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What's the big deal?
A Fish Called Wanda is a comedic heist film released in 1988 and was co-written and directed by Charles Crichton, making this the final film of his long career. The film follows a gang of jewel thieves who begin to double-cross each other after the loot is stolen by the gang's leader. The film stars John Cleese (who also co-wrote the film), Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Palin and Kevin Kline who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance, one of three Academy Award nominations the film achieved. Released to widespread critical acclaim, the film went on to win audiences over with earnings in the US of $62.5 million and topped the box office six weeks after its release. The film was followed by a spiritual sequel called Fierce Creatures in 1997 but it failed to make the same impression as this film.
What's it about?
Career criminal George Thomason is planning a jewel heist together with his right-hand-man Ken Pile, a stuttering animal-rights supporter and two Americans: weapons expert Otto West and con artist Wanda Gershwitz. The theft itself goes like clockwork and the group stash the diamonds in a safe hidden at a rundown warehouse. However, Otto and Wanda (who are secretly lovers) decide to betray George and make off with the loot themselves. Giving Goerge's name to the police, they return to the warehouse but discover that the diamonds have already been moved to another location.
Desperate to recover the diamonds, Wanda decides to seduce George's barrister -the heavily repressed Archie Leach - who falls for her charms almost instantly, in an effort to work out where the diamonds are. Otto, meanwhile, finds his short fuse being increasingly tested which results in random outbursts of violence while Ken is ordered by George to kill the only witness to the crime - the frail and elderly Mrs Coady. If only things were that simple...
Jamie Lee Curtis
Release Date (UK)
14th October, 1988
Best Supporting Actor (Kline)
Academy Award Nominations
Best Director, Best Original Screenplay
What's to like?
Without question, this is the strongest non-Python collaboration ever produced by members of the Monty Python team. A Fish Called Wanda is a hilarious comedy of the sort you rarely see these days, a deliberate throwback to the farcical Ealing Studio comedies of the post-war era like The Ladykillers or Passport To Pimlico. Cleese, playing the most straight-faced character in the film, is the embodiment of British repression and sparks off well with Curtis as the impossibly vampish Wanda and the brilliant Kline as the psychotic Otto. In fact, all the cast deliver fantastic performances - even Palin's stuttering sidekick Ken is a remarkable piece of acting given the obvious complexities that come with the role. Crucially, they all interact with each other in different ways that sometimes evolve during the movie which not only makes this feel smarter than many of its contemporaries but also, weirdly, more believable despite the over-the-top nature of the narrative.
But the film belongs to Kline whose performance is a riot from start to finish - after all, when was the last winner of an acting Oscar who appeared in a comedic role? From his unforgettable love scene with Curtis to his foul-mouthed tirade with Cleese, he throws himself into the role with such aplomb that you can't imagine anyone else doing it justice. The script isn't afraid to take challenges or dumb itself down and unlike so many other comedies I could mention, doesn't resort to toilet humour or bodily functions. But the laughs are there on screen so you don't have to go looking for them or pay attention to crisply delivered one-liners because it's an easy film to watch.
- Cleese and Crichton initially tried to produce a film together back in 1969 but the project fell through. Reuniting in 1983, the pair began work on this film - Cleese's only idea was to have a man with a stutter trying to share important information while Crichton's was to see a man ran over by a steamroller.
- During the film's theatrical run in Denmark, a man named Ole Bentzen actually died due to laughing too hard during the interrogation scene when Palin's character has chips shoved up his nose. His heart rate ran to between 250-500 beats a minute and he died of cardiac arrest.
- Cleese chose the name Archie Leach - Cary Grant's real name - for two reasons. Firstly, Cleese was born just twenty miles away from where Grant was born and secondly, Cleese claimed that the role would be the closest he would ever get to being Cary Grant.
- Palin's father stuttered so Palin made sure to include his own experiences of that in his role such as Ken only stuttering around people he didn't like. He later founded the London Centre for Stammering Children after his performance.
What's not to like?
Sadly, not all of the humour has dated well but that's to be expected. But aside from British viewers playing "spot the cameo", I can't think of much I didn't like. My only real gripe is that the film manages to balance the crime with the comedy but that only means that the movie isn't as funny as you'd hope for all the time. It's as though the comedy has to stop and explain where we are in the story, which does get a little convoluted in places. There is also a noticeable amount of humour derived from poking fun at the British which, given Cleese's later comments on subjects like immigration and Brexit, suddenly take on a new meaning.
But generally speaking, this is an excellent comedy that offers a gentle change of pace from the slew of teenage sex comedies and uninspired parody films we tend to get these days. It harks back to a time when comedy wasn't just about grossing your audience out but genuinely making them laugh through performance, dialogue and situation. It's the perfect riposte to something like American Pie which feels crude, unimaginative and misogynist by comparison.
Should I watch it?
As enjoyable as it is old-fashioned, A Fish Called Wanda is a wonderfully paced and brilliantly performed comedy that can't help but delight. It just feels so different from many comedies we tend to see these days but here is one film that happily engages with you and entertains without resorting to cheap tactics. Kline steals the show but all cast members bring their A-game to this picture which is a fitting tribute to director Crichton, a veteran who delivered possibly his best picture with his last ever film.
Great For: viewers tired of endless teen comedies, intelligent people like yourself, British audiences
Not So Great For: people with a stammer, anyone hoping for more surrealist comedy a la Monty Python
What else should I watch?
Is it hyperbole to compare A Fish Called Wanda to those classic Ealing comedies of the 1940's and 1950's just because director Crichton worked on them? Possibly but the style of the film is perfectly in keeping with the likes of Crichton's earlier films like The Lavender Hill Mob, albeit with much more swearing and a more modern approach to live, death, sex and everything else. My personal favourite remains The Ladykillers, a black comedy about a gang of bank robbers intent on bumping off the landlady of their rented hideout. Not only does it knock spots off the Coen brothers remake of the same name but also features Pink Panther co-stars Herbert Lom and Peter Sellers as well as Alec Guinness in a wonderfully slimy role as the ringleader.
British heist films differ from their American counterparts by often featuring characters relying on wit and cunning rather than explosive set pieces. Examples I enjoyed include Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels as well as The Italian Job and The Return Of The Pink Panther - for my money, the funniest in the whole series. Having said that, the Yanks are occasionally successful in imitating our style of thievery - consider the remake of Ocean's Eleven and The Sting which sees Paul Newman and Robert Redford team up again as a couple of con men.
© 2019 Benjamin Cox