How does one review a movie that everyone at least thinks they remember? Well, you know, it wasn't easy, Appellate Judge James A. Stewart says.
Our review of The Pink Panther (Blu-Ray), published January 29th, 2009, is also available.
"He's kind, faithful, loyal, obedient."—Simone Clouseau, on
her husband, Inspector Jacques Clouseau
When he cast Peter Sellers as Inspector Jacques Clouseau (Peter Ustinov had bolted from the role), writer/director Blake Edwards found that he and Sellers shared a love of silent movie comedians like Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy. That patch of common ground, he notes in his commentary, was the genesis of the Clouseau we know today, perhaps the most memorable in a line of modern slapstick creations.
Like Jacques Tati's Mr. Hulot, Clouseau begins with a holiday, one that's even capped with a fireworks scene that pays homage to Mr. Hulot's Holiday. Clouseau is not the center of attention here; that honor goes to David Niven as Sir Charles Lytton, who confounds Clouseau the detective and cuckolds Clouseau the devoted husband.
The Pink Panther is a sometimes dated 1960s bedroom farce that, had Ustinov stayed on board, probably would have faded quickly, except for the image of Claudia Cardinale on a tiger-skin rug and some remnants of Henry Mancini's excellent musical score floating in the backs of minds and beautiful music stations' playlists. With Sellers as Clouseau, it still has its flaws, like the famed Pink Panther diamond, but it generates warm memories as the start of a classic series of movie comedies.
Facts of the Case
"Once upon a time" opens the movie as an Eastern ruler examines a rare jewel, the Pink Panther diamond, so named because it has a flaw, a mark that looks like a leaping pink panther in the right light. He shows it to his daughter, promising that it will one day be hers. Next we spin the globe, jumping from the site of a jewel robbery in Rome, where the notorious Phantom has just left his single glove calling card at the scene of the crime, to Hollywood, where young George is posing for a phony college graduation picture and dodging loan sharks, to Paris, where a mysterious woman changes her disguise and dodges the Surete officers under Inspector Jacques Clouseau (Peter Sellers, What's New, Pussycat).
"We must find that woman. She is the first positive link to the Phantom," Clouseau says. He doesn't know that the mysterious woman is none other than his wife Simone (Capucine, What's New, Pussycat).
Without that knowledge, he books a stay—with his wife—at an Italian ski resort that's really a way of keeping an eye on Princess Dala (Claudia Cardinale, Popsy Pop), who has by now inherited the Pink Panther diamond. Also keeping an eye on Princess Dala is Sir Charles Lytton (David Niven, Casino Royale), who turns out to be none other than the Phantom. He's also booked a room next door to the Clouseaus. Finally, throw in young nephew George (Robert Wagner, Hart to Hart) as a surprise visitor and a potential rival for Sir Charles with both Simone and Princess Dala to shake up this stylish martini of a 1960s movie.
"Peter Sellers biographer Roger Lewis wrote that the joke of The Pink Panther is that it's a sex comedy in which the characters don't get to have any," the pop-up trivia track points out. That's only partly accurate, because a few surprising twists let us know that Blake Edwards conceived of The Pink Panther as a caper film as well.
With Sellers stirred in, it reminds me of those early Laurel and Hardy features in which Hal Roach combined a serious plot with the antics of the popular duo, especially because Blake Edwards even threw in an old-fashioned musical interlude, with Fran Jeffries singing "It Had Better Be Tonight." When the comic Clouseau is on screen, the movie sparkles like a diamond in the light. Though it doesn't grind to a halt, the Niven-centric scenes slow the pace down. It's not that Niven is averse to tumbling into a snow drift and feigning nonchalance or dressing up like a gorilla to carry out a burglary, but that Edwards was too miserly in rationing the Sellers bits.
Sellers's Clouseau isn't quite the klutzy clown of later movies here. His malaprops, not to mention the sparring with manservant Cato, didn't arrive until A Shot in the Dark. But he's always got a little bit of extra business, as they say in the movies, flopping onto a stretcher to be carried inside with the injured Sir Charles, or dipping his hands into porridge as he makes a speech. He has a fatalistic weariness about him; when he steps on his prized violin, all he can say is, "When you've seen one Stradivarius, you've seen them all." With that weary air and the goings-on behind his back, the fool earns our sympathy as well as our attention and laughter. As Blake Edwards puts it, Clouseau embodies the 11th Commandment, "Thou shalt not give up," when he's thwarted at every turn. As the embodiment of Clouseau, Sellers gives the movie the beating heart that brings it to life.
Niven plays Sir Charles with a patented style that's been familiar since he played A.J. Raffles in the 1930s. We can see why the ladies call him "The Juggler" for his romantic exploits. With swinging music at the ready on his phonograph, he's also the quintessential 1960s bachelor.
As Princess Dala, whose reputation as "The Virgin Queen" lets us know that Sir Charles has a challenge ahead of him, Claudia Cardinale exudes not primness but a tantalizing sexuality. In this early role, her dialogue had to be redubbed (Blake Edwards says so in the commentary), but her sex appeal doesn't need to be translated in the scene which finds her lying on a tiger-skin rug, patting the dead animal's intact head.
As George, Robert Wagner shows just a touch of naïveté, but gradually lets us know he's his uncle's nephew, echoing Niven's come-ons and, later, his taunting of Clouseau. He and Capucine both come off well with dialogue like the following exchange:
She: "You should be ashamed."
Think about it. As Simone Clouseau, Capucine's a good choice, just natural enough to be a policeman's wife and showy enough to be a notorious jewel thief's mistress and accomplice.
And, oh, yes, we do get to see the Pink Panther himself in opening credits, an ending sequence, and the theatrical trailer. Here, he's a randier character than in the Saturday morning cartoons, making wolf whistles as the names of the female cast members appear on the screen.
The movie is well preserved in typical 1960s Technicolor, making it a beautiful time capsule in scenes such as that musical interlude with Fran Jeffries, complete with conga line around the ski lodge. The 5.1 Surround sounds great, all the better to enjoy Henry Mancini's lush score, one Niven would have had on hand in his bachelor pad.
Blake Edwards does the commentary here, giving us the background both on the movie and on Clouseau's evolution. Turns out he's a friend of silent comedian Harold Lloyd and a collector of silent comedies. He also points out a scene that riffs on Alfred Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent.
On the trivia track, facts pop up—in pink, accompanied by a paw or a panther head—as you watch the movie. It's nice to know that "Capucine," the nom de screen of Peter Sellers's co-star, means "nasturtium, a flower" in French, rather than a coffee shop favorite, but if you didn't know that Henry Mancini's "Pink Panther Theme" is famous, you probably wouldn't have picked up the film it contains. There are some interesting nuggets in here about the movie and the Pink Panther series, but the type's hard to read.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If you could only buy one Clouseau flick, I'd take A Shot in the Dark. It was the sequel, not the original, that saw Sellers reach his stride as Clouseau. If you have kids, though, try one of the later sequels to get away from all the bedroom banter.
The Pink Panther may not be as laugh-out-loud funny as A Shot in the Dark, but it builds as it goes along. Watching it again as I took in the commentary and trivia tracks, I found that it grew on me with repeat viewings, too.
Not guilty. Good thing, too, because the porridge in European prisons is lousy.
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