THE PINK PANTHER (1964)
*½/**** Image A+ Sound B+ Extras B
starring David Niven, Peter Sellers, Robert Wagner, Capucine
screenplay by Maurice Richlin and Blake Edwards
directed by Blake Edwards
A SHOT IN THE DARK (1964)
***/**** Image B+ Sound B+
starring Peter Sellers, Elke Sommer, George Sanders, Herbert Lom
screenplay by William Peter Blatty and Blake Edwards, based on the play by Harry Kurnitz
directed by Blake Edwards
THE PINK PANTHER STRIKES AGAIN (1976)
***½/**** Image A- Sound A-
starring Peter Sellers, Herbert Lom, Lesley-Anne Down, Burt Kwouk
screenplay by Frank Waldman, Blake Edwards
directed by Blake Edwards
REVENGE OF THE PINK PANTHER (1978)
*½/**** Image A Sound A-
starring Peter Sellers, Herbert Lom, Burt Kwouk, Dyan Cannon
screenplay by Ron Clark, Frank Waldman, Blake Edwards
directed by Blake Edwards
TRAIL OF THE PINK PANTHER (1982)
*/**** Image A Sound A-
starring Peter Sellers, David Niven, Herbert Lom, Joanna Lumley
screenplay by Frank Waldman, Tom Waldman, Blake Edwards, Geoffrey Edwards
directed by Blake Edwards
by Bill Chambers If you've never seen the one that started it all, then it will probably surprise you to learn that The Pink Panther is all but a pre-emptive strike against a possible franchise--practically the only thing about it that became canonical and conventional was the animated title sequence. (This upheld tradition of a cartoon beneath the opening credits formalized a cottage industry for James Bond distributor United Artists.) Series lynchpin Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers) isn't even the central figure; that would be Sir Charles Litton (David Niven), a playboy plotting to steal the coveted Pink Panther diamond by ingratiating himself with its owner, Dala (Once Upon a Time in the West's Claudia Cardinale), a pampered princess decompressing at a ski chalet in Cortina.
And what a dull plot it is--the film is wall-to-wall exposition courtesy of talking tuxedoes. Hot on Litton's trail is the blundering Clouseau, whose wife (!), played by everyone's favourite monomonikered diva (no, not Cher--Capucine), wants in on the take because she's romantically entangled with Litton and Litton's visiting nephew (charmless Robert Wagner, there to pander to the contemporary youth market)--unbeknownst to her husband, natch. This cruel spin on Clouseau's obliviousness went wisely unrepeated, his character profile soon shaken like an Etch-a-Sketch of both the spouse and some intrusive grey matter, to say nothing of his fate at the end of this picture. A Shot in the Dark followed The Pink Panther to theatres so hastily (three months later) that it exposes one or the other as hackwork. My money's on the torpid The Pink Panther, which exhibits the worst tendencies of Blake Edwards ("I enjoy the proscenium," the director of every Clouseau picture to date is fond of saying), with ramrod-straight actors negotiating the frame as though they're table-hockey effigies.
Nothing in The Pink Panther is as finessed as the bravura prologue of A Shot in the Dark, though even that lacks the perfectionist technique of what it's obviously aping, Hitchcock's Rear Window: Backed by the strains of Henry Mancini's silky, lingering "Shadows of Paris," a farce unfolds in a labyrinthine apartment complex to which we are voyeuristically privy. I never used to think much of this sequence until I saw it in widescreen, for the 'scope framing restores coherence and an affecting lugubriousness to a red herring-laden bit of choreography. Considering Edwards got his start in television, his movies are remarkably unaccommodating of pan-and-scan.
Part of the reason A Shot in the Dark is not a straight sequel is that it's based on a Harry Kurnitz play unrelated in any way, shape, or form to The Pink Panther. Attached to star in Anatole Litvak's film version, Peter Sellers had issues with the screenplay that were assuaged once the studio recruited his friend Edwards onto the project. Edwards observed that the character Sellers would play bore enough similarities to Clouseau to make forging a whole new screen persona a waste of their time; meanwhile, the grafting of Clouseau onto this source material gave his mythology just the kick in the teeth it needed. Dropped was the missus and added were nemeses Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Herbert Lom) and Kato (Burt Kwouk), Clouseau's mad captain and ninja butler, respectively, although Kurnitz can't take credit for any of these innovations, only for laying the soil in which absurdist ideas could flourish.
A Shot in the Dark is still a plodding affair. As Clouseau investigates the murder of a limo driver, he falls for the #1 suspect, Maria Gambrelli (Bardot clone Elke Sommer), and repeatedly lands both of them in hot water trying to establish her patsy status. While a few of these set-pieces are tours de force on the part of Sellers, at least one--Clouseau infiltrating a nudist colony--has too loaded a set-up to reimburse our anticipation; such is the price of having a comedic reputation that precedes you. (The current Starsky & Hutch gets into a similar pickle by having Ben Stiller accidentally ingest cocaine--the high hopes for the hilarity to come stifle the execution.) Perhaps it's also a matter of Bohemian nudists corrupting the prevailing modishness of the film--A Shot in the Dark shares the cosmopolitan glaze of early 007--so beautifully decreed by Henry Mancini's martini-doused score.
