A Fish Called Wanda
In 1988, John Cleese, former Python and the mastermind behind Fawlty Towers, teamed up with the veteran Ealing Comedy director Charles Crichton (The Lavender Hill Mob) to produce another classic of British comedy.
Cleese plays Archie Leach, a weak-willed barrister who finds himself embroiled with a quartet of ill-matched jewel thieves – two American con artists played by Jamie Lee Curtis and Kevin Kline, Michael Palin’s animal-loving hitman and London gangster Tom Georgeson – when Georgeson is arrested. Only he and Palin know the whereabouts of the diamonds, prompting plenty of farce and in-fighting as well as some embarrassing nudity and the unfortunate demise of some innocent pooches…
Nominated for three Academy Awards® and winning one for Kline’s outstanding supporting turn as the psychopathic Otto, A Fish Called Wanda has stood the test of time, earning its rightful place among its creators’ remarkable comedy pedigree.
Arrow Video presents Charles Crichton’s A Fish Called Wanda in an all new Blu-ray edition in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on a dual-layer disc. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation comes from a new 4K restoration conducted by Arrow Video and scanned from the 35mm original camera negative.
Like with Ronin Arrow’s new restoration for A Fish Called Wanda offers a substantial and incredible improvement over MGM/Fox’s previous edition. That one more than likely made use of an older master made for DVD. The image ultimately looked fairly processed and dated. This one is far more alive, with far more detail and a significantly more filmic quality and texture. The grain structure is very fine but it is rendered cleanly and distinctly here, never looking like noise. Though it can have a slightly softer look that I think is intentional everything is still clearly defined from the miniscule details in long shots to every stray thread or hair in close-ups. This also lends the film a better sense of depth in comparison to previous editions.
Colours also look far better and a bit more natural here, though I felt some brighter sequences might be blown out a wee-bit, but it could be how the film is supposed to look. Black levels are also strong, and some of the film’s darker scenes look a bit better here in comparison to the old Blu-ray. The restoration work has also cleaned up the image to a staggering degree and I don’t recall much in the way of damage remaining, just a small spec here and there. The restoration work has been incredibly thorough otherwise.
I’m very grateful that Arrow has managed to get their hands on this one because it’s quite unlikely many other labels (and especially the studio themselves) would have shown anywhere near the amount of care Arrow does here. It’s a small comedy but it ends up receiving the royal treatment.
Arrow includes two audio tracks: the original mono track presented in lossless PCM 1.0, and then the 5.1 surround track used for previous editions. The 5.1 track works rather well and sounds the better of the two. It’s still front heavy with most effects and music focused there, some music creeping to the rears. There’s some noticeable direction between speakers though not a substantial amount. Dialogue is primarily directed to the center.
The mono track also sounds good, though range and fidelity aren’t as strong in comparison to what we get in the surround presentation. But it’s clean, free of noise and distortion.
Both sound fine in the end and it will come down to personal preference.
Similar to Ronin MGM had released a special edition for this film loaded with a number of features only to then release a Blu-ray years later with none of those features. Arrow yet again corrects this wrong by carrying over MGM’s features to their Blu-ray while adding some of their own. They do carry over the audio commentary recorded by John Cleese and it’s decent track, at least when it starts to get going. Cleese talks first about the project and its origins, as well as director Charles Crichton, contextualizing his Ealing Studio background for those not in the know. Surprisingly there is a lot of dead space during the initial portion of the track with only a smattering of interesting material. Thankfully the track picks up and the discussion gets more interesting, particularly in his thoughts on developing comedy and how, with this film, he had to keep in mind the culture gap between Americans and the British and make it funny for both. He also explains the things each audience found funny or not funny or excessively stressful, some of it very surprising to him. He also confirms that he was a co-director on the film though he stuck to just directing the actors while Crichton handled the visuals and technical side of things. Though I was initially not too thrilled with it the track does get better and I think it’s worth sticking with.
There is then a 48-minute making-of from 1988 called John Cleese’s First Farewell Performance, which features interviews with Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Palin, Kevin Kline, and director Charles Crichton. Throughout there is discussion about the film and then Palin’s and Cleese’s work on Monty Python. This is all great, and even funny, but I found the real gold to be in the extraordinary amount of behind-the-scenes footage we get that is surprisingly captivating.
