Six Damn Fine Degrees #12: A Fish Called Wanda

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness.

One of the ironies of life is that John Cleese, responsible for some of the most (in)famously absurd sketches in Monty Python’s Flying Circus, is more renowned for his work on comparatively unadventurous, straight comedies, two of them being Fawlty Towers and A Fish Called Wanda. And yet, it’s no accident that both are revered: they’re deliciously funny and incredibly mean-spirited, yet brimming with an inimitable charm nonetheless.

A Fish Called Wanda was Cleese’s brainchild from the off, a collaboration with legendary Ealing Studios director Charles Crichton that ended up being his first feature film after a gap of 23 years, and also his last. That it ended up one of the funniest movies ever made is no surprise, given the talent behind it.

Wanda is, of course, a crime caper. The initial setup is economical but rich with possibility: a gang of crooks commit a diamond heist and, as part of their plan, decide to stash the diamonds in a safe and lay low until the heat dies down. When a double-cross ends up complicating matters, plans are hatched to locate and get the diamonds back and, as is inevitable in these situations, they go aft agley.

With this base, the story organically evolves from the foundations of the characters themselves. At first blush, all of these people are archetypes – Palin is the shy, quiet animal lover; Curtis is the sexy, manipulative seductress; Cleese is the straight man (playing himself against type), a repressed barrister, and Kline is his comic foil, a collision of American insanity in the guise of a man. Their paths collide, and the manic happenstance of these collisions is what provides the momentum and all of the film’s big laughs.

Much has been written about Wanda’s lunatic sex scene with Kline and Curtis, as well as the torture scene where Kline, having had enough of Palin’s refusal to give up the location of the diamonds, proceeds to eat his fish (one of them called Wanda, natch). There’s not much point talking about them – they’re great scenes, and they play off of the characters’ archetypes very well. But why is it, when all is said and done, that this movie, unlike many comedies, leaves one with a sense of satisfaction at the act of having watched it?

I’d say that it comes down to what comedy really is about, at the end of the day: observation and insight. Cleese isn’t happy to just populate this movie with archetypes; he subverts and layers, and in that subversion, a lot of Wanda’s real comedy emerges. It’s also about a willingness to love these characters enough that you can be mean about them too. Witness poor Ken, played by Palin: the shy, quiet, animal lover with a devastating stutter who has no qualms trying to off an old woman, yet ends up accidentally killing each of her three Yorkshire terriers in three separate assassination attempts. And every time it happens, you can see that he is devastated. The first time, it’s a mild shock. By the third time, you can only laugh at the tragic irony of this, and Cleese layers on the joke by having the old woman finally kick it too, dying of shock from the inexplicable deaths of her beloved animals. In the end, it is Ken, poor, peaceful, tortured Ken who commits the movie’s final act of violence, his blood finally come to a boil and unleashing what was within.

This sort of depth via contradiction is present even in the straight man’s role: Archie Leach is a polite, pleasant barrister who’s inwardly tired of his life of boredom and strained marital bliss. He aches for an opportunity to be more adventurous – which he gets, and gets more than he bargained for. Wanda is a one-note seductress until it turns out she has actual feelings for Archie; and Otto – well, there’s a string of adjectives that apply. He’s an idiot. He’s an American. He misremembers Nietzsche. He’s pretty dang unpleasant. He is the epitome of Americans as seen through a British lens. And yet…

… you can’t hate him. He’s the best part of the movie. Part of this is that he’s the sort of manic, antic-laden character that Cleese would normally play; in the hands of Kline, Otto leaps off the screen as a fully formed person that makes no goddamn sense. He’s incompetent until he isn’t; he almost gets Nietzsche right until he doesn’t. His knowledge of Italian is limited to the dinner menu and cheeses until it seems apparent he’s also ingested travel guide speak. And the reason this works is because of the other part: an attention to detail. The kind of attention evident in, for example, the costuming.

In one of his earlier scenes in the movie, Otto’s outfit is a green camo vest on top of a leather jacket, underneath which are his trademark braces attached to a belt with, of course, a fanny pack. Later on it’s evident that he tucks the hems of his pants legs into his socks to make it appear that his be-sneakered feet are actually wearing boots. And then, of course, there is the too-small cap which almost never leaves his head. It’s arrogant, confident, and perfectly ridiculous.

This attention to detail extends to everyone else – while Wanda tends to wear clothes like a fetching leopard print shrug with leather ensemble, her first ‘innocent’ meeting with Archie finds her in comparatively modest attire with white polka dots. Similarly, Cleese and Palin evoke their characters through their clothes (or lack of them, in one of Cleese’s more…. exposed visual gags).

It’s these subtle cues and layers that make the movie feel richer than just unfurling physical comedy, and it’s in the characters’ inner conflicts that the movie comes alive. The best kind of comedy really just observes people, and Wanda observes that, under the surface, people can sometimes be a conflicting mess of contradictions.

Kline’s performance was the kind of studied examination of absolute nonsense that many of us can relate to, having been dilettantes in at least a few things in our lives and proud of them. In his half-digested stupidity and need to show it off, in his pomposity and occasional moments of vicious effectiveness, there’s a little bit of the audience viewing him too – and that’s why you can’t hate him: he’s every man. To hate Otto is to hate the part of you Kline’s performance sings to.

The Academy recognised this ode to and lampooning of their national self in 1988 when, in an interesting turn of events, Martin Landau’s performance in Tucker: The Man and His Dream lost out to Kevin Kline’s turn as Otto for the Best Supporting Actor award. Landau would go on to win that award for his performance as Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood, but that’s another tale, one ably told in our previous Six Degrees pieces.

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