German business-
men to have Coke with their knockwurst"
One, Two, Three takes place in Berlin, in what was then present-day 1951.  That’s where C.R. MacNamara (Cagney), nicknamed “Mac,” is Coca-Cola’s head of bottling in Germany.  Mac’s hopes and dreams of getting back in the good graces of his boss Mr. Hazeltine (St. John) is on the line.  You see, Mac has still been smarting over the unfortunate Benny Goodman incident, in which a sandstorm cancelled Goodman’s concert, resulting in irate music-lovers burning down the American Embassy, leaving poor frustrated Mac in the doghouse! But it's redemption time for Mac as he open negotiations to bring Coca-Cola behind the Iron Curtain.  But Hazeltine informs Mac he's wasting his time -- Coke has no interest in giving the Reds the Pause That Refreshes (This was actually the case -- however, Pepsi had no such qualms, which is how they became the cola of choice - the ONLY choice -- in Russia).  Instead, Mr. Hazeltine is sending his teenage daughter, Scarlett Hazeltine (Tiffin) to hop a plane to Germany in hopes busting-up Scarlett’s newest teenage sweetie, thus throwing the family’s vacation plans going hither and tither!  But that’s only the beginning of this daffy farce.

Meet Scarlett Hazeltine (Pamela Tiffin), hot-blooded teenage world-traveler.  If Scarlett was up for an award, she’d be a shoo-in for “Girl Most Likely to Give Mac’s Family High Blood Pressure!”
Almost as soon as she arrives, it turns out she's been seeing the sights after the MacNamaras hit the hay, bribing the family chauffeur to sneak over to the Russian sector! Worse yet, she's married a scruffy-headed Party-member named Otto Ludwig Piffl (Buchholz)! Who needs Tiffany's for an engagement ring, when you can have rings "forged from the steel of a brave cannon that fought at Stalingrad"?  Phyllis MacNamara (Arlene Francis), hearing from Mac about Scarlett’s new Communist husband, says “She married a Communist?  This is gonna be the biggest thing to hit Atlanta since General Sherman threw that little barbecue!”

Poor Otto, he doesn't know that all his troubles are behind him.
No worries, Mac has a plan.  Our na├»ve Otto is so busy thinking of love and rhetoric that he doesn't realize he's being framed!  Mac plants a balloon on the tailpipe of Piffl's motorbike, reading "Russki Go Home", and gives him a wedding present -- a cuckoo clock with a little Uncle Sam that plays "Yankee Doodle" -- wrapped in the Wall Street Journal, yet!  As Otto makes his way across the Brandenburg Gate, the East German guards stop him for the balloon, the Yankee Doodle time bomb goes off, and Otto is arrested and placed in "Enhanced Interrogation" for being a spy!

Waterboarding, eat your heart out!
Mac thinks all's well with the world...until it turns out that Otto and Scarlett have had time to consummate their wedded bliss -- she's "Schwanger", as they say in German.  So now Mac has to make his way into the Eastern sector, liberate Piffl, and turn him into a good little Capitalist, all before the Hazeltines arrive on the Yankee (you should pardon the expression) Clipper in under 24 hours!  Easy, right?  As Mac puts it, "I wish I was in Hell with my back broken!"

True, some of the more topical gags may seem dated today, but with Wilder and his co-writer I.A. L. Diamond (based on a play by Ferenc Molnar) , the smart snappy cast, and the breakneck pace, there wasn't a single scene that didn't leave me laughing out loud!   Can this howling hilarious satire save the day and the Free World?  Would Billy Wilder  let you down?  Watch and laugh!

“How would you like a little fruit for desert?”
(Cagney kids his Public Enemy grapefruit gag while arguing with Buchholz and Pamela Tiffin. 
Vinnie returns the empties as he has his say:

As The Wife mentions, the topical jokes in this film may require some explanation, but much like the jokes in any Warner Brothers cartoon, once they're explained, a whole new level of irreverence stands revealed.  The obvious physical gags like the Russian trade ministers all resembling various Russian leaders (including Leon Askin, best known to TV mavens as General Burkhalter from Hogan's Heroes) are easy to spot -- the minister taking his shoe off and banging it against the table to the rousing music and dancing of Lilo Pulver might miss a few heads as it sails over.
Otto: We will take over West Berlin. We will take over Western Europe.
We will bury you!

C.R. MacNamara: Do me a favor. Bury us, but don't marry us.

