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Purrfectly pink/ Diamond geysers? The Pink Panther (1963)/ A Shot In The Dark (1964) ~ Reviews

August 26, 2013

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A few weeks ago, I kicked-off (yet) a(nother) ‘summer season special’ here at George’s Journal in the shape of a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the not to be underestimated, mostly very funny Pink Panther comedy film series – and have punctuated it since with a couple of pictorial-based posts dedicated to the beauty of four of its female co-stars Capucine/ Claudia Cardinale and Elke Sommer/ Catherine Schell. Now, however, it’s time to take that blog season by the Clouseau-esque trenchcoat lapels and really get it properly going with my thoughts on (i.e. reviews of) the first pair of Pink Panther movies – the one, the only (well, actually, the first and original) The Pink Panther and it’s direct sequel A Shot In The Dark. Cue Henry Mancini…

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(The Pink Panther) Directed by: Blake Edwards; Starring: David Niven, Peter Sellers, Capucine, Claudia Cardinale, Robert Wagner, Colin Gordon, John Le Mesurier and Fran Jeffries; Screenplay by: Blake Edwards and Maurice Richlin; US; 110 minutes; Colour; Certificate: PG

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A cynic might say the funniest thing about The Pink Panther is that of all The Pink Panther films it’s the least ‘Pink Panther’ film. Personally, I’d probably put it in more conciliatory terms: although not as laugh-packed as most of its succeedents, the first in the universally known comedy blockbuster series is unlike many of the others, its charms arguably being more unexpected and, in a way, more intriguing.

Distinguishable from its wholly Peter Sellers-fronted, mostly slapstick-fuelled sequels, The Pink Panther is actually a smooth, luxuriant, Euro-exotic crime caper that was intended as a star-vehicle for the talents of the debonair David Niven as charming rake Sir Charles Lytton (who’s secretly jewel thief extraordinaire ‘The Phantom’), but of course the movie was stolen by supporting player Peter Sellers as the hapless Inspector Jacques Clouseau of the French Sûreté, who’s tasked with tracking down the former – whom vainly always leaves a white silk glove engraved with a capital ‘P’ at the scene of his crimes – when its assumed he’ll attempt to steal the most expensive diamond in the world, the ‘Pink Panther’, from its owner the gorgeous Princess Dala (Claudia Cardinale) of the fictional Lugash colony, as she visits the exclusive ski resort of Cortina d’Ampezzo.

The film then has arguably more in common with glamorous Hollywood capers of the ’50s and ’60s like To Catch A Thief (1956), Charade (1963) and Topkapi (1964) than the other Pink Panther flicks. Taking a cue from the urbane persona of Niven himself, much of its tone and pacing is relaxed; the photography only too happy to languidly make the most of the Alpine locations, while the slow-tempo action’s perfectly accompanied by Henry Mancini‘s score, oozing classy, jazzy melodies and motifs. Indeed, at one point an entire scene’s given over – far from unpleasantly, though – to a performance by singer Fran Jeffries of the Mancini/ Johnny Mercer song name-checked in the movie’s iconically animated opening titles, Meglio Stasera (It Had Better Be Tonight).

And things are so relaxed, at other times they’re even horizontal – in one scene mid-way through, Dala lies prostrate on a tiger-skin rug getting plastered on champagne as Niven’s Lytton attempts to seduce her (so he may get his mits on the diamond), but it’s such a slow carry-on – especially the by-play – it’s maybe not surprising the seduction doesn’t work at all. More critically, the movie’s two major set-pieces – a costume party at which the diamond’s theft and its thief’s capture are finally attempted and a subsequent multi-car chase through the night-time streets of Rome – both suffer from a lack of haste.

Yet, what elevates The Pink Panther into something truly memorable (and a huge box-office hit back in the day) is the presence of Sellers, of course. Clouseau may only be in his genesis here (he plays a violin dreadfully rather than executing the karate chops and leaps to come), yet he’s already a wonderful creation of Buster Keaton-like big screen buffoonery. For instance, thanks to his inexplicable insistence on wearing a medieval knight’s suit of armour at the aforementioned costume party, his clanking about the shop, not being able to see where he’s going at all (as his visor keeps clanging shut), imbues the sequence with enough hilarity to more than save it.

Indeed, it’s his exaggerated facial expressions, pratfalls, misunderstandings and general incompetence that make the film – it’s faster and simply funnier when he’s on-screen and less satisfying when he’s not, even with the presence of fellow supporting actors Capucine (on fine comic form as his wife Simone, whom unbeknownst to him’s in total cahoots with Lytton) and an exceedingly young Robert Wagner as Lytton’s tearaway nephew George, whose inclusion, it must be said, unnecessarily complicates the plot.

Ultimately then, The Pink Panther is more a curate’s egg than a solid entry in the enduringly popular film series it spawned, being – as pointed out – really rather dissimilar to the entries that followed it. Yet, when it sprouts wings and flies, it truly does (just like the series’ other entries) and when it does so it’s with two classic Pink Panther film facets – first, the opening titles that introduce both the DePatie-Freleng cartoon Pink Panther and Mancini’s instantly recognisable theme and, second, the movie’s most satisfying and best slapstick sequence, which sees Clouseau and his wife prepare for bed while the latter tries to dispel the amorous Lytton and then the randy George from the hotel room without her husband noticing. Somewhere along the line a bottle of champagne accidentally erupts; just like the scene itself, it’s explosive, delightful and hilarious.

