A Fish Called Wanda (1988)

A Fish Called Wanda is a 1988 British-American heist comedy film directed by Charles Crichton and written by John Cleese. It stars Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline and Michael Palin as a gang of diamond thieves who double-cross one another to find stolen diamonds hidden by the gang leader. A barrister (Cleese) becomes a central figure as femme fatale Wanda (Curtis) uses him to locate the loot. It was Crichton’s last film.

The film was released to positive reviews and was nominated for three Academy Awards including Best Director and Best Original Screenplay, winning Best Supporting Actor for Kline. Cleese and Palin won BAFTA Awards for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor for their performances. A spiritual sequel, Fierce Creatures, was released in 1997. The British Film Institute ranked A Fish Called Wanda the 39th-greatest British film of the 20th century.

London-based gangster George Thomason and his right-hand man, Ken Pile, an animal lover with a stutter, plan a jewel heist. They bring in two Americans: con artist Wanda Gershwitz and weapons expert Otto West, a mean-spirited anglophobe. Wanda and Otto are lovers, but they hide this from George and Ken, pretending to be siblings, so Wanda can work her charms on them. The heist is successful and the gang escapes with a large sum in diamonds. They hide them in a safe in an old workshop. Soon after, Wanda and Otto betray George to the police and he is arrested. They return to collect the diamonds, with Wanda planning to double-cross Otto as well, but find that George has moved them. In Ken’s fish tank, Wanda discovers the key to the safe deposit box containing the diamonds and hides it in her pendant.

Wanda decides to seduce George’s barrister, Archie Leach, so he can persuade George to plead guilty and give up the location of the diamonds. Archie is in a loveless marriage and quickly falls for Wanda. Otto is jealous, and his interference causes Wanda and Archie’s liaisons to go disastrously wrong. Wanda accidentally leaves her pendant at Archie’s house, which Archie’s wife, Wendy, mistakes for a gift for her. At Wanda’s insistence, Archie recovers the pendant by staging a burglary. Eventually, Archie, feeling guilty, ends the affair.

George asks Ken to kill Mrs Coady, the Crown’s only eyewitness. Though Ken accidentally kills her three dogs (the first by his Doberman, the second by his van and the last by a concrete block with his sniper shoot), causing him great distress, he is successful when the last dog’s death gives her a fatal heart attack. With no witness, George seems to get off soon. He gives instructions to Ken, revealing the location of the diamonds, but Otto accidentally learns of Ken’s knowledge. Otto tries to force Ken to reveal the place by eating his pet fish, leaving Ken’s favourite, named Wanda, until last. Ken reveals that the diamonds are at a hotel near Heathrow Airport.

With Otto’s knowledge and Wanda’s key, they want George to remain in jail. At his trial, defence witness Wanda unexpectedly gives evidence against him. When Archie, stunned, flubs his cross-examination and inadvertently calls her “darling”, Wendy realizes that Archie has had an affair and decides to divorce him.

With his career and marriage over, Archie resolves to cut his losses, steal the loot himself and flee to South America. Promised less jail time, George tells Archie that Ken knows where the diamonds are. Archie sees Wanda fleeing the courthouse, pulls her into his car and races to Ken’s flat. As Archie runs into the building, Otto steals Archie’s car, taking Wanda with him. Ken and Archie give chase. Otto and Wanda recover the diamonds, but Wanda double-crosses him and leaves him unconscious in a broom cupboard. Recovering, Otto shoots his way out and is confronted by Archie. Otto is about to kill him, but Archie stalls him by taunting Otto about American failures such as the Vietnam War. Ken arrives driving a steamroller, seeking vengeance for the fish. Otto, who has stepped in wet concrete and cannot move, is run over but survives. Archie and Wanda board the plane and Otto, clinging to the window outside, curses them until he is blown off during takeoff.

Cast

  • John Cleese as Archie Leach
  • Jamie Lee Curtis as Wanda Gershwitz
  • Kevin Kline as Otto West
  • Michael Palin as Ken Pile
  • Tom Georgeson as George Thomason
  • Maria Aitken as Wendy Leach
  • Cynthia Cleese as Portia Leach
  • Patricia Hayes as Mrs Eileen Coady
  • Geoffrey Palmer as Judge
  • Roger Brierley as Davidson
  • Llewellyn Rees as Sir John
  • Stephen Fry as Hutchison

Cleese and Crichton had previously attempted to make a film together in 1969. Although the project never entered development, they promised each other that they would eventually collaborate on a film. In June 1983, the two began writing the script for Wanda, and for the next two and half years, they met three times a month to work on the script. According to Crichton, “We had a week of rehearsals and then a gap of two weeks in which to incorporate any new ideas which had been thrown up and to polish the script.” According to Michael Palin, the original title was “A Goldfish Called Wanda.”

Cleese told an interviewer that he called his character Archie Leach, Cary Grant’s real name, because “I feel this film is as near as I’ll ever get to being Cary Grant.”

Cleese, admitting in press interviews that he had no knowledge of how to direct a film, served as co-director, since the studio executives at MGM were worried about Crichton’s age—he was 78 years old at the time. On the set, Crichton wore a T-shirt presented to him by Cleese and inscribed “Age and treachery will always overcome youth and skill”.

The film was shot in London during the summer of 1987.

After six weeks of wide release in the United States, it reached number one at the box office. It eventually grossed $62,493,712 in the US. It was the number one rental video in the US in 1989.

Kline won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance. Cleese and Crichton received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Crichton was also nominated for Best Director, Cleese won a BAFTA for Best Actor in a Leading Role and Curtis received nominations for Leading Actress at the Golden Globes and BAFTA awards. Michael Palin won a BAFTA for Best Supporting Role and Maria Aitken received a BAFTA nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

During the initial run of the film, a Danish audiologist named Ole Bentzen died during a screening when his heart rate rose to an estimated 250–500 beats per minute from laughing at a scene too hard, leading to a fatal heart attack.

The film is number 27 on Bravo’s “100 Funniest Movies”. It is also included in the Reader’s Digest “100 Funniest Films” list.

In 1999, it was voted 39th on the BFI Top 100 British films list compiled by the British Film Institute

Also in 2000, the American Film Institute placed the film on its 100 Years…100 Laughs list, where it was ranked number 21. Then in 2003, AFI nominated Otto West as a villain from this film for AFI’s 100 Years…100 Heroes & Villains.

James Berardinelli of ReelViews awarded the film four out of four stars in his review; it is also number 10 on his “Top 100” list.

Comments are welcome on your 80s memories...