Topical jokes like this are missed by modern audiences, but cut deep at the issues of the day.
  The ministers' joke about "sending Cuba rockets" would come true the next year, as the center of the Cuban Missle Crisis.  And in what might be the most obscure in joke of them all, when Cagney tells Otto he must give the couple a wedding present, Scarlett claims that Otto's friends did not give them any gifts but instead sent the money to unemployed cotton pickers of Mississippi. Cagney was accused of being a communist sympathizer for sending money to striking cotton workers in the 1930's.

The climax of the film, as Mac and his cohorts must pull a Piffl pecuniary Pygmalion, is a masterpiece of comedic timing.  The chiming of the Uncle Sam clock gets imperceptibly faster each time it goes off, subtly underlining the increasingly frenetic pace as merchants and tradesmen teem through the Coca-Cola offices to add some white and blue to the little Red.  As legend has it, Cagney was having trouble with the machine-gun monologues as he rattles off orders to his underlings, so much so that he began to suspect he was, perhaps, not quite over the hill, but able to see the precipice without binoculars.  He walked to a corner of the soundstage, gave himself a quiet pep-talk, came back and nailed the speech in one more take.  The stress of the film caught up with him - this was his last film before his return in Ragtime.

Hard to believe Lilo Pulver was usually cast as a tomboy, ain't it?

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Arabesque: Burnoose Notice

This post has been revised and republished as part of the Snoopathon: A Blogathon of Spies, hosted by Fritzi Kramer!  The Blogathon will run from June 1st through June 3rd, 2014. (Quick, what’s the password?)

The ever-versatile choreographer-turned-director Stanley Donen began his entertainment career with tuneful, urbane, inventive musicals including hits like On the Town (1949); Singin’ in the Rain (1952); Seven Brides for Seven Brothers  (1954); Funny Face (1957).  Like 1963’s comedy-thriller Charade (Fun Fact: that’s the year I was born!), Arabesque is another fabulous Universal romantic thriller in the grand stylish comedy-thriller tradition, including some of the same personnel!

After Stanley Donen’s Hitchcockian romantic comedy-thriller Charade (1963) became a smash hit, Donen had a decision to make:

  1. Should he play it safe and make another film just like Charade? Keep in mind that this was in the days before filmmakers sequel’ed hit films to death, often lazily giving them titles like, say,  Hit Movie Part 2. 
  2.  Should Our Man Stan go boldly go where he hadn’t gone before in his film career?

Well, Donen finally opted for a little of both with Arabesque (1966), and why not?  Don’t we all deserve more of the finer things in life, including entertaining suspense movies?  But I digress!  Arabesque has just about everything a moviegoer could want in a fun escapist comedy-thriller: spine-tingling suspense; international intrigue; sexy romance between Oscar-winning movie stars, albeit not both for Arabesque; you see, star Gregory Peck won his Best Actor Oscar for To Kill A Mockingbird, (1962), while Sophia Loren won her Best Actress Oscar for the searing Italian drama Two Women (1960).
Loren and Peck make a wonderful match with their delightful onscreen chemistry, accompanied by the great Henry Mancini (Charade; Hatari; Breakfast at Tiffany’s;Two for the Road).

I love screenwriter Peter Stone (Charade; Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe and collaborators, including Peter Stone) smart and snappy dialogue brimming with memorable lines; eye-catching English locations; jazzy Henry Mancini music infused with such exotic Middle Eastern touches as zithers and mandolas; inventive visuals with a pop art vibe; and the beguiling Sophia Loren in glam shoes, courtesy of foot-fetishist sugar daddy Alan Badel (The Day of the Jackal), and Christian Dior clothes! What’s not to love?

The eyes have it, and Prof. Ragheed's gonna get it!
 If Charade was Alfred Hitchcock Lite, then Arabesque is Hitchcock Lite after taking a few classes in James Bond 101, including an opening title sequence by Maurice Binder, who also did the honors for Charade and most of the James Bond movies. Gregory Peck plays David Pollack, a hieroglyphics expert Yank professor at Oxford who finds himself embroiled in Middle Eastern intrigue while decoding the cipher (which also happens to be the title of the Gordon Cotler novel which inspired the film, adapted by Julian Mitchell, Stanley Price and Pierre Marton. More about Marton in a moment) which serves as Arabesque’s MacGuffin.

 Our hero finds himself up against four Arabs who want to know what’s on the hieroglyphic-like cipher:

  • Prime Minister Jena (pronounced “Yay-na” and played by Carl Duering of A Clockwork Orange), who’s in England on a hush-hush mission; 
  • Nejim Beshraavi (Badel), the suave-bordering-on-unctuous shipping magnate whose ships may be laid up for good if Jena signs a treaty promising to use English and American tankers; 
  • Yussef Kasim (Kieron Moore of Crack in the World fame, among others), whose penchant for then-hip lingo a la Edd “Kookie” Byrnes on 77 Sunset Strip belies his ruthlessness; and...
  • In any language, nobody can resist Yasmin!
  • Beshraavi’s beautiful, unpredictable lover Yasmin Azir, played by the dazzling, hazel-eyed Loren. She’s sharp, witty, and alluring as all get out in her fabulous Dior wardrobe, including a beaded golden burnoose, plus Sophia rides horses convincingly! 

