A Fish Called Wanda Review
There are many ways of triggering laughs in films and these very often depend on where a movie is made. Two such examples, usually put at the two ends of the comedy scale, are American humour, represented by directors like the Farrelly brothers (There’s Something about Mary), Judd Apatow (40 year-old Virgin) or Seth McFarlane (Ted), and British humour, represented by directors like Richard Curtis (who wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill before becoming a director himself with Love Actually). The former is usually, especially more recently, considered as vulgar whereas the latter is generally regarded as more sophisticated. In 1988, ex-Monty Python John Cleese, based on his experience of making films on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean,, decided with the help of one of his ex-partners Michael Palin (Monty Python and the Holy Grail) and veteran director Charles Crichton (The Lavender Mob) to bring to the screen their vision and shock of the two Anglophone cultures with one of the best comedies of the 80s: the absurdly named A Fish Called Wanda.
Cleese plays Archie Leach, a weak-willed barrister who finds himself embroiled with a quartet of ill-matched jewel thieves - two American con artists played by Jamie Lee Curtis (Trading Places) and Kevin Kline (Cry Freedom), Michael Palin’s animal-loving hitman and London gangster Tom Georgeson (Notes on a Scandal) – when Georgeson is arrested. Only he and Palin know the whereabouts of the diamonds, prompting plenty of farce and in-fighting as well as some embarrassing nudity and the unfortunate demise of some innocent pooches…
A Fish Called Wanda is an impressive screenwriting effort from Cleese. While the audience is led to believe that they are watching a police comedy, the plots and sub-plots involving these more or less stupid thieves are slowly relegated to the background and straight after the efficiently shot jeweller robbery the clash of cultures begins. Cleese’s script definitely doesn’t shy away from all the clichés such as the brilliant lawyer vs. the stupid big-mouth ex-CIA agent, the American vamp vs. the stuck-up British wife. Actually, Cleese seems to take an obvious pleasure in going all out, and it works perfectly. A good example is the fact that the many of the scenes involving Otto behaving like a caricature of stupid American still remains a pleasure, even after the fifteenth viewing.
Even more impressive, in addition to being a satire of two opposing lifestyles, A Fish Called Wanda is also a crazy romantic comedy. This miraculously got shaped by last minute reshoots following a screening attended by legend screenwriter Robert Town (Chinatown) and the advice he subsequently gave Cleese. It also helped define the British romantic comedy genre made popular in the early 90s by Four Weddings and a Funeral (the impossible love story between a quirky American and a goofy, slightly uptight Brit...). But before the somewhat minor reshoots, the emotions also comes from acute observation, and the honesty, of Cleese, especially when he literally gets naked in explaining to Wanda how heavy the weight of being a respectable Englishman is, making their impossible love story even more touching.
Since its release - which was extremely successful to the point of spawning a shamefully underrated false sequel in 1997, Fierce Creatures - A Fish Called Wanda has been able to acquire cult comedy status, surely because of its memorable characters. In addition to the aforementioned Archie and Otto, Cleese had the genius idea to give the key role of Ken, the stuttering animal lover, to Palin (he actually even built the whole film after imagining a stuttering scene between his and Palin’s character). Finally Curtis, in the title role of Wanda, perfectly completes this quartet by bringing the right amount of charm and astuteness to turn the heads of all the male protagonists.
A Fish Called Wanda is released in the UK by Arrow Video on 18 September.
The film is presented in a brand-new 4K restoration from the original negative, produced by Arrow Films exclusively for this release. The 1080p transfer respects the original 1.37:1 ratio. Overall the quality of the image is very good, and it’s a pleasure to rediscover the movie in such great condition after numerous TV reruns. I haven’t noticed an issues, scratches or dirt.
On the sound side, the Blu-ray disc features the original English mono uncompressed LPCM audio. Again it’s not mind-blowing but allows a nice viewing experience. I haven’t noticed any defects or distortions. The disc also features optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing.
The disc created by Arrow Video is packed with new and archival extras.
Audio Commentary with John Cleese (no subtitles) - In this audio commentary, recorded for an earlier release of the movie on DVD, Cleese discusses many aspects of the movie from the origins to the final reshoots, through to the choice of director Charles Crichton and the other main actors. Throughout, he provides insightful anecdotes for instance about the actors’ improvisations, the locations or the reshoots. This is a good audio commentary but it suffers a little bit from the often long pauses in between Cleese’s insights.
John Cleese’s First Farewell Performance (48 min, no subtitles) - This is a 1998 documentary on the making of the film. There are extracts of the Heathrow shoot for the last scenes of the film and various rehearsals. It also features interviews, by Iain Johnstone, of mainly Cleese (who appears as the “star” of the documentary) where he discusses his writing techniques, the reception of Clockwise, the choice of the other actors, his career and future plans, and of other cast members: Michael Palin, Kevin Kline, Jamie Leigh Curtis, and director Charles Crichton. This is an interesting extra allowing us to witness Cleese, and the rest of the cast and crew, during the rehearsals of some of the key scenes of the film.
Something Fishy (30 min, no subtitles) - This is a 15th Anniversary retrospective documentary divided into chapters revolving around John Cleese, Charles Crichton, the screenplay, the cast, the shoot, the sex scene and the reshoots. It features the four main actors and Producer Michael Shamberg, Executive Producer Steve Abbott, Director of Photography Alan Hume. Interesting but obviously a little redundant with the audio commentary and archival making-of.
Brand-new appreciation by Vic Pratt of the BFI National Archive (17 min, no subtitles) - This interview was recorded exclusively for this new release. Pratt focusses on the Ealing comedies, linking Cleese and Crichton, and puts them in perspective with the onset of the project. He also discusses the English vs. American characters’ aspect of the film, and in doing so tries to explain the hit reception of A Fish Called Wanda, and the impact of the film on other British comedies. This is a very pertinent analysis of the film and Pratt is an interesting person to listen to.
Interview with Roger Murray-Leach (7 min, no subtitles) - In this brand new interview, the Production Designer discusses working with Crichton (especially the level of visual details he had in mind for certain scenes) and provides some interesting anecdotes about some of the sequences of the film.
On Location (16 min, no subtitles) - This is a documentary on the film’s locations hosted by Robert Powell (Harlequin). It also features critique from Film Expert Mark Adams. The interviews are again, very redundant, and in Powell’s case too staged, but still interesting for the great alternative scene between Cleese and Palin, and if you appreciate seeing the shooting locations of a film in a familiar city.
A Message from John Cleese (5 min, no subtitles) - This is a very funny introduction recorded for the film’s original release.
Deleted and alternative scenes (29 min, no subtitles) - This is a collection of 24 deleted or alternative scenes, some VERY funny, with introductions by Cleese, and which were included on the previous DVD release.
Finally the disc also offers a trivia track which delivers anecdotes of various interest in between Nietzsche’s quotes, a gallery of pictures, and the theatrical trailer of the film.
There is no trace, on the Blu-ray disc, of the brand-new interviews with Composer John Du Prez, Executive Producer Steve Abbott, and Make-up Supervisor Paul Engelen as advertised on the press release…