The 2012 London Olympics are in full-swing so I’m celebrating all things British with a 3 part rundown of some of our finest films, covering the genres of Comedy, Horror and Kitchen Sink Realism.
This is in part a rebuke to the overrated waffle that is Chariots of Fire, a film annoyingly held up as the epitome of what British cinema has to offer. Nonsense. The 3 movies I have chosen each demonstrate a particular facet of the British character whilst standing up as genuine classics in their own right. My Gold Medal for Comedy goes to the side-splittingly hilarious, A Fish Called Wanda from 1988.
Picture the scene. Seductive jewel thief Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis) is coming onto uptight barrister Archie Leach (John Cleese) at his London house in order to ascertain the whereabouts of her stolen loot. Having popped out to fetch the champagne, Cleese returns to the room, only to find the woman on the sofa isn’t actually Wanda. It’s his wife Wendy (Maria Aitken), who has, unbeknownst to Archie, returned home.
Cleese’s subsequent scream of anguished terror so perfectly matches the anxiety felt by the audience that it induces roars of laughter. It’s among several beautifully farcical scenes in the classic comedy A Fish Called Wanda, a huge hit on release and one that continues to hold up as a masterclass in comedy acting, not just on Cleese’s part but the whole cast.
But let’s backtrack somewhat. Following the end of Monty Python, Cleese had come up with his own script, co-written by feted Ealing director Charles Crichton: a blackly comic farce centering around strained Anglo-American relations in the wake of a diamond heist gone wrong. Wanda (Curtis), Otto (Kevin Kline) and stuttering Ken (Michael Palin) are the robbers, who make off with a cache of diamonds at the start of the film.
However, both Wanda and Otto are double-crossed by Ken and their partner in crime George (Tom Georgeson) when it’s revealed they have moved the diamonds to another location. Wanda takes it upon herself to seduce George’s barrister, Archie (Cleese) in order to discover where the diamonds are located, a plan that induces a great deal of jealousy in English-hating Otto. There’s also the slight problem of the old woman with her Yorkshire terriers, who spotted the gang fleeing the scene …
The script prepared, Cleese needed a director. Fittingly for a screenplay that hearkens back to classic farce, Cleese decided to enlist Crichton as director too. Veteran of The Lavender Hill Mob, The Titfield Thunderbolt and many others, Crichton hadn’t directed a feature film since 1965 and was in his late 70s when the film went into production. Reportedly, Cleese signed on as co-director but eventually ceded full credit to Crichton himself.
It was a wise move, especially given Crichton’s background in editing as well as directing. If anyone could give the movie the snappy, Ealing-esque punch it needed, this was the man. The icing on the cake was the pitch-perfect cast: Curtis (signed because of her performance in John Landis’ Trading Places); Kline (who scooped an Oscar for his scene-stealing turn); and Python cohort Palin (who won a BAFTA).
The end result is a movie with the perfect script, the perfect director and the perfect cast, one which juxtaposes vulgarity and subtle wordplay, outrageousness and romance, subtle and not-so-subtle Anglo-American rivalry. Each performance is beautifully modulated and rib-tickling, from Curtis’ Wanda who has the men eating out of her hand to Palin’s stuttering animal lover who ends up with chips up his nose.
However, the biggest surprise at the time was Kline, an actor whose comic chops at that point were untapped. It wouldn’t be remiss to suggest that Otto runs away with the film, a man with a hatred of right hand drive (resulting in many an angry cry of ‘asshole!’ directed at passing motorists), and a contempt of polite etiquette (‘I love robbing the English – they’re so polite’). He also hates being called ‘stupid’ but don’t tell him that.
But the real joy of the film lies in that self-effacing British manner: the fact that we can laugh ourselves silly at other cultures but we can also laugh just as hard at ourselves. In the film, the limeys are just as bumbling as the yanks – an attempt by Archie to rob his own house (the reasons are convoluted) is foiled by Otto who believes he’s catching a burglar in the act. Elsewhere, Ken’s attempts to dispatch the elderly witness result in the film’s most famous sight gag as he ends up masochistically slaughtering her dogs during each assassination attempt.
The film is a wonder of tightly plotted absurdity, capable of coarseness (‘You’re the vulgarian, you f**k!’) and tenderness (the burgeoning Wanda-Archie relationship) in equal measure. One underrated aspect is Aitken’s wonderful performance as Cleese’s shrewish, overbearing wife, a merciless yet loving send-up of English stuffiness (‘You can stick this marriage right in your bottom!’) All of the actors thrive under Crichton’s snappy direction, and all demonstrate crack comic timing.
It could hardly have been predicted but A Fish Called Wanda was a massive worldwide success, eventually grossing more than $60 million worldwide against a $7 million budget. Besides the aforementioned awards for the performances, Crichton was awarded an Oscar-nomination for Best Director and both Crichton and Cleese received another nomination for their screenplay.
It was vindication for a celebrated director but it was also vindication for a modestly budgeted but hysterically funny British tale of murder, lust, greed revenge and seafood.