Tuesday, September 22, 2009

It Won't Have To Look For Us

When I think of A FISH CALLED WANDA the first thing that comes to mind is the laughter. See, I was working as an usher the summer of 1988 when it opened and I can remember, over the multiple weeks it played to packed houses, the near-hysteria that would erupt in the audience throughout the entire film. It became possible to pinpoint down to the second when the laughter would come and it was always enjoyable to watch whole sections of it because of that. It’s easy to forget now, but A FISH CALLED WANDA played for months from the summer into the fall, finally becoming the number one movie in the country a full ten weeks after it was released. And of course, the acclaim for the film led to multiple Academy Award nominations, not to mention Kevin Kline winning for Best Supporting Actor. Extremely funny throughout, the film is truly a high water mark for many of those involved, particularly star John Cleese who in his screenplay (from a story by him and director Charles Crichton), came up with the most complete and satisfying narrative of his career, a story where the pieces satisfyingly (and, in some cases, shockingly) come together like clockwork right up until the fadeout. Probably deserving of at least minor classic status, the film’s visibility feels like it’s faded in recent years. Maybe this type of comedy has fallen out of fashion or maybe it’s possible the way the film was put together is in some way responsible. After all, it’s hard to compete with the memory of being in the middle of an entire audience laughing uproariously.

A jewel heist is organized by mastermind George Thomason (Tom Georgeson) along with Ken Pile (Michael Palin), weapons man Otto (Kevin Kline) and beautiful Wanda Gershwitz (Jamie Lee Curtis) who is pretending to be George’s lover while secretly in cahoots with Otto. Once the job is done Otto and Wanda place an anonymous call to the police which gets George arrested so they can take the money for themselves (and which Wanda secretly plans to take for herself) but George has already hidden it away. Therefore, Wanda gets the idea to become friendly with George’s barrister Archie Leach (John Cleese, taking Cary Grant’s real name for his character) and use the situation to find out where the diamonds are. Meanwhile the stuttering Ken, a staunch animal rights activist, has to deal with the one witness to the crime who could put George away.

A complicated setup and there are plenty of elements I deliberately left out but everything goes together so well it makes the film an example of screenplay construction which should probably be studied more than it is. You could say it’s essentially an Ealing Studios comedy of the sort Crichton used to make back in the 50s made even more twisted courtesy of Cleese’s Python humor along with a willingness by those involved to make it a greater degree accessible (and, let’s be honest, commercial) than these films usually are, for better or worse. The plot holds together, the characters are well-drawn in this comic style (particularly in how the different combinations wind up interacting with each other) and the movie has no qualms about taking certain things to the extreme limit in pursuit of huge, savage laughs (it’s tempting to do nothing more than just list favorite scenes and lines). Not all of this will be appreciated by some people out there, but all of it works and it manages to be twisted and dark…but still all strangely likable.

Director Charles Crichton, one of the film’s Oscar nominees for his work, was in his late 70s at the time of filming and the deceptively simple style brought to the film gives it barely a single wasted shot or cut the entire time, knowing exactly where to frame certain setups to maximize the laughter. Much of the time things are played out in a single shot—he’ll never cut the shot if he can pan or tilt the camera to get the story point across—and this really lends to the feeling of the film’s four leads truly interacting with each other in their various combinations. The way this all goes together so seamlessly gives the impression that this could have been one of those films where you hear everything was pretty much cut in camera, so it’s a surprise to see so many deleted and alternate scenes on the DVD, displaying how far they had to go in tinkering with the main romance as well as the ending to find the right tone for the film. But the final product results in a construction that feels nearly airtight in addition to the laughs. And since the DVD shows us that even someone like John Cleese has to work at these things to get it just right, that gives hope for us all.

Such a narrative in a comedy feels like a lost art these days—I laughed throughout something like THE HANGOVER but a movie like that in comparison just feels like a bunch of scenes put together, as opposed to the expert construction here. And it’s not just madcap craziness either, as the film seems to have decided to make a few of these characters at least a little bit likable, particularly during Archie’s speech about how he and his fellow citizens of England are always “terrified of embarrassment” compared to the magical Wanda who is inexplicably (he thinks) attracted to him. This unabashedly endearing quality among the madness (which sometimes occurs moments later) sets WANDA apart from things like the earlier Cleese vehicle CLOCKWISE as well as the later Eric Idle vehicle SPLITTING HEIRS which also featured Cleese and at the time struck me as a unsuccessful attempt to make another WANDA-type effort. A FISH CALLED WANDA, unlike those other films, seems to be aware that the more satisfying story leads to more satisfying laughter and keeps it from being just a series of silly slapstick bits. Of course, some of the slapstick is priceless and the momentum it builds near the end up to its payoffs works hugely well.