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(A Shot In The Dark)  Directed by: Blake Edwards; Starring: Peter Sellers, Elke Sommer, Herbert Lom, George Sanders, Tracy Reed, Burt Kwouk, Graham Stark and André Maranne; Screenplay by: Blake Edwards and William Peter Blatty; US; 102 minutes; Colour; Certificate: PG

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One uninitiated into all things Pink Panther might be fooled on first viewing A Shot In The Dark, going away with the impression it was the first in the series. It wasn’t, of course (as the above review and my other posts in this PP season very much attest), but it was with this follow-up flick (coming just months after the original’s release) that the ‘Pink Panther film’ really got going, really found its identity, truly connected with the public; in short, got its mojo.

Ironically, owing to the fact it neither features the words ‘Pink Panther’ in its title, nor the eponymous diamond or ‘The Phantom’ character in its plot, Shot could be said actually not to be a Pink Panther movie; however, that’s just technicalities. For so many tenets of the series were established in this picture: Clouseau (Sellers) taking centre-stage, adopting his ‘reedeeculoos’ French accent, his trademark trenchcoat and tweed trilby and somehow attracting and maintaining a gorgeous female love interest (Elke Sommer‘s lovely Maria Gambrelli); the introduction of Herbert Lom’s utterly marvellous Sûreté superior officer, Chief Inspector Dreyfus, and his murder-causing insane hatred of his hapless inferior; plus, of course Burt Kwouk’s  mad manservant Cato, whom never misses a chance to put his employer Clouseau through his karate training paces – at any time, at any place.

Based on a French play adapted for the US stage, it was initially scripted by William Peter Blatty (who’d achieve absolute pay-dirt status nine years later when his screenplay of his own novel The Exorcist was turned into the notorious monster horror hit), on which Blake Edwards started collaborating as he was completing the first Pink Panther flick. The plot then, ostensibly a whodunnit, sees the seemingly useless Clouseau mis-assigned to a murder case at the manor house of a Parisian aristocrat (an as ever über-urbane George Sanders), for which his beautiful, possibly nymphomaniac maid (Sommer) is the chief suspect – so much so anyone in their right mind can’t see any scenario in which she couldn’t be the killer. Except Clouseau, of course, because he’s immediately fallen head over heels for her, and makes it his mission to prove her innocence, in spite of mounting corpses and his own incompetence.

Quality-wise, Shot is easily the best Pink Panther film. Its tight, witty, accomplished plotting ensures it stands out among its fellow Clouseau-featuring capers. And, while there’s the usual slapstick sequences (more than in The Pink Panther, less than in the later series entries), they’re carefully conceived and expertly realised – and most of them unexpected. We have Clouseau’s ridiculous attempts to go undercover and monitor Ms Gambrelli that repetitively get him arrested, then the pair going on a night of dates at each venue of which someone’s bumped off by accident instead of the intended target, Clouseau, and best of all, our hero following his would-be-lover to a location that he discovers all too late is a nudist camp – a sequence that builds to a crescendo of them both trapped in the nuddy in a very busy Parisian traffic jam.

Much credit must go to director Edwards. Already a dab-hand at helming films with smart, sassy humour and physical comedy (1959’s Operation Petticoat and 1961’s Breakfast At Tiffany’s), he dials down the aspirational, glamorous style and tone of The Pink Panther and ups the character-driven comedy and slapstick to suit his upgraded star Sellers – or, more specifically, the latter’s genius character. It’s true that, like its predecessor, Shot‘s certainly a glossy piece of work (more so than the ’70s Pink Panthers, which look and feel very much of that decade), but being a detective comedy based around a manor house, the exoticism of the previous film is gone and, in its place, there’s far more Clouseau and far more gags that land – indeed, many of them positively zing, both visual and verbal (“Give me ten men like Clouseau and I could destroy the world”/ “Look at that, I have Africa all over my hand”/ “François, I just cut off my thumb”).

In the end, though, it’s hard not to suggest the lion’s share of Shot‘s effectiveness – and deserved success (it outgrossed the box-office big-hitter itself that was The Pink Panther) is down to Sellers. If the first film was his US break-out flick, it was this one that made him a Hollywood star and Clouseau a comedy icon. Proof can be found by looking no further than the confusion his mis-pronunciation of the word ‘moths’ (‘meuths’) causes George Sanders’ Monsieur Ballon – even though, despite Ballon having a slight French accent contrasted with Clouseau’s over exaggerated one, they’re both supposed to be speaking in French, so why doesn’t he understand him? It’s a gag that defies the logic of its movie’s universe, yet because it’s so brilliantly executed it doesn’t matter a jot; in fact, it’s wonderful fun that simply washes over the highly entertained audience. Much like the movie itself, you might conclewwwd. I mean, conclude.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 26, 2013 10:00 pm

    I am such a huge fan of “A Shot in the Dark”. It really is brilliant. Even the title is a perfect pun.
    It is almost a faultless comedy – and I say this as someone who is not a fan of slapstick per se.
    I quote this film in real life, even when those quotes seem to make no sense to anyone. “Facts, Hurcule, nothing matters but the facts.”
    “I submit, Inspector Ballon, that you killed Maria Gambrelli in a rit of fealous gage.”

    • August 26, 2013 10:05 pm

      Yep, I know exactly where you’re coming from, dubster. Gotta say, I love the scenes with Clouseau and Cato – utterly harebrained but brilliant, as well as Dreyfus’s unfolding madness – not least when he points to the cause of his anxiety, what if incredibly Clouseau’s actually right about the case and he’s wrong? Genius. As is the resolution at the end, which you don’t see coming a mile off. A comedy classic-and-a-half.

      Thanks for your comment…! 🙂

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