Posted in Film

Humor in Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three


A good film comedy needs more than just funny lines and humorous situations to work well from beginning to end. Although comedy is relative to each and every person, there are some sure-fire techniques to guarantee the most possible laughs from an audience. In his 1961 film One, Two, Three, director Billy Wilder ambitiously uses four techniques to heighten the level of comedy.

The one aspect to the film that not only leaves the viewer breathless from laughing by the end but also makes its unique blend of comedy really stand out is the fast-paced dialogue. It is rare for one to have to watch a comedy a second time because there may have been funny lines of dialogue he or she missed the first time around, but in the case of One, Two, Three, second viewing is practically a requirement due to the wealth of information given in dialogue.

Wilder has all of the actors — James Cagney to the greatest extent — say their lines as if they are in a rush to finish each conversation so that they can move on to the next problematic situation. It feels in the beginning that Wilder is trying to cram a 180-page screenplay into a two-hour movie. However, the intensity and speed of the dialogue eventually becomes the charm of the film. Uproarious lines of dialogue are hurled at the audience so fast that they barely have time to latch onto the next funny line.

Some directors might start to alleviate the pace of the dialogue by the third act to let the audience breathe a little, but Wilder takes the opposite approach. As the situation intensifies, and the group of misfits struggle to get Otto (Horst Buchholz) ready for the meeting with the parents of Scarlett (Pamela Tiffin), the rapid-fire pace of dialogue actually increases. Mr. MacNamera (Cagney) scurries from room to room, talking on the phone with his wife and Scarlett’s father, and shouting in his office at his Coca-Cola employees, and all the while he never takes a moment to catch his breath.

Cagney is given the difficult task of maintaining that abnormally quick pace of saying his lines, but even more astounding is his focus. One never feels as if Cagney is forcing himself to say the lines any faster and louder than this character would, as the character is always consumed with his various conquests and interests. He is someone who has come to accept his various responsibilities, and his stressful lifestyle requires dialogue that moves at the speed of sound. The one moment in the entire film in which Mr. MacNamera has a moment of silence is in the final shot, when he stares into the camera. One gets a sense that the character has no intention to stop moving but instead is just waiting to see the audience go so that he can move on to his next important task.

Despite the speedy nature of the pace to the plot and dialogue, Wilder keeps the cinematography simple and the editing slow. He shoots the film almost like a drama, with wide angles and long takes. The camera always stays at eye-level, with no burdening camera angles. Wilder essentially wants the comedy to play out as is, without elements to distract the viewer from his clever screenplay. If he were to make the film more cinematic through his lighting and angles, the comedy would get lost. When Mr. MacNamera has phone conversations with Scarlett’s father, the shots are composed very simple, with a wide angle of Mr. MacNamera standing in the center of the frame, and a wide angle of Scarlett’s father sitting in the center of the frame. There are no alternate angles or close-ups to be found, only these two simple shots that cut back and forth to one another.

In terms of editing, Wilder keeps the amount of cuts to a minimum, not relying on the pace of the editing to contribute to the fast pace of the dialogue. The slow nature of the editing actually heightens the awareness of the speediness of the plot and dialogue. For example, in a scene where Mr. MacNamera articulates all he needs to make Otto ready for the big confrontation, Wilder lingers on Cagney for nearly a full minute, with not a single cut to be found. Other directors could easily make twenty cuts in this minute of film, but not Wilder; he understands that the matter-of-fact, stage-play approach to the scene makes it much funnier. When Mr. MacNamera and his secretary are flirting with each other, he lingers on one shot, letting their witty banter play out to hilarious effect. If he went in for close-ups, much of the comedy would disintegrate, and the viewer would be more focused on reactions than the dialogue. Wilder uses cuts only when he needs to.

To further complement the rapid-fire pace of the plot, Wilder uses repetition in a number of circumstances. Instantly the audience is treated to two funny gags — one in which all of Mr. MacNamera’s employees stand when he walks into the room, and one in which his assistant clicks his heels to confirm his attention. If Wilder let these two gags play out once respectively, they would be marginally funny. However, he uses repetition of the visual jokes to obtain the most laughs possible, because repetition takes the jokes to the point of absurdity.

Still, the characters feel natural in their actions — the repetition reinforces the character traits of those involved, like the assistant who clicks his heels. The character isn’t taking part in this peculiar act for laughs; he is instead completely ambivalent to his actions. The audience comes to enjoy the trait because it feels real to that character. Take the foolishness of Scarlett, for example. She is clearly the air-headed character of the bunch, but her stupidity always feels natural, never forced. When she claims that U.S.S.R. is short for Russia, Scarlett appears to really believe in what she is saying, rather than trying to deny the fact that she is a little on the idiotic side. The film’s repetitious gags also work to enforce the film’s pace. As the stakes rise to the highest level, the repetition becomes even faster, many times with the characters hardly noticing the repetitious traits of others. For example, in the first act of the film, Mr. MacNamera tells his assistant to stop clicking his heels. However, by the third act, he has simply stopped caring about the annoyance; he has other problems on his mind. Wilder never forgets to repeat the various gags, and in doing so adds more to the comedy.

Wilder cleverly uses three car chases in order to get some exterior action in the film, as well as pump up the humor visually. As funny as the dialogue and situations are inside the Coca-Cola company, Wilder understands he has to allow the audience to breathe a little by taking the action outside. Generally car chases are looked at in a negative context when it comes to movies; however, Wilder ingeniously drives the plot forward while allowing zany chases to occur.

The first car chase isn’t much of a chase at all, with cops pulling Otto over on the side of the road. This first small chase works as foreshadowing for the two major chases to come. In the second chase, Wilder pulls out all the stops, with terrific use of perspectives. He uses hilarious P.O.V. shots, as well as fast-moving tracking shots of the cars traveling past the camera. All of the camera angles work to add to the hilarious nature of the chase, which gets ridiculous by the end when one of the antagonists loses control of the car. Wilder could easily just have the second car smash into the Brandenberg Gate. However, he goes further in having the antagonist accidentally take out a part of the steering wheel, then the entire wheel itself. He screams, and then the car pummels into the gate. Wilder allows the comedy to play out, rather than just get the easy laugh of the car crashing.

The third car chase to the airport, at the very end of the film, works the most in terms of plot. Because of the nail-biting suspense of the situation, the laughs come faster and louder. The audience wants the group to make it to the airport in time, so laughing serves as catharsis for the intense situation. Wilder knows that the longer time it takes for the group to get to the airport, the more laughs he will be able to get from an audience emotionally drained by the anticipation.

Comedy works on a number of levels in One, Two, Three, and director Billy Wilder uses these four major techniques — fast-paced dialogue, assured cinematography and editing, repetition, and visually sumptuous car chases — meticulously blended together to form a hilarious motion picture. The film works as a generally funny comedy for audiences to sit back and enjoy, but it also works as an example for how to juggle so effortlessly these aforementioned techniques in comedies.

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