By the late ’80S, the career of veteran Ealing director Charles Crichton (Hue And Cry, The Lavender Hill Mob) seemed to be in terminal decline.
Since few of his post-Ealing movies had made much impact, he’d retreated into television.
From there a move into making corporate videos must have felt like the final downward step. But the company involved was John Cleese’s Video Arts, and Cleese, an admirer of the older man’s work, invited Crichton to direct a comedy script he’d written.
To placate the studio execs who questioned whether Crichton could direct comedy, Cleese promised to co-direct. But when the movie was finished he insisted on giving Crichton sole director credit. Cleese had made a shrewd choice.
A Fish Called Wanda, with its ill-assorted band of crooks, its central portrait of respectability undermined by larcenous urges and its running theme of double-dealing and treachery, crossesThe Lavender Hill Mob with The Ladykillers – and adds a lavish helping of sex and violence that would surely have alarmed strait-laced Ealing boss Michael Balcon.
But had Ealing comedy survived Balcon’s death and lived on into the ’80s, A Fish Called Wanda is probably just what it would have looked like – which, of course, made Crichton the ideal man to direct it.
The action kicks off with a two-minute near-wordless sequence of a jewel heist, executed with an energy and economy of cutting to remind us that, before he took up directing, Crichton was reckoned one of the sharpest editors in the business.
But the jewels are merely – as Hitchcock would say – the MacGuffin. The black-comic heart of AFCW is the tangled intrigue of double- and triple-crosses, the scams and deceits, the seductions and betrayals that play out within its fractious Anglo-American criminal gang.
The film gets much of its comic mileage from playing off national stereotypes: the Brits uptight and emotionally constipated, the Yanks uninhibited and freewheeling.
Batting for the UK are gang boss George (Tom Georgeson), in a permanent state of near-volcanic rage and suspicion, and his animal-loving sidekick Ken (Michael Palin), afflicted with a stutter so severe as to make King George VI sound like a miracle of fluency.
Pitching for the US are sexy, protean Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis), a femme as fatale as they come (which she does, whenever a lover talks to her in a foreign language), and her ‘brother’ (in fact lover) Otto (Kevin Kline), a hair-trigger psycho with an IQ well down in the lowest reaches.
Wanda - who’s having an affair with George, while denying it to the pathologically jealous Otto - is plotting with Otto to steal the loot from George after shopping him to the cops.
Which they do, only to find that George, mistrustful as ever, has shifted the loot (see what we mean about ‘tangled’?).
So Wanda makes a play for George’s stuffy defence lawyer Archie Leach (Cleese), hoping George will confide in the barrister where the jewels are hidden.
Archie, stuck with a termagant wife (Maria Aitken) and bratty daughter (Cleese’s real-life daughter Cynthia), is a pushover for Wanda’s brash transatlantic charms. (‘Archie Leach’, incidentally, was the real name of Bristol-born Cary Grant.)
The gentle Ken, meanwhile, is charged with rubbing out the sole witness, an old lady (Patricia Hayes) who can identify George at the scene of the crime.
The cast is a joy. Having seen Jamie Lee Curtis as a spirited hooker in John Landis' Trading Places, Cleese realised that the scream queen could play comedy, and gave her full scope for a performance of wittily manipulative sensuality, aiming her cleavage at susceptible males like a lethal weapon. As the deranged, Nietzsche-obsessed Otto (“Don’t call me stupid!”), Kline deservedly picked up a Best Supporting Oscar.
Cleese is on top Fawlty Towers form in his portrayal of fragile pomposity, and Palin’s descent into crazed desperation – paralleled by his physical deterioration – is perfectly gauged. (Check out his manic cackle of glee when he finally achieves his goal.)
The only small disappointment is that the two ex-Pythons have just a single brief scene together. And shortly before the end, a young Stephen Fry pops up in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment as another of Otto’s victims.
Cherishable scenes? There’s almost too many to choose from.
There’s Archie, stark-bollock-naked with his underpants on his head, declaiming in Russian while Wanda writhes orgasmically on the floor.
Or Otto, having tied Ken up and shoved a chip up each nostril, further tormenting him by chomping his way through a tankful of his beloved tropical fish. (Yes, the prettiest of them’s named for Wanda; Ken’s as besotted as every other male in the film.)
Or Otto’s throwaway line, just post-heist, “I love robbing the English – they’re so polite!”
Cleese’s instincts were thoroughly justified. A Fish Called Wanda scored a worldwide smash-hit and a stack of awards, with Crichton nabbing an Oscar nomination for Best Director.
There were rumours he might helm a sequel, but the 78-year-old elected to live out his remaining decade in comfort on his generous share of the proceeds.
He was entitled; few veteran directors have gone out on such a glorious last hurrah.