Universal // 1975 // 119 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // June 20th, 2006
The Inspector Without a Clue!
When the famed Pink Panther diamond is stolen from a museum in Lugash, the country calls on the famed French inspector Jacques Clouseau (Peter Sellers, Being There) to solve the crime. Unfortunately, as luck would have it, Clouseau has just been demoted by his unstable supervisor, Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Herbert Lom, The Phantom of the Opera). A few pulled political strings later, Clouseau is on the case. Traveling to the scene of the heist, he is convinced that the robbery is the work of the famed jewel thief Sir Charles Litton (Christopher Plummer, The Sound of Music). Traveling to the celebrity criminal's manor in Nice, France, Clouseau uses disguises and his keen sense of observation to draw out his suspects. Before long he is in Switzerland, tracking Litton's wife, Lady Claudine (Catherine Schell, Space: 1999). Unbeknownst to the French policeman, Lugash is plotting with Litton to find the real burglar and, as with any situation in which politics are involved, things turn dire, then deadly. If he doesn't find the party or parties responsible, Clouseau himself will be in danger. Without his whip-smart detective skills, there may never be a Return of the Pink Panther.
Peter Sellers was an incomparable comic actor. Give him an accent and a scenario to work within and he usually made movie magic. From his origins as part of the mythic Goon Show to his dazzling work with Stanley Kubrick (Dr. Strangelove being a true movie milestone), he was the Beatles of British comedians. Like those four influential moptops, Sellers took bits and pieces from the history of humor, spiced it up with his own distinct (and disturbed) inner aesthetic, and created a whole new arena of influential and genre-changing wit. Still, he was more than just a pratfalling funster. In a manner recalling those members of the method acting breed, Sellers carefully crafted each chameleon-like film persona to accurately reflect the individuals he inhabited. Since he took his assignments very seriously, it's sometimes hard to see the joy inside all his hard work and it's this sadness, this bitter resolve, that makes his comedy so cutting, his outrageous character turns that much more classic. Ask your average film fan for their favorite Sellers role and, once you get past the erudite discussions, most mainstream movie lovers point to Inspector Jacques Clouseau in Blake Edward's Pink Panther slapstick heist comedies. With a single exception, Sellers invented the role and rode it to international superstardom. The series even continued on in several sloppy posthumous movies.
For fans who want to know, Return is the one with the "minkey." It's the movie where Clouseau crashes not one, but two, oddball vehicles into a Nice swimming pool. It's the one where he dresses up like a hotel domestic and wields the world's most powerful -- and problematic -- vacuum. And it's the one where he battles a pooping parrot which conveniently drops its foul fowl feces on Clouseau's suit, as well as in his glass of champagne. It is also the installment that started the series back to massive bottom-line success (after the less-than-stellar receipts for the Alan Arkin effort). Return brought Sellers back into the film fold, proved that Blake Edwards was not tapped out as a director of conventional fare (his one-time auteur value had diminished greatly after Darling Lili died and The Tamarind Seed tanked), and showed that slapstick as a cinematic art form was not necessarily dead. Granted as the series moved on from this crossroads creation, Clouseau devolved into something more bumbling, his accent became hilariously overdone, and Herbert Lom turned Chief Inspector Dreyfus into a stark raving lunatic (complete with a mad scientist's lair). Still, the fans really didn't seem to care. Give them Sellers stepping over his own feet and mispronouncing common words ("reum," "deug") and they were ecstatic.
Honestly, there is still some very funny stuff here. Just watching Sellers walk into a room, his eyes darting about in an attempt to find his foils, is comic gold. No one could work a stone face like the clever comic (he definitely gives Buster Keaton a run for his chops) and yet he was also very funny in full-on mugging mode. Since they are based so heavily in the realm of physical comedy, it is usually the major chaos set pieces we remember (Clouseau and that damned vacuum or Clouseau's constant quasi-kung fu battles with his manservant Cato). However, a lot of the humor in Return is in sensational smaller moments, like the scene where Clouseau wrecks Sir Charles' study. It's the little aspects in the routine -- trying to get out from between a pair of desk drawers or struggling to remove a permanently attached chair from his backside -- that garner the biggest guffaws. Equally hilarious (and blatantly ripped off by Mike Myers in the Austin Powers films, by the way) is an attempted liaison with Lady Litton. Few actors can make the art of seduction as sensationally silly as Sellers.
Granted, Return does have its issues. Though he's a fine, formal actor, Christopher Plummer is a piss-poor action hero. His fight scenes and escapes look like excerpts from an aborted Siegfried and Roy buddy film. Catherine Schell is rather bland as well, not the most impressive example of mid-'70s Euro-eye candy in the series. The plot is perfunctory, moving from heist to hijinx in a stale, straightforward manner, and the horribly dated ways in which Clouseau refers to Cato (the dialogue disturbingly refers to him as "yellow-skinned" and "Oriental" -- ouch!) are startling to post-PC ears. Still, thanks to the efforts of Sellers, and the equally amazing Herbert Lom (his tic-filled turn as Dreyfus is manic...and mesmerizing), we find ourselves falling for every lame joke and hear ourselves chuckling at another crazy Clouseau comment. The Return of the Pink Panther is one of the better entries in the series, but it also hints at the formulaic and forced facets that would plague the subsequent sequels.
Since it's the only title not controlled by MGM, Universal is in charge of this release and the complete lack of respect they show for its entertainment value creates a very disconcerting DVD presentation. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image is washed out, aged, and lacking the zip and zing we except from a digital remaster. In some scenes, it's no better than a fine-tuned VHS, with lots of grain and some print damage. When you add in the flat, lifeless Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 mix and the complete lack of added content (only a set of pre-menu trailers included here), you have a slap in the face of any fan of this film. Worse, it shows no consideration for Blake Edwards or Peter Sellers. This was an important collaboration for both men, so treating them like a G-rated tie-in to the horribly lame Steve Martin remake hitting store shelves is an outrage. The movie -- and the men who made it -- definitely deserve better.
As an example of Peter Sellers's timeless talent, The Return of the Pink Panther is fascinating. As a flashback to a time when comedy was cut from the silent screen style of pratfalls, it's an equally engaging experience. As a part of the overall series, it's a great deal of fun. As a DVD package, it's appalling. Sellers and Edwards are free to go, but hold Universal for trial.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 119 Minutes
Release Year: 1975
MPAA Rating: Rated G
* Peter Sellers Official Site
* Blake Edwards Site