A Fish Called Wanda
Studio: MGM/20th Century Fox
Length: 108 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Languages: English 5.1 DTS-HD MA, Spanish Mono, French 5.1 DTS, Portuguese Mono, Italian 5.1 DTS, German 5.1 DTS, Russian Mono, Castilian Spanish 5.1 DTS
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, German, Castilian, Chinese, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Greek, Korean, Norwegian, Polish, Brazilian Portuguese, Swedish, Thai, Turkish
Film Release Date: July 15, 1988
Disc Release Date: July 5, 2011
Review Date: July 25, 2011
“Don’t ever call me stupid.”
British gangster George Thomason (Tom Georgeson) has recruited American jewel thief Wanda Gershwitz (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her Nietzsche-reading, England-hating, psychopathic alleged brother Otto (Kevin Kline) to steal £13 million worth of jewels from a safety deposit box. After the heist is pulled off, Wanda and Otto double-cross George by turning him in to the police, hoping to keep the loot for themselves, only to find that George moved it. Wanda plans to seduce George’s barrister, Archie Leach (John Cleese), in order to find where the jewels are. George has given the key to the jewels’ new location to his stuttering, animal-loving right-hand man Ken (Michael Palin), who also has the difficult task of doing away with the only eyewitness to the heist: the elderly Mrs. Eileen Coady (Patricia Hayes), a task that proves to be more difficult than it looks. As Wanda makes her move on Archie, his fidelity to his humorless, perpetually frustrated wife Wendy (Maria Aitken) starts to waiver as he genuinely falls in love with a woman who’s using him to find the key to the diamonds, while Otto grows jealous of him.
A Fish Called Wanda combines two different schools of British comedy: the irreverent absurdity of Monty Python and the understated eccentricity of such Ealing Studios crime comedies of the 1940s and 1950s as Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Lavender Hill Mob, and The Ladykillers. John Cleese collaborated with Charles Crichton, director of The Lavender Hill Mob, to create a story very much in the vein of those films; it was Crichton’s first film in 23 years and his last. With its smart, Oscar-nominated script that deftly mixes caper, farce, and romance, and its stellar comic performances it can easily claim its place alongside those classic comedies. Every joke, every situation, and every reaction is perfectly timed, and every note from the cast is the right one. Lesser actors could have turned these characters to one-dimensional cartoons, but this is comic acting at its best: John Cleese’s sexually repressed Archie Leach—a more multi-dimensional deconstruction of the humorless stiff-upper-lip type of character that he lampooned endlessly and mercilessly on Monty Python’s Flying Circus—proves his mastery of both the cerebral and the physical sides of comedy as well as the dramatic aspect of Archie’s relationship with Wanda. Jamie Lee Curtis brings an athletic sexuality, cool manipulation, and a surprising amount of heart underneath all that to the title role. Her chemistry with Cleese is palpable and unbeatable. As her “brother”; Kevin Kline’s Academy Award-winning performance as the pretentious, sadistic buffoon Otto is a force of nature that gives the term “ugly American” a whole new meaning, and Michael Palin gives the role of the hapless Ken a quiet dignity. Being from the old school of directing, Charles Crichton shows a keen sense of staging, mixing brisk but never rushed movement by the actors—Cleese helped greatly in this respect—with economical camerawork whose movement is dictated by the staging while still moving freely. A huge critical and commercial hit when released, easily making back its modest $7 million budget many times over, A Fish Called Wanda remains one of the most consistently hilarious and well-written comedies of the last 30 years.
The film is presented at its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 in an AVC-Encoded, 1080p transfer. Some other reviewers have criticized the transfer, but in my opinion the faults lie squarely with the poorly lit—albeit well-staged—cinematography. The film has never looked particularly great in any format, but this Blu-Ray represents the film as accurately as it can. The film is moderately grainy with dirt and dust sprinkled lightly throughout, and they’re particularly noticeable in the credits; the dupe stock exacerbates the problems. Colors are cool and bland, highlights are kept under control while the shadows are slightly crushed. On the positive side, the picture does show an upgrade in sharpness and detail from all previous versions, especially the non-anamorphic flipper DVD, which was one of the first DVDs I ever owned. To do a better would require a serious investment in digital clean-up that MGM was either unwilling to pay for or unable to afford. At the very least, they should be commended for not trying to make things worse with DNR.
Originally in mono, the film has been remixed in 5.1 DTS-HD MA, while the original mono track is dropped in favor of seven alternate language tracks! The only real beneficiary of the upgrade is the musical score by John Du Prez. Dialogue and sound effects are firmly in the center channel, and they are of middling fidelity at best. Once again, consider the source.
All the extras are holdovers from the 2006 2-disc DVD (from the copyright date one can tell that this was intended for release around 2003, its 15th anniversary, but cancelled and re-announced much later) with nothing new added to the mix. They are presented in 480p and 4x3 unless otherwise noted.
—Audio Commentary by John Cleese. The track features subtitles in English, French, and German.
—Something Fishy Documentary (30:32): The film’s four principals reminisce on its history, production, and reception.
• John Cleese’s First Farewell Performance (18:12): A UK behind-the-scenes featurette depicting the shooting of the film’s final scenes.
• Farewell Featurette: John Cleese (29:53): Another UK behind-the-scenes featurette focusing on some of the film’s more dangerous scenes.
• Kulture Vulture (16:31): An episode of a UK TV series called On Location, taking viewers back to the locations where the film was shot. Presented in 16x9.
—Deleted and Alternate Scenes (29:38): Cleese introduces and comments on a collection of cut and alternate scenes from the rough cut. And the keyword here is “rough.” They’re taken from a video workprint with a time code and they show their age. Paradoxically, the documentary Something Fishy contains better quality outtakes not from workprints, yet these scenes have not been remastered. Some of them were filler while others would have given the film a much colder tone. Cleese does not regret taking any of them out.
•Jamie Lee Curtis’ Halloween Memento (1:43): The female star talks about how she and Cleese exchanged stupid fish gifts during the production.
•The Key to Wanda’s Heart (1:29): An outtake in which Wanda tries to seduce Ken.
•John Cleese’s Thoughts on the U.S.A. (0:27): An outtake showing more of Archie’s diatribe against the United States.
—A Message From John Cleese (04:56): A hilarious 1988 promo for the film in which the star talks about the film in his trademark irreverent fashion.
—Theatrical Trailer (1:28): A very fast-paced, very funny, and very grainy trailer for the film’s American theatrical release presented in 1080p.
Unfortunately, the Schweppes commercial from the original CBS/Fox home video release has not been seen since, even though 20th Century Fox now has the whole of MGM’s catalog. Keep in mind they were paid to put it there before. Also absent is a main menu—an issue with It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World, Throw Momma From the Train, and When Harry Met Sally—a trend that, unfortunately, I predict will continue with MGM’s catalog discs.
A Fish Called Wanda is one of the finest comedies of the past 30 years, and MGM has given it a wealth of extras while doing the best they can with source material that, quite frankly, doesn’t give them much to work with. Recommended with reservations.