There is also a newer making-of documentary, recorded around 2003, called Something Fishy, which features the main members of the cast again along with executive producer Steve Abbott and director of photography Alan Hume. Everyone reflects on the experience and the fun of the production, but what was shocking was how unsure everyone was about the film, Curtis even worrying that the film wasn’t funny and would be dead-on-arrival. This documentary also expands a bit on what Cleese covers in the commentary on the constructed of the film, which was rethought and reassembled during production, with the love story between Archie and Wanda being changed significantly along with the ending. One of the big bonuses here, though is we get to see outtakes from the scene where Cleese’s Archie is trying to extract information from Palin’s Ken. The sequence actually went on much longer and the added bits are fairly funny but Cleese and company are right that it works better as a standalone skit and it kills the pacing of the film.
New to this release is a 17-minute appreciation by Vic Pratt who looks at the film from a variety of angles. He expands on the working relationship between Crichton and Cleese and how that led to this film, while also exploring the Ealing influences that can be found within it (it’s mentioned elsewhere on the disc that an editor was hired because he said he saw the film as an Ealing comedy). He then looks at the film with a more modern eye and other than a couple of technical issues (like the music) and some questionable comedic bits the film still feels fresh and modern, and he attributes that to Crichton’s more classic style of directing which doesn’t really age. It’s a decent little addition that manages to not repeat material found in the other features, again Pratt just filling in some holes left by others.
Also new is a 7-minute interview with production designer Roger Murray-Leach. I was curious initially about this addition, unsure what he could add to everything else since the film really doesn’t look all that complicated, but he adds a lot. He talks about the film’s locations and having to cheat since they weren’t allowed to film in certain places (particularly court), and then he talks about the props, like the multiple “dead dogs” he had to come up with. Yet the one thing I never considered was having to build the sets to accommodate some of the complicated comedic set-ups, and this small part proves fascinating as he explains how he and Cleese worked out details with the sets then built around those discussion. It’s a short interview but it proves to be another great extra.
Arrow next includes an episode of a show called On Location, featuring Robert Powell revisiting the locations used for the film and see how they have changed (most haven’t changed all that much). This is then followed by a Message from John Cleese, a short 5-minute piece that I suspect was released for exhibitors. It features Cleese in Monty Python mode explaining the film, stressing he’s not there to talk about Meryl Streep and that he himself has plenty of sex appeal “for a British person” (there’s also an amusing running gag revolving around Curtis’ not-so-perfect film Perfect).
Another big feature—carried over from the MGM DVD—is the inclusion of about 26 deleted and alternate scenes, with the option to play all or watch them one at time. Each segment comes with a brief introduction by Cleese, there to explain why the segment was cut, and in most cases it was because he underestimated the audience’s ability to grasp plot details and relied on too much exposition. There are some funny bits lost but most of the material would have bogged the film down. The excised material makes you realize how tightly edited the film really is. The one disappointment is that we don’t get the extended Cleese/Palin scene, which is shown in fragments in the included making-of, but we do get the alternate takes with the dog deaths (more bloody) and the alternate ending, which is particularly nasty when you get down to it (it even alters a small bit around Palin’s Ken). With the introductions this section total 30-minutes.
Arrow also includes an image gallery featuring many production photos along with poster art, which is then followed by the film’s original trailer. The disc also features an alternate trivia subtitle track. I admittedly sampled it but it features a number of notes on the production, specific sequences, and even contextualizes some things for American audiences, like how the British court system works. Some of it is tongue-in-cheek (when one of the dogs meets its fate the track feels the need to point out Cleese actually likes animals) and there are a couple of laughs. Though I again didn’t go through the whole thing what I sampled was actually quite good.
Arrow also includes a booklet, limited to first pressings. It first features an essay on the film by Sophie Monks Kaufman, who focuses a lot on one of the film’s more unfortunate, poorly dated jokes, revolving around Kline’s Otto pretending to be gay around Palin’s Ken. The booklet also features a reprint of an article from Time Out by John Morrish, which features an interview with Cleese. First printings also come with a sleeve featuring new artwork created for this release, while the case art is reversible, showing the new artwork on one side and one of the original posters on the other (I actually wish they had used the one involving the line-up that included an upright Fish-Wanda).
Altogether Arrow has put together an absolutely wonderful special edition for the film. With a nicely rounded look at the film’s production and some insightful material placing the film in its time the material is both insightful and entertaining.
Easily the best and most comprehensive edition yet put out for the film. The supplements are great but it’s the new restoration that sells this edition. It looks spectacular. Highly recommended.