Sunday, March 28, 2010

British Crime is so Polite

Films: A Fish Called Wanda, The Lavender Hill Mob
Format: VHS from personal collection(Wanda), DVD from Freeport Public Library through interlibrary loan (Lavender), both on big ol' television.

Like many, I grew up on British comedy. One of my earliest television memories is of a show called “The Goodies” that Chicago Public Television broadcast for a year or so way back in the day. Those of us who loved Brit-com and grew up in the shadow of Chicago in the 70s and 80s can tell you what Sunday nights looked like on Channel 11 WTTW, Chicago Public Television. At 10:00, Monty Python’s Flying Circus. At 10:30, Dave Allen at Large. I named my dog Monty, and a few years later we got another dog and named him Basil Fawlty. British comedy was my chosen environment.

Our lime-scented Anglo brethren (and I’m British both in ancestry and in comedic sensibility) have a distinctive style of comedy. They also love to root for criminals, provided those criminals are smart and wacky. There’s a history of British comedy capers. Witness films like Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Italian Job, The Ladykillers, and a host of others. And so, today, we’re going to look at two of the best.

I remember when A Fish Called Wanda came out in theaters. I was convinced that it was the funniest movie I’d ever seen, and watching it again today…it may not be the funniest, but it’s still in the top five. The plot is pretty simple, but there’s so much going on that it’s difficult to keep track of everything. So let’s cover the basics and see where that takes us. A crew pulls a heist on a bank, looking for 20 million pounds of diamonds. It’s masterminded by Georges Thomason (Tom Georgeson); assisted by his girlfriend Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis in the prime of her hottitude); Otto (Kevin Kline) ,her actual lover posing as her brother; and Ken (Michael Palin), a stuttering animal lover.

The heist seems to go well, except the crew is seen by a little old lady walking her trio of yappy rat dogs. Of course, when the caper happens at the start of the film, you know that complications are coming. Otto and Wanda double cross George, informing the police about George’s guilt and location. But George has moved the loot, and now they need to find out where it’s been moved to. George’s lawyer is Archie Leach (John Cleese, who named the character after Cary Grant’s real name).

What makes this film work is that each of these characters is incredibly realized and distinct. There are no cardboard cutouts here. Leach, for instance, is stuck in a painful marriage with his wife Wendy (Maria Aitken), who is an awful nag and with a terrible spoiled daughter named Portia (Cynthia Cleese). He wants only some excitement, or something different, so he is immediately taken with Wanda. Wanda herself is greedy and not above using her body to get what she wants, and becomes intensely passionate when someone speaks in any language other than English. Otto claims to be an intellectual of the Nietzchian stripe, but he’s actually a complete moron, and a violent one. And poor Ken wants only to save the animals and make a lot of money…and maybe not stutter so much.

The case goes through cross, double cross, triple cross, and more. Wanda wants to find out where the gems are held, and to do so, she has to romance the stiff, formal, and slightly necrotic Leach. Ken is completely loyal to George, and does what he can to kill the old woman so that she can’t testify against his boss. Otto, claiming to be above jealousy, does everything he can to prevent Wanda from spending any quality time with Leach, and making things worse even when trying to apologize.

I don’t want to go into details on this movie, because it’s such a joy to watch. So much happens, and so much of it is genuinely clever, that detailing it would only spoil how wonderful it really is. A lot of comedies leave me cold, because to me, watching stupid people act stupidly isn’t funny—it’s expected and kind of sad. Watching smart people act stupidly, however, is funny. Watching them try and fail to think their way out of situations that they’ve made worse is where the humor comes from, and in this film, there’s a lot of that. It is solidly funny every couple of minutes, and consistently, screamingly funny. I’ve seen this film a dozen times, and there are still places that make me laugh out loud, despite that many viewings. It’s marvelously funny and wonderful, and can be watched over and over with no loss of joy. How funny is it? Allegedly, in Scandinavia, a man literally died laughing while watching. Take that, modern comedies.

The Lavender Hill Mob is one of Ealing Studios’ great black-and-white comedies, and one of the many vehicles of the same era that featured Alec Guinness in cute, comedic roles. Here, he plays Henry “Dutch” Holland, an unassuming little clerk whose job it is to ride along with shipments of gold bullion for his bank. While he rides with a million pounds Sterling of loot every week, he’s paid a pittance. Sadly, though, gold bullion is tough to move. Without someone to help him transform it, stealing that wealth will always remain a dream.

It is thus fortuitous that a man named Pendlebury (Sterling Holloway) moves into Holland’s boarding house. Pendlebury works in the foundry trade making knickknacks and paperweights. And suddenly, the plan is born in Holland’s mind. If they can steal the gold, they can melt the bullion down and turn the ingots into Eiffel Tower paperweights, smuggle them to Paris, and get away with a fortune.

Sadly, Holland gets a promotion at work and is going to be taken off the bullion truck at week’s end. If they’re going to pull off the caper, it’s now or never, and the two of them have never met a real criminal in their lives. They hook up with criminals named Lackery (Sid James) and Shorty (Alfie Bass) by going around London and talking loudly about Pendlebury’s broken safe, nabbing the first two criminals who break in for a shot at the loot.

The caper goes off with several hitches, but seems to come out fine in the end. But it wouldn’t be much of a film if everything went perfectly, would it? The amateur criminals find their way blocked continually, culminating in the inadvertent sale of a half dozen of the solid gold Eiffel Towers to a group of British school girls.

The Lavender Hill Mob, as fun and entertaining as it is, is not nearly as laugh-out-loud funny as Wanda. It’s silly and fun and entertaining, but it’s considerably more staid, a product of a much earlier time. This isn’t to say that it’s not worth watching, only that it’s a much less over the top piece of film.

Nonetheless, it’s worth watching to see where a great deal of what became British comedy came from. Guinness was always capable of being a cinematic chameleon, a great and powerful man in one film and an unassuming little nobody in the next. Here, Guinness essentially does both, and does it brilliantly, even making his character more believable by affecting a slight speech impediment.

Entertaining and fun, and worth a watch. But worthy of being on this list? I’m not 100% sure. Interesting that Charles Crichton directed both of these films. He seems to have improved with age. Wanda was his last film, which is a hell of a capper to a career.

Why to watch A Fish Called Wanda: Still screamingly funny, and likely always will be.
Why not to watch: You’re one of those rare people who can’t follow British humor.

Why to watch The Lavender Hill Mob: A fun little caper.
Why not to watch: Does old British humor still work?


  1. As you should well know, the ultimate test of whether or not someone likes British humor is if they enjoy the film Kind Hearts and Coronets (I love it myself, but came to the site too late to review it :( )

  2. As it turns out, I do like Kind Hearts and Coronets, but haven't reviewed it here yet.

  3. I remember the story of the guy who died laughing in the cinema. I think was a doctor actually.
    I saw A Fish Called Wanda on the ferry to England with my school class in ninth grade. In the middle of the movie power went out and the ferry was still in the water for about an hour. For years that was how I remembered the movie. Fortunately I later found that it had a lot more to offer.
    I liked The Lavender Hill Mob quite a bit. Crazy that these two movies had the same director. There are a lot of good ideas and they are well carried out. Like you I wonder if it belongs on the List, but am happy to have seen it.

    1. I think it's a fun little film. I do root for the criminals in this one, and should this one be remade, the biggest change will almost certainly be the ending.