Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

Monday, August 11, 2014

Never Trust The Charms Of A Disreputable Wanda

Some links to see to before I get started today. Norma was busy at her blogs, writing about future works, with excerpts from an upcoming memoir and from the point of view of her late parakeet Sam. Yesterday was a Sunday, so we had a Snippet Sunday post at our joint blog. Krisztina is now living in San Antonio. Cheryl writes about damage to a tree. And Whisk has another Red Shirt Sunday post at her page.

Now then, today I have a film review for a classic comedy....

"Oh, right! To call you stupid would be an insult to stupid people! I've known sheep that could outwit you. I've worn dresses with higher IQs. But you think you're an intellectual, don't you, ape?" ~ Wanda
"Apes don't read philosophy." ~ Otto
"Yes they do, Otto. They just don't understand it. Now let me correct you on a couple of things, OK? Aristotle was not Belgian. The central message of Buddhism is not Every man for himself. And the London Underground is not a political movement. Those are all mistakes, Otto. I looked them up." ~ Wanda

"I offer a complete and utter retraction. The imputation was totally without basis in fact, and was in no way fair comment, and was motivated purely by malice, and I deeply regret any distress that my comments may have caused you, or your family, and I hereby undertake not to repeat any such slander at any time in the future." ~ Archie

 "Hey, I've lost my stutter. It's gone. I can speak. How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?" ~ Ken

A Fish Called Wanda is the 1988 black comedy playing off Anglo-American differences, the backstabbing of crooks, and a proper yet naive Englishman being subjected to endless pratfalls and humiliations. It brings together two members of the Monty Python group with two American actors in a deliciously devious tale about low morals with a marvelous sense of humour. Director Charles Crichton helmed the film, after a decades long career in British film and television, including the classic The Lavender Hill Mob, and co-wrote the screenplay with John Cleese of the Pythons.

The story opens up with a meeting of thieves led by George (Tom Georgeson), an English crook who seems perpetually about to blow up. His English cohort is Ken (Michael Palin), a stuttering fellow who has a devotion to animal rights and an aquarium tank full of fish, one of which he's named after George's American girlfriend Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis). She's accompanied by Otto (Kevin Kline), who she's passing off as her brother, though they are anything but siblings. Otto thinks of himself as a bright guy, reading philosophy and commenting with regularity about why he dislikes the English. The gang carry out the theft of millions of dollars in diamonds. In the aftermath, Otto and Wanda sell out George, tipping off the police about him. Their attempt to take all the loot for themselves, however, goes awry by the fact that George has already moved it. 

George is content to remain behind bars, hiring Archie Leach (Cleese) to represent him in court. He warns Otto and Wanda that if he thought anyone might have sold him out, he might be inclined to speak to the police. And he dispatches Ken to take out the one witness who can place him in the crime. Wanda decides to get to know Archie, reasoning that he might find out where George has hidden the loot. And Otto being Otto, he gets very jealous, very antagonistic, and very stupid.

Cleese and Crichton wrote the story together, playing off the cultural difference between Americans and the English throughout the screenplay. They were already on the story long before production; Cleese was thinking about it when he co-starred in Silverado with Kline, who was one of the leads of that western, and asked Kline to take part in the idea he had in mind. Their story has a delightfully twisted sense of humour that goes darker as things go along. The characters for the most part have little in the way of ethics, and yet we can't help but like them, even if they're doing awful things. That's one of the strengths of the writing, which remains sharp and clever every single time I've seen the movie. The film received awards and nominations on both sides of the Atlantic, and is still acclaimed today as one of the truly great comedies. It's part of a genre- the heist comedy- that I find such a pleasure, and this one goes over the top. Crichton helms the film like a master, assembling a great cast and pacing the story beautifully. The film never drags, even in sequences that feature two people simply talking to each other. 

The casting is crucial to the film's success. Maria Aitkin plays Archie's harpy wife Wendy, and was nominated for a BAFTA for her performance. She's a shrew, an unpleasant person who seems more concerned with social appearance (she's the one in the marriage with the money) than with her husband's happiness or what's going on in his professional life. It's a mark of her performance that we dislike the character and yet like the actress. It's a character we wouldn't want to get on our bad side. Playing their daughter is Cynthia Cleese, John's daughter. She plays Portia (who Otto thinks is named after a car) as a completely self absorbed shallow twit. We feel great sympathy for Archie, long suffering in a family that makes us an audience feel he deserves better. Tom Georgeson is a wonderful foil as George. He spends most of the film in police custody, and comes across in nearly every word he speaks as a very angry man. By very angry, I mean that he gives you the impression of being a bomb ready to go off. It's left to the audience to wonder just what'll set him off.

The four leads are perfect in their roles. All four actors are natural scene stealers, and it's hard to pick a favourite out of them. Michael Palin of course is a veteran of the Python team, and in the years after Python has spent a good deal of his time travelling the world for the BBC (check out some of his documentaries if you haven't). It's a bit ironic that he doesn't share too much screen time with his fellow Python alumnus Cleese, but that might have been for the best; their first scene together is a marvel of patience and impatience in one person. Palin brings perfect comedic timing to his role as Ken. It's a role that would no doubt annoy advocates for stutterers, but it's uproariously funny. He is beyond annoyed with Otto, who teases him in endless ways, bets him that he won't kill an old lady, and questions him in a decidedly malicious way. Ken spends the bulk of the film trying to off the one witness who can finger George for the crime, which of course in a film like this means things go spectacularly awry in increasingly awful ways... and it makes it all the more hilarious. For an actor like Palin, who's never had a speech impediment, to play the stutterer had to be a challenge. There are two moments in the film when it goes away: when Wanda kisses him and when he manages in the end to get his revenge.

