The fish out of water is a mainstay of cinematic storytelling. A versatile device that allows for extraordinary things to happen to ordinary people, it’s been utilised across many genres, from 1930s comedies, such as Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) and Leo McCarey’s Ruggles of Red Gap (1935), to mid-century sci-fi, like Woody Allen’s Sleeper (1973), to the latest superhero extravaganzas, such as Thor (2011) and Doctor Strange (2016).
It’s an idea at the heart of Denis Villeneuve’s intelligent science fiction drama Arrival (2016), which is now available to watch on BFI Player. Exploring the notion of extraterrestrial first-contact through an intimate lens, the film presents both the intergalactic visitors and their human receivers as alien – the former literally so, and the latter because they are forced to respond to an entirely new situation. As expert linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) attempts to communicate with the giant octopus-like beings, a lack of shared language sees both parties floundering until a connection is finally made.
While Louise never doubts her own abilities, she carries the stresses of this otherworldly situation in her every gesture, while around her global leaders behave in reactionary and dangerous ways. With the world as we know it forever changed by these beings – the true impact of their arrival being revealed only in the film’s final reel – human behaviour must adapt and evolve. The same can be said for the experience of watching the film itself: as its narrative unravels in unfamiliar beats, even the most seasoned viewer may find themselves a willing fish out of water.
Here’s a selection of films that have employed the concept to similarly terrific effect.
The Gold Rush (1925)
Director Charles Chaplin
If there was ever an enduring fish-out-of-water icon, Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp must surely be it. In films such as City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936) the character was always the befuddled outsider, but never more so than in this earlier tale. A lone prospector hoping to strike it rich during the madness of the Alaskan Klondike gold rush, he is woefully unequipped for the harsh conditions – and harsher characters – he meets along the way. While all those who gather in the wilderness to seek their fortune are driven by the same hopes and dreams, Chaplin’s character seems particularly unable to realise them, not least because he is a sensitive and endearing character, starkly at odds with the wilds of his new environment.
Including classic moments such as the dance of the bread rolls and the legendary boot-eating scene, The Gold Rush is a masterclass in comedy and pathos that’s lost none of its power almost a century on.
Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932)
Director Jean Renoir
Taking the fish-out-of-water notion remarkably literally, this satirical comedy from French auteur Jean Renoir stars Michel Simon as the titular tramp who, having had enough of his lot in life, throws himself into the Seine. He is saved by bookseller Edouard Lestingois (Charles Granval), who determines to mould the unfortunate Boudu into a more civilised go-getter – a challenge that proves difficult thanks to Boudu’s impetuous streak, which includes spitting on Edouard’s Balzacs and attempting to seduce all the women of the house.
Featuring an irrepressible performance from Simon, Boudu Saved from Drowning tackles the issue of the class divide that still exists today – indeed, the film was reimagined in the 1986 Nick Nolte comedy Down and Out in Beverly Hills. Yet it flouts any easy message-making, as Boudu deliciously subverts all social expectations by refusing to show any appreciation for the new life he has been given. Instead, it is Edouard who is left to flounder, as Boudu remains defiantly unchanged despite all efforts to gentrify him.
North by Northwest (1959)
Director Alfred Hitchcock
Released in the same year as Billy Wilder’s classic fish-out-of-water comedy Some Like It Hot, Alfred Hitchcock’s take on the theme revolves around an extreme case of mistaken identity. Cary Grant is Roger O. Thornhill, a New York advertising executive who is wrongly identified as a government agent by a group of foreign spies and pursued, spectacularly, across the US, including, in the film’s most famous scene, over the giant faces of Mount Rushmore.
While there’s no ignoring his trademark charm, Grant also imbues Thornhill with a palpable fallibility, never allowing the audience to forget that the character is more befuddled Don Draper than assured James Bond.
In the Heat of the Night (1967)
Director Norman Jewison
In Norman Jewison’s scalding race drama, the incomparable Sidney Poitier plays Virgil Tibbs, a visiting Philadelphia detective who becomes embroiled in a murder investigation in the Deep South town of Sparta, Mississippi. Initially thought to be a suspect, Tibbs must then work alongside local police chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger) and retain his dignified composure while navigating a racially hostile environment.
Tibbs is not the only fish out of water here, however. Forced to collaborate with an “uppity Negro” for the first time in his life, Gillespie is equally adrift, and Steiger gives a stellar performance as a man confronting and overcoming (gradually, reluctantly) his prejudices. It’s a film with enduring, and timely, resonance, which won five Academy Awards, including the Oscar for best picture.
