A Fish Called Wanda: an English/American Love/Hate Story

This post is part of the 2nd Annual British Invaders Blogathon, hosted by Terry at A Shroud of Thoughts. Read the other great posts HERE!

ARCHIE: So you robbed the jewelers, turned one of your lovers over to the police, kept the other one on to help you find the diamonds, and when he does, you commit perjury in the High Court, right?

WANDA: Come on, Archie. Everybody does it in America.

ARCHIE: Well, not in this country, they don’t!

WANDA: Oh, right. Like nobody lies in England. Like Margaret Thatcher never lied.

This exchange, towards the end of 1988 heist comedy, A Fish Called Wanda, pretty much sums up what, deep down, the movie is really about: the mutual admiration and disgust the British and Americans feel for each other.

Co-written by John Cleese (Monty Python, Fawlty Towers) and Charles Crichton (The Lavender Hill Mob) and directed by Crichton, A Fish Called Wanda is sometimes called a “late Ealing comedy.” Crichton, who made what is considered the first Ealing Studios comedy (Hue and Cry), directed A Fish Called Wanda when his career was basically over. Already in his 70s and suffering from severe back problems, Crichton found himself helming not only a critical success, but a massive commercial one, as well. The film was nominated for three Academy Awards, winning one for Best Supporting Actor (Kevin Kline).

The idea for the story originated with Cleese, who hand-picked the four leads: himself as Archie Leach (the name itself is a joke–it’s Cary Grant’s real name) a hen-pecked barrister, Kevin Kline as Otto, the world’s stupidest ex-C.I.A. agent, fellow ex-Monty Python member Michael Palin as Ken, an animal loving crook with a profound stutter, and Jamie Lee Curtis as Wanda, American femme fatale extraordinaire.

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(SPOILERS)

The story hits many familiar notes found in the heist genre: it starts off with a very successful robbery in the first act, followed by set-backs and betrayals among the robbers. Lead by George (Tom Georgeson), the team includes his loyal friend Ken and American girlfriend Wanda. In need of a weapons man, Wanda introduces into the group her brother Otto–who is actually her lover.

Wanda plans to betray both her lovers from the beginning. Wanda and Otto turn George into the police. When Otto breaks into the safe where George left the jewels, they find it empty. Wanda, who was ready to sandbag Otto and take off with the jewels, quickly regroups. She discovers Ken has hidden a safe deposit key and lifts it from him, hiding it in her locket. She decides the best way to find out where George stashed the jewels is through his barrister, Archie.

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Archie is married to the cold and snobbish Wendy (Maria Aitken). When the sexy and outgoing Wanda introduces herself to him, he is immediately captivated by her. Even so, it’s not easy to get information out of Archie. He soon realizes Wanda is a witness in George’s case and insists he can’t discuss it with her. Wanda’s various attempts to seduce information out of Archie are invariably interrupted by the jealous Otto. During one of these encounters, she loses the locket. Wendy mistakes it for a gift from Archie. He later stages a robbery in his house so he can pretend it was stolen and gives it back to Wanda.

Both Ken and George suspect Otto has turned George in. To keep them from finding out Wanda is his lover, Otto pretends he is gay with a crush on Ken, even as he mercilessly mocks Ken’s stutter.

Meanwhile, George commands Ken to kill the only witness to their escape from the robbery–a little old lady with three small dogs. Ken succeeds–in killing each of her dogs. Ken is heartbroken (and badly injured) after each doggy death. Finally, the old lady succumbs to a heart attack and dies.

All are (or pretend to be) thrilled that the one person who can place George at the scene of the crime has died. When Wanda betrays George on the witness stand, Archie finally catches on to her game. He grabs her and takes her to see Ken, who knows where George has hidden the jewels.

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Unfortunately, Otto has beat them to it, slowly eating Ken’s beloved tropical fish to force the information out of him. Ken tries to tell Archie, but has a difficult time due to his stutter. They finally figure out that they have to go to a hotel at Heathrow. In the meantime, Otto drives away with Wanda, who was waiting outside in the car.

At the airport Otto makes Wanda open the locker with the jewels. She hits him and take the jewels from him, shutting him up in the locker. Otto shoots his way out and is caught by Archie. He turns the tables and holds a gun on and humiliates Archie. Ken shows up driving a steamroller. He runs over Otto, who sinks into a bed of wet cement. In his triumph over Otto, Ken discovers he has lost his stutter.

Archie gets away and finds the plane Wanda has boarded with the jewels. They reconcile. As the plane takes off, Otto, covered in cement, looks through the plane window and sees Archie and Wanda kissing.

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The story went through a significant evolution during its development process. The original ending implied heavily that Wanda would betray Archie the same way she betrayed her other lovers. But at some point, the filmmakers recognized that the emotional center of the film was the unlikely romance between Wanda and Archie.

