Blog Directory CineVerse: Wanda's wicked ways

Wanda's wicked ways

Friday, June 24, 2016

How do we love "A Fish Called Wanda"? Let us count the ways – John Cleese, Michael Palin, Kevin Kline, Jaime Lee pretty much don't need more than those 4 reasons. Unless you also count the invaluable contributions of Ealing Studios veteran director Charles Critchton, whose gift for cinematic comedic timing cannot be overestimated. Here's a film with levity aplenty that can appeal to audiences on both sides of the Atlantic and hold up quite nicely over nearly 3 decades. Consider these merits:

It combines both British and American styles and sensibilities, lampooning both cultures with ample political incorrectness for our amusement. The casting of two Monty Python alums juxtaposed with two American actors with a keen gift for comedy was shrewd.
The lead actor, John Cleese, known for making us laugh so hard in previous Monty Python creations, plays the straight man here – he’s funny, but he is arguably not the funniest character in the film.
This movie is imbued with the spirit and heritage of Ealing Studios – the British film company responsible for so many classic British comedy masterpieces, including The Lavender Hill Mob, Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Ladykillers, and The Man in the White Suit.
o The director is Charles Chrichton, an Ealing veteran who also helmed The Lavender Hill Mob (which is somewhat similar to Wanda in its colorful characters and crime caper comedy convolutions).
o Cleese said in his recorded commentary on the DVD that Chrichton allowed scenes to play out organically with as few cuts and camera moves as possible – permitting the actors to create a good comic rhythm without being interrupted by editing or flashy camera moves.
o As Roger Ebert put it: “(Chrichton) understands why it is usually funnier not to say something, and the audience know what is not being said, then to simply blurt it out and hope for a quick laugh. He is a specialist in providing his characters with venal, selfish, shameful traits and then embarrassing them. And he is a master at the humiliating moment of public unmasking.”
Ebert also said one of this film’s strengths is “its meanspiritedness. Hollywood may be able to make comedies about mean people…but only in England are the sins of vanity, greed and lust treated with the comic richness they deserve.”
It introduces its four main characters quickly and efficiently within the first few minutes of the movie – without the need for unnecessary dialogue or exposition. Consider how we first see Otto, sleeping with a copy of Nietzsche’s book on his chest and awakening suddenly by the alarm clock, which he proceeds to shoot with the gun; at first, he appears confused and disoriented, but then smiles and nods, confirming that shooting the clock was the right decision. Immediately, the audience understand Otto’s character and its quirks.
It cuts right to the chase at the start of the film by depicting the jewel theft; often, caper comedies depict the actual crime much later in the movie – building up to it with comedic episodes and light suspense.

Role playing and play acting to deceive others.
Shifting loyalties and doublecrossing.
The contrast and uneasy rivalry between Brits and Americans: the English are satirized as snobby, excessively polite and mannered, timid and scared, and emotionally controlled; the Americans are depicted as brash, uneducated/ignorant, profane, outspoken, deceitful, gold digging, and violent. Writer Mike D'Angelo put it well: “Wanda mocks the inferiority complex Americans feel regarding England, the home of Shakespeare, royalty and all the ritzy productions that are shown in the U.S. on Masterpiece Theatre,” he wrote, adding that Otto has an obsession “with not being called stupid, which speaks to his deep-seated fear that others see him…as an ignoramus.”
Our passions can be our undoing: Palin’s love for animals forces him to reveal secrets and suffer grief when his plans to kill a witness ends in the death of several dogs; Curtis’ aphrodisiac-like weakness for foreign language love-talking almost persuades her to abandon her criminal plans and fall for Cleese; Cleese, meanwhile, is tired of his reserved and proper British middle-class life and is excited by the vivacious, lively and animated presence of Curtis, who threatens to completely destabilize Cleese’s family and career.
Even the most flawed person has redeeming qualities:
o As reserved and subjugated as Cleese is, he actually is capable of great romantic passion and living for the moment – carpe diem style.
o Although Otto is prone to acting and talking stupidly without thinking first, serving as a caricature of many blustery and overconfident Americans, he is the most kinetic personality in the film, projecting a certain acrobatic grace, uncontainable energy, and joie de vivre.
o As murderously motivated and dangerous as Palin appears to be, his unbridled love for animals makes him a sympathetic character.
o Because we care most about the fate of Archie, the fact that he ends up apparently happy with Wanda, who gives him 17 children, tells us that perhaps she’s not the conniving gold digger we thought she was.

The Lavender Hill Mob
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
The Grifters
Trading Places
Quick Change

The Lavender Hill Mob
The Titfield Thunderbolt
One of the segments in the 1940s British horror anthology film Dead of Night

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