If this movie had been released before The Pink Panther, we might have gotten a talking bullet as a Saturday morning cartoon character, Appellate Judge James A. Stewart notes. He's glad the cat came first.
"I made a terrible mistake."
-- Chief Inspector Dreyfus getting some very bad news
MGM thought that putting Inspector Jacques Clouseau on the case in A Shot in the Dark was a mistake as well. That's why the studio waited to see how The Pink Panther did before releasing this sequel, according to IMDb. Because you already know that answer, the rest is history.
Facts of the Case
The movie opens with people creeping around the French chateau of Monsieur Ballon (George Sanders, Village of the Damned) to carry out their regular clandestine romantic assignations, only to have everything come to a halt—courtesy of a shot in the dark.
Despite the opening murder, the title A Shot in the Dark more likely refers to the detecting style of Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers, Casino Royale), who arrives on the scene and promptly falls into a fountain. He then questions members of the household, including Maurice, who found the body, and says Maria the maid killed the man. His reasoning: the door was locked from the inside and when Maurice got there, he found Maria (Elke Sommer, The Wrecking Crew) with a smoking gun in her hand. A lesser mind might suspect Maria of murder, but Clouseau doesn't buy it, perhaps because he likes the scent of bath oil on Maria.
"I believe everything and I believe nothing. I suspect everyone and I suspect no one. I examine the facts and gather the clues and before you know it, the case is solved," Clouseau says, in a speech that suggests he has the little gray cells of Stan Laurel rather than Hercule Poirot.
Meanwhile, Dreyfus (Herbert Lom, And Then There Were None) has arrived on the scene to kick Clouseau off the case. That doesn't last long, however, since someone higher up has requested Clouseau's return.
This time, Clouseau has an idea: "Maria Gambrelli is most definitely protecting somebody. Find that somebody and you'll find the murderer." With a trail of bodies piling up, can Clouseau find the murderer before the murderer finds him—with a bullet?
A Shot in the Dark was adapted by Blake Edwards (10) and William Peter Blatty (The Exorcist) from a Broadway play by Harry Kurnitz, which was in turn adapted from a French farce called L'Idiot by Marcel Achard. There's no sign of Inspector Clouseau in the character list for the play. But the denouement of the movie with its gathered suspects has a strong atmosphere of stage farce, which shows its roots in live theater.
Although you see the famous feline cartoon character in the DVD selection features, the Pink Panther is not present in the movie. In the opening credits, you see the cartoon Inspector. In the theatrical trailer, oddly, you see a cartoon bullet exchanging bad puns with other bullets about being "half-shot" (drunk) as he describes the movie. It's slightly amusing, but shoots blanks.
There may not be any Pink Panthers in sight, but you've entered the world of Inspector Clouseau, a world where nothing works quite as it should, whether it be a window blind or something as simple as a pen. As he interviews a suspect, we see Clouseau struggling to keep his composure as minor office mishaps rip at his clothing. Every object is a pratfall waiting to happen. When a murder motive comes out of his mouth, it's a "writ of jealous fage." One thing I noticed here is that many of Sellers's bumbles are small gestures, ones you might even miss if you're not watching closely. Sellers's destructive pratfalls are more graceful and less obvious here than in later sequels.
They're still enough to drive Commissioner Dreyfus (Herbert Lom) crazy. Stuck with a "fool" on a high-profile case, he starts with a little twitch which grows to maniacal laughter in a psychiatrist's office. Dreyfus is a humorless character who cuts off the ends of his cigarettes with a tiny guillotine. He's no stranger to disaster himself, with his guillotine and letter opener proving hazardous, especially when he's distracted by Clouseau's bumbling. Watch Lom's reactions—or apparent lack of reactions—to these accidents carefully. They foreshadow the now familiar twist ending.
You'll find a few performances to watch among the supporting players. Elke Sommer makes a saucy foil for Sellers as Maria, looking both innocent (at least of murder) and seductive as she deals with her most sympathetic interrogator. George Sanders, who played suave Simon Templar in the movies, plays it cool as Monsieur Ballon. He seems calm as he ignores Clouseau's disasters to keep the bumbler on the case and away from the solution. Graham Stark (heard with Sellers on radio's The Goon Show) plays Hercule, Clouseau's assistant, in a small role that gives him a few chances to show his adeptness at wordplay.
Burt Kwouk (Goldfinger) makes his first appearance as Kato (later Cato). His bits, attacking Clouseau to help the Inspector practice his self-defense skills, are funny; but they lose something because they're written to depend on surprise.
The swinging 1960s make an appearance in A Shot in the Dark in the form of a nudist camp, which Clouseau visits while trailing a suspect. Fans of Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery might find the sight of Clouseau hiding behind trees and an inflatable raft familiar, but it's funnier here with Sellers as the uptight and uncomfortable Clouseau. The lighthearted attitude toward a string of murders as Clouseau goes for a night on the town with Maria definitely places it in the campy 1960s camp as well.
You'll also find lots of vintage Technicolor at play as Clouseau makes a nightclub tour with suspect Maria, with slight flaring at times amid the colorful sets and costumes. This transfer otherwise appears good, but phony sets are obvious, as are details like the stock footage in rear projection when characters ride in cars. There are no problems with the familiar Henry Mancini orchestral score in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound, either.
Extras are sparse. You get the trailer mentioned earlier, plus a photo gallery that includes a few bio nuggets about the key players. Heck, a Pink Panther cartoon to justify his appearance on the DVD box would have nice.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Sometimes you can judge a DVD by its cover. If you look closely, you'll notice that the snapshot of Peter Sellers and Elke Sommer on this case doesn't include clothing. That should let concerned parents know that this one is more risque than later Pink Panther entries. PG isn't R, true, but sometimes there are reasons for parental guidance.
Also, Blake Edwards could have done a commentary for his first Inspector Clouseau comedy; the one on Pink Panther covers the whole series to some extent, though.
Can you imagine this farce without Inspector Jacques Clouseau and with Walter Matthau and William Shatner, who starred in the Broadway version that inspired it? Would you want to?
Not guilty. I watched this one and Pink Panther together and found Shot in the Dark the funnier of the pair, quite possibly (although I'd need some re-viewing to be sure) the best of a favorite funny series.
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