The movie goes to great pains to contrast and compare the British and American characters. In an early scene, Wanda and Otto have sex. Wanda’s one quirk is that she’s turned on my men speaking Italian. Otto throws out a jumble of Italian words to get Wanda in the mood and occasionally sniffs his underarm to get his own juices flowing. The scene culminates in what has to be one of the most hilarious orgasm scenes in film. (Jamie Lee Curtis claims she had to bury her face with pillows to keep the audience from seeing her laugh while shooting the scene.)

Intercut with this scene are Archie and Wendy getting ready for bed, hardly looking at each other, taking off bits of clothing while keeping others on so they remain mostly covered up during the process.

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One of the biggest running jokes is Otto’s belief he is an intellectual in spite of his epic stupidity. Otto could be a prototype for The Big Lebowski’s Walter Sobchak: loudmouthed, opinionated, reactionary, unnecessarily violent, contemptuous of most people–and a total idiot. (However, we have to give Walter some points for knowing the difference between a nihilist and a Nazi–a distinction that would be completely lost on Otto.)

Wanda is also no intellectual (she has to look up Otto’s misstated political and philosophical beliefs to find out they are wrong) but she is clever in a devious way. A 1980s American woman, of course she’s money-mad, regretfully seeing little value in Archie when she discovers his wife is the one with the money.

In spite of herself, she still falls for Archie, because not only can he speak Italian, he can speak RUSSIAN, which drives her mad with passion.

Otto–and to a lesser extent, Wanda–are portraits of Americans who believe a little too much in their own exceptionalism. One of my favorite scenes is when Wendy arrives home early and almost catches Archie with Wanda. Otto charges in and pretends he’s helping British intelligence hide a defecting Soviet in the neighborhood. Wendy is not fooled.

“Don’t call me stupid,” says Otto.

“Why on earth not?” asks Wendy.

Even though you’re supposed to hate Wendy, she’s kind of an amazing character, cutting through Otto’s B.S. with little more than a sneer. (In spite of appearing in only a handful of scenes, Maria Aitken is the unsung hero of this movie.)

Archie and Wendy are a more upscale version of Basil and Sybil Fawlty, though Archie is much, much nicer than Basil. Sick of the constraints put upon him because of his culture, profession, and class, he longs for passion, falling for Wanda because of her overt sexuality.

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Like much of the comedy in Fawlty Towers, Archie’s character is based in fear–of saying/doing the wrong thing at the wrong moment. This is brought home when Archie is talking Russian to Wanda while undressing and prancing around. A family walks into the apartment he is using for his assignation with Wanda. Turns out, the surprised couple has met Archie–and Wendy–before.

“What a coincidence!” cries Archie, totally naked except for a photograph covering his private parts.

One of my favorite aspects of the movie is that Wanda is an unapologetic anti-heroine, who not only gets everything she wants at the beginning of the film, she even finds true love.

This is completely awesome, even when we’re talking about a crass American who thinks a wee too much of herself.

The film was not beloved by all critics and audience members when it was released: some were turned off by the violence against animals in the film, and Otto mercilessly making fun of Ken’s stutter. Michael Palin based Ken on his own father, who had a stutter. There’s a hint of soulfulness mixed in with Ken’s ridiculousness. He suffers from an unrequited love for Wanda, but unlike the other male characters, doesn’t expect or demand a return of his affections.

Plus, by the end of the film, we’re all waiting for SOMEONE to run a steamroller over Otto.

A Fish Called Wanda is a delightful madcap comedy, which manages to be a throwback, iconic to its era, and classic, all at the same time

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4 thoughts on “A Fish Called Wanda: an English/American Love/Hate Story

    1. I saw the review! Roger wasn’t always right, but he did have a canny ability to spot potential classics way more often than most other critics.

  1. I saw this twice in theaters when it came out, once in sneak previews and then again a little later because we missed the opening credits, and it remains one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen. Even today, I’ll still laugh at the scene where Otto eats Ken’s fish (“Avoid the green ones; they’re not ripe yet”). It’s sharply written, well-directed, and everyone in it is at the top of their game here, especially Kline, who fully deserved his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his performance here. Another fun fact; Cleese had originally wanted to play the lead role in LIFE OF BRIAN, until the other Pythons pointed out Graham Chapman was much more suited to the role. Cleese eventually agreed, but he never gave up on the idea of playing a romantic leading man type character, and this was his way of doing that.
    Anyway, terrific write-up.

    1. Thanks so much! I love the twist that Cleese plays a romantic lead. He took a character sort-of/kind-of like Basil Fawlty and made him the emotional center of the story. It shouldn’t work, but it totally does.

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