Kevin Kline won Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars for his take as Otto. It's a well deserved award, of course. He plays Otto as a dumb man who thinks he's smart, who reads nihilistic philosophy and doesn't seem to understand when he's wrong. He takes offense when anyone points out his mistakes, saying repeatedly, "don't call me stupid", even when he so painfully is. He speaks in Italian (even singing) because he knows it turns Wanda on, but he's also a jealous lover, letting his jealousy get in the way of the plan. He's like a child at times, petulant at not getting his way, not thinking things through. And at the same time he is dangerous- he knows his way around guns, tends to take things personally, and knows how to get information out of people the rough way. There's one brief moment when he gets past his innate stupidity and shows a spark of  cleverness- he tricks his opponent into setting a gun down for a fist fight, only to pick up the gun. It doesn't last long. His Otto is a loudmouth, railing at the world like a deranged lunatic... and yet Kline is clearly having a ball with the role. It's a great part for him.

Jamie Lee Curtis is also having a ball through the film, playing the underhanded backstabbing American thief. She's aroused by the sound of foreign languages- Otto's Italian does it for her, but so does Archie's knowledge of Russian. She's devious and seductive, not quite amoral, though. While she's perfectly willing to doublecross everyone else in the gang, she finds herself liking this stuffy English barrister she meets, despite the fact that he doesn't really have money of his own. She has terrific chemistry with Cleese, and that comes across whenever they're on screen together.

Cleese also has fun with his character, even if he's being subjected to pratfalls, humiliations, and other abuse (that for an actor can be rewarding). He starts out as a completely proper Englishman, not particularly appreciated at home, settled into a middle age life of being a lawyer. He's somewhat naive- he actually thinks his client is innocent, and has no idea that Wanda is playing him. And yet because his home life is so unwelcome for us to watch, we don't mind at all to see him get seduced out of it. He shows a remarkable calm under pressure- such as being dangled out of a window or held at gunpoint- and he thinks quickly on his feet as things go along and he finds himself deciding that the shady side of life isn't such a bad place to be.

The cast reunited years later for Fierce Creatures, which played off some of the same Anglo-American tensions but went in different directions. There were knowing nods to the first film, including some of the same supporting cast turning up. The end result doesn't measure up to A Fish Called Wanda, but how could it? It's an interesting counterpart nonetheless. As to this film? It's my favourite all time comedy, one that stays fresh every single time I watch it. It has plenty of oh dear God, did they actually do that moments, some morally challenged characters, and a delightfully twisted sense of humour that is totally irreverent. If you haven't seen it, you must remedy that post haste.

Just close your eyes when the little dogs are about on screen. Don't say I didn't warn you.


  1. Excellent review William, I remember enjoying this movie very much.. stellar cast!

  2. Nice review! I vaguely remember this film but not as fondly as you!

  3. Another 80s film I hadn't seen? Well, it was 88, so I have to forgive myself as we were overseas in Iwakuni, Japan and had all of one (1) English speaking channel, the military channel to watch.

    I'll have to check it out. Sounds like fun!

  4. One of my favorite movies,everyone in it was so good. It's one of those films we tend to quote from around my house quite often: "Oh No! It's K K K K Ken coming to k k k kill me!"

  5. I did see it, but don't think I appreciated all it had to offer at the time. I should see it again and your review has peaked and piqued my interest. John Cleese is always a ham and there's no one like him although Ricky Gervais is trying.

  6. Fantastic review! I first saw this one in Australia in the theater and it remains one of my absolute favorites. I still remember sitting in front of two little old ladies and their scandalized reaction when Wanda says "Even if you were my brother I'd still want to f**k you," to Otto. They got up and left!

  7. Good review! I liked this movie a lot. Think I'll watch it again.

  8. @Grace: thank you!

    @Cheryl: thanks!

    @Diane: you must see it.

    @Lisa: "R...r...revenge!"

    @Eve: he surely is a ham.

    @Lisa: oh, that would be priceless to see that. I'm amazed they stayed through that much of the movie...

    @Lynn: thank you!

  9. I saw this ages ago, but I don't think I particularly appreciated it at the time. Might have to check it out again!

  10. I've heard of this movie but I've never seen it. Great review!

  11. Great review, as always. I saw this movie a long time ago. I thought it was okay but didn't fall in love with it.

  12. Okay, I actually did see this one. Of course, it was so long ago I don't really remember it. ;)

  13. Now you've done it again. I missed this movie - back in the day I was too busy for frivolous pursuits - so I shall have to find a copy and watch it. Thanks a lot!

  14. I've never ever watched this movie. Good review though. But not my cup of tea.

  15. This is one of those movies that we had on repeat throughout my youth. Just absolute love it. :)


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