The thing is however, compared with my memories of uproarious laughter, A FISH CALLED WANDA plays a little sparse when viewed at home. Multiple viewings always made it clear how much the film seemed to have been cut to allow for that audience laughter, maybe more so than a film usually would—the point when certain people walk in on Archie in an embarrassing situation is probably the most blatant example of this, but there are others throughout. Something like TOOTSIE, to use a very random example, can play great at home but maybe it’s the out-there broadness that causes WANDA to diminish at home and it’s never quite what I want it to be. In fairness, it doesn’t hurt the film too much in the end but it is does reveal how much this really was dependent on those audiences. That said, at it’s best A FISH CALLED WANDA is at times a hysterically funny British comedy with elements that come together to make it extremely satisfying.

The cast works wonderfully together. Cleese was very probably never better than he is here and Jamie Lee Curtis is possibly more beguiling than she ever was. The two work together very well and a certain fondness they share feels apparent, down to the laughter they seem to bring out in each other and it helps make the love story, which otherwise might be the most dreaded part of the movie, surprisingly believable and even a little touching. When Cleese is supposedly ignoring her as she talks to him during a driving scene late in the film it really looks like the actor is trying to keep from smiling, not the character. Oscar winner Kline is completely fearless in every fiber of his being as Otto and Michael Palin, who since he spends a fair amount of time in his own storyline could easily be forgotten is amazing with every bit of sadness and humiliation the character goes through. When he is desperately trying to blurt out a certain name near the end the absolute desperation in his face looks real, tragic…and absolutely hysterical. Maria Aitken has some very funny moments as Archie’s decidedly unpleasant wife and gets extra points for how she is able to spit out “Manfredjinsinjin” without missing a beat. The now-famous Stephen Fry turns up very briefly near the end. The score by John Du Prez forgoes the comedy and treats the whole things straight, varying from pounding suspense during the heist and action scenes to gentle lyricism for Archie and Wanda. The main theme heard over the end credits is extremely hummable and every time I see the film I can’t get it out of my head for days afterward.

The surprise success of the film led to a change in the career trajectory for most of those involved except for Crichton who, after his Oscar nomination for Best Director turned down all offers and chose to go out on top, dying in 1999 at the age of 89. The four stars reunited for 1997’s stillborn FIERCE CREATURES, an attempt to recapture the lightning in a bottle of WANDA that was unfortunately saddled with a weak concept and story, resulting in a film that went through so many reshoots that two directors wound up with screen credit in the end. That film is pretty much forgotten now, but A FISH CALLED WANDA is still around as one of the last great British comedies and will someday hopefully play somewhere on this planet with a large audience once again. I still get a great amount of enjoyment out of it, but it’ll never again be like seeing it with one of those audiences back in the summer of 1988.


Unknown said...

Ah, what an insanely quotable comedy! Along with THE PRINCESS BRIDE, a film that I watched endlessly until a I wore out the VHS tape it was on. And you're right about its airtight structure and execution as opposed to many comedies of today. Will people be quoting THE HANGOVER ten years from now? Doubtful. But you'll still find fans of A FISH CALLED WANDA. There is a certain timeless quality to it which is why it still holds up today.

Man, I haven't watched this film in ages. After watching it so much I kinda got sick of it and had to take a break from it for a few years but your post has got me jonesin' to pull out the DVD and give it another spin. It has been too long...

le0pard13 said...

Oh, it's been ages since I've taken this in! And you're quite right, this is a timeless comedy. Thanks for the look back, Mr. Peel.

p.s., J.D. is correct, too. The Princess Bride and this are such classics.

Unknown said...

Back in the early 90's, a friend of mine and myself used to generate endless amusement by imitating Ken trying to say "the Cathcart Arms Hotel".

"The Caaaa ... The Caaaa ..."

BR said...

Thanks for the tip about "Fierce Creatures"!