Friday, November 13, 2009

The Movie Moment Redux: A Fish Called Wanda (1988, Charles Crichton)

(Originally posted on 15 March 2007 at The Screengrab. Reprinted with permission.)

Ever since my high school years I’ve considered myself a Monty Python fan, and practically every Python fan has a favorite member of the troupe. Mine has always been Michael Palin. Some people I know prefer the more forceful persona of John Cleese, the sarcastic stylings of Eric Idle or the utilityman charms of Terry Jones, but to me Palin is the soul of Python. Not only was he the most versatile performer of the bunch (though Jones came close) but he also invested his characters, no matter how grotesque, with the most humanity. His performances were always full of small touches that signaled that he had thought the characters through, rather than just coasting through his sketches. This tendency has extended to his film work, and while he hasn’t capitalized on his Python popularity as much as Cleese has, his work is more consistently interesting. For my money, his greatest non-Python performance comes in A Fish Called Wanda.

Of the quartet of principals in Charles Crichton’s film, Palin seems the odd man out. Barrister Archie, played by Cleese, gets to romance Jamie Lee Curtis’s Wanda, and Kevin Kline gets most of the good lines as the wannabe arch-criminal Otto. In a lesser film, Palin’s Ken would be little more than a figure of ridicule -- a weak, animal-loving stammerer who is the butt of Otto’s jokes. But A Fish Called Wanda, as dark as its humor is at times, likes its characters; and Ken is perhaps the most likable of all. Compared to the sexy and exciting adventures of the others, his is a life of quiet desperation.

A lot of the credit goes to Palin, and in particular how he pulls off Ken’s stammer, playing it not for easy laughs, but as a troubling affliction. There’s a reason behind this -- Palin’s own father had a stammering problem, and Palin based his performance off him. This sympathy for his father’s difficulty comes through in Palin’s performance, which successfully mines the character for pathos rather than snide comedy.

Like many stammerers, Ken’s condition gets worse when he’s nervous or emotional, such as when Otto ties him up and tortures him to find the location of a safety deposit box key. As Otto slurps down Ken’s beloved tropical fish one by one, Ken is practically paralyzed with rage, yet powerless to stop it. By the end of the scene, Otto has made off with the key, and Ken has been left, bound and alone, in his apartment.

But the film’s real highlight doesn’t come until later, when Archie arrives at Ken’s apartment to find out where Otto has gone. Ken is still tied up, gagged with an apple, and with his chair tipped over onto the floor. Needless to say, this is hardly the ideal time to ask Ken any questions. Supposedly Cleese had always wanted to write a scene in which a stammering character gets questioned to no avail, and here was his chance.

Archie unties Ken and seats him upright, trying to get the answer out of him, but Ken, try as he might, can’t seem to spit it out. So Archie, sensing the problem, does his best to put Ken at ease, but it still doesn’t work. As Ken repeatedly gets stuck on “The Caaa… the Caaaaaaa…,” the frustration begins to manifest itself on his face. Ken’s stammer has afflicted him all his life, but that doesn’t make it any easier for him to deal with. One can plainly see how much he wants to tell, but he just can’t, and that pains him. Finally, Archie decides to have Ken write down the answer instead, which Ken does, and when Archie reads the answer aloud- “The Cathcart Towers Hotel”- Ken repeats the answer, his stutter suddenly gone. The resultant look of surprise on Ken’s face is pricessless, punctuating a rare moment of triumph in his life. When Archie proceeds to the next question, of where the hotel is located, Ken, knowing from experience that his triumph is most likely short-lived, pantomimes the flying of an airplane rather than going through the painful process all over again. Archie figures out the answer almost immediately- “Heathrow.”

At one point during this scene, we see a sign hanging behind Ken, reading “No Credit.” How fitting that this sign is associated with Ken, the character who gets sent off by team leader George to do the dirty work of eliminating an elderly dog-loving witness, gets manipulated by Wanda, and mocked and tortured by Otto. Which makes his final triumph doubly sweet -- Ken is so put-upon, yet such a likable character that we yearn to see him win for a change. So when Ken finally gets his revenge on Otto for the demise of his fish -- and simultaneously loses his stammer, seemingly for good -- we celebrate it with him. After what he’s been through, he’s certainly earned it.

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