John Merivale of The List of Adrian Messenger fame is memorable as Sloane, Beshraavi’s put-upon henchman, who gets a memorably tense opening scene in a doctor’s office, and is treated as a combination lackey and punching bag for the rest of the film. I almost—only almost—felt sorry for the guy. Anyway, some of David’s new associates have no qualms about stooping to murder, and soon the chase is on, with suspenseful scenes at the Hyde Park Zoo and Ascot. Our man David is subjected to truth serum and knockouts, and I’m not just talking about Loren: “Every time I listen to you, someone either hits me over the head or tries to vaccinate me.” Poor David doesn’t know where to turn, especially since he can never be sure whether or not he can trust the mercurial Yasmin.

Kieron Moore attempts to kill Peck and Loren with a construction site.

Kieron Moore reads the Arabesque script:
"I talk like Kookie 
and get knocked off how?!"
The usual ever-so-slightly wooden note in Gregory Peck’s delivery is oddly effective as he tries to loosen up and deliver witticisms in the breezy style of Cary Grant, Donen’s business partner and original choice to play David Pollack. Word has it that Grant and Loren had a steamy real-life romance while filming Houseboat, and things got complicated on account of Loren still being married to producer Carlo Ponti. In any case, it helps that those witticisms were written by none other than Charade alumnus Peter Stone under the nom de plume “Pierre Marton,” and Stanley Price as well as Julian Mitchell. Peck may not be Mr. Glib, but he’s so inherently likable (he won his Oscar for playing Atticus Finch, after all! (Ask my husband Vinnie to do his Gregory-Peck-Impersonating-Cary-Grant impersonation sometime; it’s delightful!).

If the shoe fits, Beshraavi will have Yasmin wear it!
 Peck seems so delighted to get an opportunity to deliver bon mots after all his serious roles that he’s downright endearing, like a child trying out new words for the first time.  Besides, the bewitching Loren can make any guy look suave and sexy!  Co-star Alan Badel (The Day of the Jackal) looks like a swarthy, polished version of Peter Sellers wearing cool shades; he virtually steals his scenes as the suave-bordering-on-unctuous villain with a foot fetish. Shoe lovers will swoon over the scene with Badel outfitting Loren with a roomful of fancy footwear and a comically/suggestively long shoehorn. Speaking of things of beauty, Director of Photography  Christopher Challis (The Red Shoes; Sink the Bismarck) is utterly dazzling and inventive; no wonder he won  a BAFTA award (the British equivalent of the Oscars), and Christian Dior got a BAFTA nomination for Loren’s elegant costumes!

Giddy-up, giddy-up, let's go! Let's vanquish a foe!
The only thing that disappoints me about Arabesque is that director/producer Donen didn’t seem to like this sparkling, twist-filled adventure as much as our family and so many other movie lovers do. Specifically, he felt the script needed work. In Stephen M. Silverman’s book about Donen’s films, Dancing on the Ceiling, Donen is quoted as saying about Arabesque, “We have to make it so interesting visually that no one will think about it.” Boy, did they ever! In an article about Arabesque on the TCM Web site, Stone had said that Donen “shot it better than he ever shot any picture. Everything was shot as though it were a reflection in a Rolls-Royce headlamp.” I don’t think Donen gave himself or the movie enough credit, though. If you ask me, Arabesque is a perfect example of one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best-known quotes: “Some films are slices of life; mine are slices of cake.” Now that Arabesque is finally available on DVD (my own copy is part of Universal’s Gregory Peck Film Collection, a seven-disc DVD set that Vin bought me for Christmas 2011), I wish someone would get Donen and Loren together to do the kind of entertaining, informative commentary Donen did with the late Stone for Criterion’s special-edition Charade DVD, while they’re both still alive and well enough to swap stories, or perhaps even put out a whole new deluxe edition of the film!
Our heroes saddle up for action! Nice horsies!
At Ascot, that's the ticket - to frame our man David Pollock for murder!

Reflections in two sexy spies! (Great F/X work!)
Odd, I don’t usually get hieroglyphics in my fortune cookies!
Double-cross Beshraavi, and you’re in for a date with the falcon—
and we don’t mean George Sanders!
Now that's what I call breakfast in bed!