When it comes to creating comedy, John Cleese has long been a proponent of quality over quantity. After an explosion of material co-written with Graham Chapman between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s culminating in Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Cleese started rationing his talents more carefully. He didn’t take part in Python’s fourth and final series, establishing a pattern of quitting while he was ahead that continued to serve him well for more than twenty years. Famously, he wouldn’t do more than two series of Fawlty Towers, and having mastered sketch and situation comedy on television, he took his time developing his first solo-written feature. Work on the script that became 1988’s A Fish Called Wanda began in 1983, with Cleese taking control of everything from casting to location to selecting a director. When the film became an unexpected word-of-mouth success, reaching number one at the US box office (in its 10th week of release - still a record) and receiving three Oscar nominations, Cleese responded by not making another film as writer and star until 1997’s ill-fated Fierce Creatures.
Just as with his surprising decision to follow the convention-smashing Monty Python with a traditional sitcom, with Wanda, Cleese looked to the past for inspiration. As his first collaborator on the project, he chose former Ealing director Charles Crichton, who hadn’t made a theatrical feature for more than 20 years. Together, they came up with the story about the antics of double-crossing thieves following a successful diamond heist. As detailed in the excellent selection of supplemental materials that has built up around the film over the years, every aspect of the production was carefully considered and tested. Cleese was determined that his film would have a chance in America, and so wrote parts specifically for two US stars he admired, Kevin Kline and Jamie Lee Curtis, along with a showy role for his old Python teammate, Michael Palin. All were invited to contribute to and refine the material, and the attention to detail shows in the final product, which managed to capture some of the black lunacy found in the best of Ealing, while having a distinctive personality of its own.
Wanda is a wonder of comic structure and performance. Every line and gesture adds comedy or character and frequently both. The efficiency with which a wholly plausible web of lies, insecurity and desire is established in the opening scenes would be impressive even without them also being extremely funny. There is a moment early in proceedings where Curtis, simultaneously pretending to be Kline’s sister and lover (depending on who is present in the room), embraces their boss (Tom Georgeson) with a giddy, malevolent grin on her face that somehow encapsulates the tone of the entire endeavor. She knows she is part of something special, and is thoroughly enjoying acting the hell out of it. Similarly Kline, who up to that point had made his name primarily in drama, embraces the opportunity with everything he’s got. As the idiotic, violent, impulsive Otto, he gives a comic performance of such grace, invention and force that even the Academy couldn’t ignore it: he won Best Supporting Actor. Playing more hapless characters, Cleese and Palin are every bit as good.
If the film has a failing (other than an airport finale that feels a bit tacked-on, though still has big laughs), its visual. In the commentary, Cleese claims that he was inspired by Woody Allen’s Manhattan to try to make London as attractive as possible. If he’s serious, then he failed. The London presented in Wanda is a sea of ugly browns and beiges. But if the look of the film is mired in the late 1980s, the script and performances remain timeless.
Arrow’s new blu-ray of A Fish Called Wanda is undoubtedly the best the film has ever looked on a home format, but that isn’t saying much. Typical of mid-budget 1980s comedy, the image captured on film is disappointingly soft and grainy, so despite Arrow’s best efforts with a new and specially produced 4K restoration, the increase in detail over previous editions isn’t as great as might be hoped. This is highlighted by one of Arrow’s newly produced special features where a high definition interview with production designer Roger Murray-Leach is intercut with Wanda footage that appears to be from the restoration. Presented next to the sharp, bright modern material, Wanda looks terribly washed-out and fuzzy.
In terms of additional content, Arrow had the opposite problem: Wanda already had an excellent special edition DVD including contemporary and retrospective documentaries, a Cleese commentary, 30 minutes of deleted scenes with Cleese introductions, an image gallery, trivia track and trailer. All of these are presented again (in sd), and they’re a formidable package. The two-part ‘John Cleese’s Final Farewell Performance’ documentary was made in 1988 (and apparently given its own VHS release) and is built around a great, in depth interview with Cleese that offers genuine insight into his creative process. The retrospective is more anecdotal but still fun and worth a watch. In his thoughtful commentary, Cleese alternates between Wanda-specific information and more general observations about film and comedy. The 24 deleted scenes are interesting, but mainly serve to demonstrate how ruthless editing can improve the final feature.
Arrow have made a couple of worthwhile but not essential additions of their own. BFI Archivist Vic Pratt provides 30-minutes of useful context, considering Wanda in relation to Ealing, Cleese’s career, and its possible influence on Richard Curtis’s Atlantic-spanning comedies. Murray-Leach offers 8-minutes of memories about the production, including some good production stories. Further new interviews were mentioned in advance publicity, but they don’t appear to have made the final disk. There is also a booklet of essays and photographs, but that wasn’t provided for review.
Review by Jim Whalley