A Fish Called Wanda
UK (1988) Dir. Charles Crichton
Like most people my age, I saw this film when it came out but only saw the “classic” scenes in the ensuing years, so this was a rewatch of the full film after 33 years. It’s nice to see those clips in context again as well as being reacquainted with the whole story, but there is also the danger of its humour not holding up in a modern environment.
In London, gangster George Thomason (Tom Georgeson) teams up with animal loving stutterer Ken Pile (Michael Palin), American weapons expert Otto West (Kevin Kline) and his con artist lover Wanda Gershwitz (Jamie Lee Curtis) for a heist in Hatton Gardens. They steal jewellery worth millions which George locks away in a safe in a garage. But George doesn’t trust Otto and moves the loot to somewhere else.
True to his suspicions, lovers Otto and Wanda have set George up and report him to the police but George had Ken hide the key to the locker where the loot is. However, Wanda saw Ken hide it and steals the key but doesn’t know the location of the locker, but has a plan. Pretending to be a law student, Wanda sets out to seduce George’s lawyer, Archie Leach (John Cleese) to get the information, but a jealous Otto keeps ruining things.
You can tell John Cleese wrote the script for A Fish Called Wanda as it contains traces of his classic sitcom Fawlty Towers, from the sarcastic wordplay to the farcical physicality that made up that great show. I guess the other tell-tell sign was how he cast himself in the lead role and gets to romp with Jamie Lee Curtis for half the film but I digress.
Due to the advanced age of the legendary Charles Crichton, Cleese was standby-director for insurance purposes, but Crichton lasted the course and Wanda would be his last film although he died a decade later. Subsequently, there is an old school charm to this film even for 1988, but is no means too much of a throwback that feels dated. Even today, it has an energy and bite to it that will appeal to modern audiences, even if some its other facets are a little questionable by today’s standards.
Obviously, this is in the treatment of Ken’s stammer as a comedy device which wouldn’t hang today. The key is it makes the teasers, mostly Otto, a complete heel for mocking him for it, and in one late scene, Archie loses his temper with Ken’s inability to speak. It goes some way to making Ken the sympathetic innocent of the group though his actions don’t often corroborate this.
For example, Ken is an animal lover but animals don’t like him. His main role in the story, aside from being the only one George trusts, is to take out an elderly witness who could send George to prison (the late great Patricia Hayes). She is a snappy but weak old lady with her three dogs, and the running gag is every attempt on her life by Ken ends up with one of her pets suffering, which breaks Ken every time!
And for the deranged Otto, the tank of pet fish, including the titular Wanda, is a handy way of dragging vital information out of Ken when violence fails to work. For the record, the fish Otto ate were made of jelly although Kevin Kline did offer to eat real ones, he was fortunately refused. The chips that went up Ken’s nose were real though, and in an unfortunate twist, a Danish cinemagoer laughed himself to death at this scene!
Back to the main plot and it revolves around Wanda’s attempts to get info out of Archie and Otto foiling them. They pose as brother and sister but are in fact lovers. This doesn’t stop Wanda also sleeping with George and using her feminine wiles on Ken or anyone who will fall for them. Given how times have changed, whilst Wanda is not a helpless, airheaded female, the role is pretty much one designed for the male gaze, and her frequent states of undress or revealing clothes will get the female vote.
Conversely, Wanda’s weakness for the Italian (and Russian) language as an aphrodisiac is a sort of table turner as she writhes uncontrollably under its spell, fortunately being more funny than erotic. However, this also exposes the men for being shallow enough to fall for it, especially Archie, a respected barrister, husband to Wendy (Maria Aitken) and father to Portia (Cynthia Cleese).
He falls in love with this vivacious temptress Wanda because she is fun, lively, and pays him attention unlike Wendy who does nothing but complains endlessly, whilst Portia is spoiled. Whereas Cleese pretty much resurrected Basil Fawlty for 1986’s Clockwise as manic headmaster Mr. Stimpson, Archie is more the chasten and henpecked side of Basil when under Sybil’s thumb, yet the script still has him run around like a loony!
Putting aside the politically incorrect or dubious content that hasn’t weathered changes in attitudes, the script is full wickedly funny barbs and gags that remain as potent as they did in 1988, whilst the driving force is Kevin Kline’s Oscar winning performance as Otto, the unhinged alpha male whose jealousy, Anglophobic leanings and anathema at being called stupid. A classic movie comedy character.
Meanwhile, Cleese won a BAFTA for his role, and yes Archie Leach was intentional as he wanted to pay tribute to Cary Grant (Leach was his real name), and Michael Palin won a BAFTA for playing Ken. Trivia note – Palin’s father had a stammer and after this film, Palin founded the London Centre for Stammering Children after being praised for the sensitivity he brought to his portrayal.
So, does A Fish Called Wanda still deserve a place as classic British comedy in today’s environment Absolutely! Films that are more contentious are still highly regarded so should this one. Still sharp and snappy after all these years!