“Don’t Call Me Stupid” A Critical Analysis of A Fish Called Wanda

Academic Paper by William Conlin for Roger Durling’s Film Genres Course. March, 2011.

Since first seeing it when I was twelve, A Fish Called Wanda has always been near to or on top of my list when it comes to film comedies. Charles Crichton’s 1988 crime-caper successfully blends aspects of slapstick, screwball and anarchic comedies while making a critical statement about what it means to be English in the 1980’s. With exceptional performances, excellent direction and a brilliant script, A Fish Called Wanda delivers everything you could ever ask for in a comedy.

In looking at A Fish Called Wanda as a slapstick comedy one would obviously start with John Cleese and his brilliant performance as the bumbling barrister Archie Leech. From robbing his own house to slowly stripping naked while orating in Russian, Cleese uses his gangly nature to it’s fullest. Supported by Kevin Kline’s character Otto the two create some of the most memorable physical gags in the film. Upon finding Wanda in bed with Archie, Otto dangles him out of a fifth story window. Cleese’ is at first presented as standing straight up but as he delivers a deadpan monologue, hanging by his feet, the camera slowly shifts around to show the whole scene. Later in the film, when Archie robs his own house, Otto accidently beats him unconscious. Upon realizing he has hurt the man he wanted to apologize to he looses control and begins kicking him then freaking out when he again sees what he’s doing. Finally, in the airport sequence we find the two on the tarmac with Otto forcing Archie into a drum of oil. Keeping in slapstick fashion, most of the film is shot in high key with very little contrast. Minus a few scenes, Otto is consistently shot from low angles, creating a dominant feeling over the other characters (even the near 7-foot tall Cleese). When Wanda is deriding Otto for dangling Archie out the window, he is at eye level with her but in the next scene he’s dominant again. At the end of the airport sequence, when Ken has finally taken control of his stutter and is heading towards Otto with the steamroller, Otto is suddenly shot from an extremely high angle, making him almost childlike.

Michael Palin’s character of Ken, whose animal-loving nature is tested by his quest to kill a little old lady, provides excellent comic support in A Fish Called Wanda. Throughout the film Ken is subjected to car-crashes, dog attacks and the misleading “advances” of Otto, each resulting in some form of physical anguish. Otto pretends to be gay to confuse Ken, so whenever the two are in frame together, they’re kept uncomfortably close to each other. In one of the films most famous scenes Otto ties Ken to a chair and makes him watch as Otto eats Ken’s pet fishes. From the beginning of the scene to the end, Otto goes from medium framing to close up. The scene is so funny that in a world famous news story during a 1989 Danish screening of A Fish Called Wanda, a man died laughing. Mixed with his stutter and sheepish nature, Ken only comes alive at the end of the film, embodying a “we’re not going to take it anymore” attitude. His need to avenge his fish leads to him flattening Otto into cement.

Noticeably absent from the physical humor is Jamie Lee Curtis’ Wanda, who’s sexuality is kept strictly for the screwball aspect of the film. If A Fish Called Wanda were of the Film Noir genre, Wanda’s ability to seduce every prominent male character in the film would easily land her the title Femme Fatale, but as a comedy she becomes the focal point in four men’s blundering attempts at courtship. For most of the film Wanda is dressed in the brightest colors of the film’s pallet, making her the dominant focus in almost every scene she’s in. Ironically, towards the end of the film she takes on a white, seemingly innocent pallet, contrasting with her being the most unscrupulous character in the story. While Wanda generally stays away from the physical comedy, her character’s main foil seems to be foreign languages. When Otto speaks Italian and Archie speaks Russian, Wanda melts. Fulfilling the screwball style, Wanda changes her attitudes and allegiances on a dime. Whereas all the other characters are portrayed as open, Wanda has an air of mystery. On a trivia note, Wanda’s character is speckled with tributes to other films as well. There is a scene where Wanda is in the foreground and in the same fashion as The Shape from Halloween, Otto sits up and moves in on her.

While Wanda is the temptress of the film, Archie takes on the classic leading man position. Harkening back to Cary Grant (the name Archie Leech being a tribute to Grant’s birth name) and his comedies such as Bringing Up Baby, Leech is constantly put into awkward situations. But in a sharp contrast with the dashing Grant, Archie is used as a statement about English culture. While Wanda and Otto are having sex, Archie and his wife are seen grooming themselves and getting into separate beds. Later in the film Archie himself says, “Do you know what it’s like being British? Being so proper?” Shortly after seducing Wanda with his language skills he strips all his clothes off only to be interrupted by a large British family. He yells at them but upon learning they know his wife, he immediately returns to his stiff, British nature. As the action of the film unfolds, Archie slowly becomes more and more willing to do things that were previously taboo for him. His utter hatred of his personal life makes for an excellent explosion of courage and when his wife shows up to listen to him in court, his own confusion provides him the “out” that he needed to escape his boring life.

As an anarchic comedy, I mainly look at the sub plot of Ken trying to kill the old lady, the airport scene at the end of the film and the character Otto. Each time Ken tries to perform the hit on the little old lady, chaos ensues and each time he fails, the anarchy is followed by a funeral at the pet cemetery. Ken’s stutter also plays into the anarchic behavior of the film. He can never seem to get the right words out but once someone else does he can say things easily, giving a look of confusion. At the end of the film, all the characters converge on Heathrow Airport for their final confrontations. In true anarchic style, all hell breaks loose. Wanda knocks Otto out, Otto wakes and fights Archie, Ken smuggles himself into a baggage bin then hijacks a steamroller and crushes Otto, all in the course of a couple of minutes.

More than any one else in the film, Otto’s character embodies the anarchic nature of A Fish Called Wanda. He can’t drive his car without hitting another, then exclaiming “Asshole!” to the victim. He has an advanced knowledge of weapons and fighting that he learned “in the C.I.A.” but his understanding of philosophy is generally misguided. When any one questions his intelligence his generic response is “Don’t Call Me Stupid!” At one point Wanda’s only reaction is “Oh, right! Calling you stupid would be an insult to stupid people!” Following the end of the film, title cars reinforce the anarchic nature, telling us that the main characters went on to do the polar opposite of what they were portrayed as in the film.

When I was really young my family would hold “movie nights”. We had a massive collection of VHS tapes and I loved watching all the different films. There were a few select movies however that I was not allowed to watch. A Fish Called Wanda was one of those films. For years I was intrigued by this one film that I was “too young to see”. By the time I was twelve I took the initiative and watched it on my own. From then on I was a fan. Whether it was curiosity about the movie poster (a police line up with the main characters and a giant fish) or a general need to see a film that I wasn’t allowed to, it lead me to a film that always puts a smile on my face, viewing after viewing. This is why I love A Fish Called Wanda.

About this entry