Arrow Video’s A Fish Called Wanda

The B-Movie Isle: Arrow Video’s A Fish Called Wanda (Collector’s Edition)

The B-Movie Isle/Adam go back three decades to look at the brilliance that is A Fish Called Wanda. Released by Arrow Video in a stacked edition on Blu-Ray. Is it still funny?  Is John Cleese a one note been-there-done-that actor?  Is Kevin Kline’s Otto still funny?  Who is Wanda and why is she a fish? Read on to find out…

The Film

No one could mistake A Fish Called Wanda for anything Monty Python.  Starring and Co-Written by John Cleese the film isn’t a simple retread of familiar troupes for Cleese.  He’s not playing a variation on Basil Fawlty or his Monty Python persona non grata.  All visages of Cleese’s prior work evaporate in this crime caper.

Archie Leach is the kind of put-upon middle class Brit that Cleese veered away from in his career, opting to play ugly stupid louts and mining their hubris and arrogance for comedic gold.  By making that change Cleese shows just how warm and inviting he is as an actor.  Leach is the central mark in a Con-Man/Woman film.  Though he’s often seen cavorting with Jamie Lee Curtis on screen, the film doesn’t feel like a vanity project or an excuse to give Cleese all the funnies.  As much inspired by The Pink Panther as it was by the films of Preston Sturges and screwball comedies, Cleese by playing the most normal of norms allows for real fun to be had by everyone else in the cast.

As good as Cleese is, everyone else is even better.  Kevin Kline, Michael Palin and the aforementioned Jamie Lee Curtis create a trifecta of comedic platinum.  Each is dynamically funny in ways that the other isn’t, allowing for some great back and forth.  Cleese and his co-writer Charles Crichton create enough open space in the story and the film itself it allows for each actor (including Cleese) to really dig their teeth into some great setups and payoffs in the film.

Kline has the showiest role as Otto: King of the Rubes.  Kline’s very un-P.C. and manic performance will make people laugh as much as it will make the gasp at just how wrong he takes it.  Kline’s academy award winning performance is a distillation of Kline’s best comedic work.  Otto isn’t just stupid, he’s a stupid man who thinks he’s smart.  It’s the kind of writing and performance that is as ugly and American as they come but… that’s the entire intent of the role.  Kline turns Otto into a work of art.  In 2017 this feels like a critique of the white American Male as it did back in 1988, maybe even more so today.

Palin’s Ken is probably the most troubling.  Some may find the stutter Palin gives Ken wrong but Palin uses it not as a way to belittle Ken but to show his frustrations.  As a man who during his childhood suffered sometimes crippling stuttering in his daily life, I don’t find Palin’s use of it hurtful.  The stutter is only moments that this is used for comedic affect is when Kline’s Otto is pushing Ken towards complete frustration.  Their almost Tom and Jerry-esque back and forth is the spine of the more outlandishly funny set pieces of the film.  Palin takes the thankless role of Ken a soars.  The way that Palin creates a ball of anxiety that is Ken is as hilarious as his attempt at being a hitman that are some of the darkly funny moments of the film.

More than anyone else Jamie Lee Curtis is the center of this film.  Known more for her iconic horror work as “The” Scream Queen, Curtis is even more adept at comedy.  The character of Wanda is as defined by her own wants and needs as anyone else in this film.  She’s not after a man or helping a man though these troupes are present and are played within Cleese’s clever script.  Curtis plays the role with a delight of a comedic performer who knows they’ve been given a great role.  Wanda is by turns goofy as she is intelligent and in control of every situation as she is capable as she is out right sexy.  It’s a delight to watch Curtis curtail and manipulate these men to her will and gaining everything she wants.

Director and co-writer Charles Crichton is able to keep everything light-as-air never interfering with the performances which are the showcase here.  Crichton’s touch even during the meanest and salacious of moments are deft in their comedic approach.  Assassination attempts, chases, sex scenes are all filmed with an eye for comedy and dry wit.  A Fish Called Wanda is one of those rare comedic gems from the 80’s that has managed to age into its neo-classic status nicely.  Now, if only more people would watch it!

The Transfer

Brand-new 4K restoration from the original negative, produced by Arrow Films exclusively for this release is beautiful.  The film has never looked better, even in theaters (where a 10 year old Adam delighted in the fact he was seeing a naughty R-Rated Comedy) the film has never looked as good as it does here.

The Extras

The special features include the following

  • Commentary by writer and star John Cleese
  • Brand-new appreciation by Vic Pratt of the BFI National Archive
  • Brand-new interviews with composer John Du Prez, production designer Roger Murray Leach, executive producer Steve Abbott and makeup supervisor Paul Engelen
  • John Cleese’s Final Farewell Performance, a 1988 documentary on the making ofA Fish Called Wanda featuring interviews with actors Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Palin, Kevin Kline and director Charles Crichton
  • Something Fishy, a 15th anniversary retrospective documentary featuring interviews with Cleese, Curtis, Kline and Palin, executive producer Steve Abbott and director of photography Alan Hume
  • Fish You Were Here, a documentary on the film’s locations hosted by Robert Powell
  • 24 deleted/alternative scenes with introductions by Cleese
  • A Message from John Cleese, a tongue-in-cheek introduction recorded for the film’s original release
  • Gallery
  • Trivia track
  • Theatrical trailer

A Fish Called Wanda’s previous editions have been fairly stacked.  The Arrow Edition is as definitive an edition as we’re probably going to get.  With well over 7 hours of bonus content there is literally no stone left unturned.   Some of the highlights are:

The two feature length documentaries; John Cleese’s Final Farewell Performance and Something Fishy cover just about everything you’d want to know about the production.  The Something Fishy doc ellipses the former because of the hindsight of 15 years.  Something Fishy is the in-depth making-of is the type of special feature that was the norm in the early ’00 (when it was produced) and is a great insightful.

The commentary by Cleese is similarly fun and as they say across the pond “cheeky”.

The video essay from Vic Pratt is particularly awesome and insightful feature. Arrow Video has taken this style of feature and ran with it.  They have quickly eclipsed Criterion’s visual essays.  They definitely need to keep on keep on this style of featurette.

The Bottom Shelf

A great comedy gets a great definitive definition on Blu-Ray from Arrow Video.  Highest possible recommendations!

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