Director Dario Argento
The premise of an ordinary person finding themselves in extraordinary circumstances is the lynchpin of the horror genre. From home invasion to supernatural visitation, the best scares come from the viewer empathising with the terrors being bestowed upon an everyday protagonist. Rather more experimental in his exploration of the theme, however, is Italian gialli auteur Dario Argento, and his 1977 classic Suspiria is one of his finest.
Foreshadowing a slew of ‘hapless tourist in peril’ films, Suspiria stars Jessica Harper as American ballet-dancing ingénue Suzy Bannion, who arrives at a German academy only to find it a haven for supernatural horrors. A visually astonishing film, with a bold, expressionistic use of colour, Suspiria is a disorienting, nightmarish experience in which modern American idealism and the shadowy European occult tradition collide.
Director Peter Weir
While the 1980s saw a boom in fish-out-of-water comedy (more of which below), Peter Weir’s mid-80s drama Witness takes a rather more serious approach. Harrison Ford plays John Book, a police detective who goes undercover in a tightly-knit Pennsylvania Amish community to protect a young murder witness – and himself.
This premise of an urban sophisticate butting heads with more rural folk is a familiar one, deployed in films as diverse as Deliverance (1972) and City Slickers (1991), but here it simmers with religious fervour, ingrained suspicion and forbidden love. Ford has never been better than as the man of the law thrust into a bewildering world of ancient custom and who, to further complicate matters, falls in love. In navigating this new terrain with dignity and respect, both he and Weir shine a light on the differences that divide us and the understanding that can bring us together.
Working Girl (1988)
Director Mike Nichols
Fish out of water were squeezed for maximum laughs in 80s films such as Private Benjamin (1980), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Trading Places (1983), Splash (1984), Back to the Future (1985) and Overboard (1987). One of the most socially astute of this cycle is Mike Nichols’ Working Girl, starring Melanie Griffith as Tess McGill, a New York secretary who impersonates her boss (the deliciously sharp-edged Sigourney Weaver) and attempts to navigate the big leagues.
Underneath the laughs, Kevin Wade’s screenplay makes some smart observations about the gender divide at the heart of big business, including the fact that successful women can be as much to blame for maintaining the dismal status quo. And while Tess does win the heart of Harrison Ford’s dashing investment broker, cinematographer Michael Ballhaus’s masterful closing shot, which tracks backwards from Tess happily ensconced in her new office to take in the gleaming spectacle of downtown Manhattan, makes it clear that her greatest achievement is becoming a successful Wall Street native. It’s feminism with shoulder pads.
Director Gary Ross
Over a decade after 80s teen Marty McFly was catapulted back to the 1950s in Back to the Future, the same fate befalls 1990s siblings David (Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) in this charming and astute fantasy drama. When the pair are transported (via mystical remote control) into 50s-set black-and-white soap opera Pleasantville, they discover an insular world that – literally – ends at the city limits and is governed by strict moral codes about the importance of family, self-respect and self-control. As David and Jennifer bring their modern outlook to the town, and its residents begin to think outside the box, patches of colour begin to appear.
Writer-director Gary Ross (who also wrote the similarly-themed comedy Big) uses the nostalgic comedy to make some sharp observations about the universal fear of change, which is forever at odds with the essential march of progress. In this way, Pleasantville argues, we all have the potential to find ourselves as fish out of water in an ever-changing world.
Director Park Chan-wook
While Spike Lee’s 2013 remake amped up the fish-out-of-water element of this thriller, with Josh Brolin’s central character released into and bamboozled by an unfamiliar world of smartphones and Google, Park Chan-wook’s superior original also hinges on the concept of a man struggling to navigate an entirely new normal.
Choi Min-sik plays Oh Dae-su, who is kidnapped without explanation, imprisoned in a tiny room with only a television for company and released 15 years later. Not only does he have to track down his captors and find some understanding, but he is also confronted with a world that has moved on in his absence. He has seen history unfold in news segments on his flickering screen, but, when he is thrust into everyday life, he moves like a stranger, anchored to the world only by his desire for the bloodiest revenge.
Director Olivier Nakache, Eric Toledano
While many filmmakers apply the fish-out-of-water scenario to fantastical, outlandish situations, some focus their attention on those forced to live outside their comfort zone for rather more real-world reasons. The plight of the immigrant has been so explored in films as varied as Dancer in the Dark (2000) and Dirty Pretty Things (2002). Samba, from French filmmakers Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, may have a rather lighter touch, but it is no less resonant.
The charismatic Omar Sy plays the eponymous Senegalese man, now resident in Paris but still struggling to get his official papers after 10 years on French soil. As he does daily battle with the red tape of bureaucracy and the threat of deportation, he meets unhappy government worker Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who, despite her financial security, is similarly adrift in her own skin. Sparking a relationship, the pair come to realise that a true sense of belonging can only really be found in genuine human connection.