If the style of the Pink Panther series corresponds with that of Bond, it stands to reason that as Bond became a parody of itself, Pink Panther would become a parody of Bond. In The Pink Panther Strikes Again, the biggest-budgeted film of Edwards's career up to that point, Dreyfus apparently escapes from Hopital Psychiatrique to exact revenge on Clouseau and, effectively, the world for blithely ignoring The Clouseau Problem. Holed up in a German castle, he commissions a Blofeldian Doomsday device seemingly capable of vaporizing public monuments (I'm stunned and relieved that nobody thought to suppress the film post-9/11), but it's not until he tests it out on the UN (a common scapegoat of Vietnam-age satire--remember the demolecularization of UN ambassadors in Batman?) that the President sends the world's top assassins after Clouseau, who's busy terrorizing the bourgeoisie as usual.
MGM's omission of The Return of the Pink Panther, the film that fell between A Shot in the Dark and The Pink Panther Strikes Again (it's tied up in a rights dispute with the former Artisan Entertainment), from their new DVD set positions The Pink Panther Strikes Again as a straight sequel to A Shot in the Dark. On these terms it works quite well--Dreyfus was already insane by the end of Shot, anyway, rendering his transition to raving lunatic in Return superfluous. Moreover, the twelve-year gap separating the two films is only three in story terms. Yet there's unmistakably an evolutionary step missing, for Sellers looks suddenly embalmed and the tone is a step further removed from reality.
Infectiously enthusiastic, the film in fact offers such a potent approximation of cartoon physics and ethics that when the animated Clouseau and his cel-based foe The Pink Panther resurface for the closing titles, it has almost the opposite effect of the disappointing return to live-action at the tail of the opening credits, themselves a pure expression of movie love--Clouseau watches as Pink insinuates himself into Hollywood lore by usurping screen idols like Gene Kelly and Julie Andrews (a.k.a. Mrs. Blake Edwards)--that places this franchise in its proper, vacuous context: Pink Panther movies are about being Pink Panther movies and embroidering new iconography onto the silver screen. To that end, the picture's hysterically over-the-top skirmishes featuring the rechristened Cato suggest something far more influential than is generally acknowledged--the Jackie Chan program in its primordial state, if you will.
From the sublime to the abrasive: Revenge of the Pink Panther. To prove he's got what it takes with the mob, Philippe Douvier (Robert Webber), a businessman alternately known as The French Connection, conspires to assassinate Clouseau. Unbeknownst to anyone, he winds up killing a transvestite instead, inspiring Clouseau to enlist the services of Cato and Douvier's secretary Simone Legree (a miscast but winning Dyan Cannon) in a search for his "murderer." All involved gravitate towards Hong Kong, where hilarity ensues 'til it can't ensue no more.
The last Pink Panther movie Peter Sellers was alive for, Revenge of the Pink Panther may hit the reset button on its immediate predecessor with regards to Dreyfus, but that's not why it's bothersome: If The Pink Panther Strikes Again evokes one aspect of HK cinema (Jackie's self-contained syntheses of Bruce Lee and Buster Keaton), Revenge of the Pink Panther conjures the rest of it, all those self-hating, chaotic yet meandering sado-slapstick affairs the joint has been lousy with since the Eighties. Abjectly racist, the film shows Cato no reverence whatsoever, prefixing his every mention with the word "yellow," having him transform Clouseau's apartment into a brothel (sorry, "Chinese nookie factory") the instant news of "boss's" demise leaks to the press, and encumbering him with a pair of Coke-bottle specs for the finale, the better to invoke the signature lampoon of Yellow Peril.
Sellers's off-screen brutishness really registers this time in his acidic demeanour around Kwouk (Sellers really had it in for Asians in his later years (see his yellowface turns in 1976's Murder by Death, this picture (Clouseau dons a Mr. Yunioshi disguise comparable to Cato's for no earthly purpose--which is not to absolve Edwards, who introduced Mr. Yunioshi to moviegoers with his Breakfast at Tiffany's), and 1980's The Fiendish Plot of Fu Manchu, Sellers's final completed film), while Clouseau's overreliance on puns and malapropisms (as opposed to physical schtick) for comedy here is a telltale sign of Sellers's physical deterioration--a career trajectory that Chan has also had to face. In short, Revenge of the Pink Panther feels like the precursor for Rush Hour 2. I did laugh unreasonably hard, however, at Clouseau's Italian jabberwocky. Garbed in a zoot suit to feign mob ties, he greets Douvier's Number Two with a hearty "Spaghetti du Al Pacino!"
United Artists was ready to put Sellers's own screenplay for a sixth Pink Panther into production sans Edwards when he died, figuring Edwards's non-attendance behind the camera would have fewer box-office ramifications than Sellers's non-attendance in front of it. Edwards negotiated for two pictures in Sellers's wake, companion pieces to be shot consecutively that would work around the absence of their hero by investigating Clouseau's disappearance within. Halfway through Trail, Clouseau's plane goes missing over Lugash (home of the Pink Panther diamond); until then, the film is clogged up with outtakes from previous entries that would function as total non-sequiturs were they not weaved between pathetic expository inserts.
In the face of its sentimental dedication "To Peter, the One and Only Inspector Clouseau," Sellers's widow Lynne Frederick successfully sued Edwards for "denigrating" her late husband's memory with Trail of the Pink Panther. What begins as a half-assed caper movie (the Pink Panther is stolen, Clouseau is assigned to the case) is bifurcated once Edwards runs out of unused Sellers footage. Joanna Lumley assumes command of the story as a television reporter (one who curiously travels without a camera crew) interviewing old acquaintances of Clouseau--including the Littons (surprise! Niven (dubbed by Rich Little) and Capucine reprise their roles), A Shot in the Dark's Hercule Lajoy (Graham Stark), and Cato, the latter cudgelled with ethnic slurs for most of his screen time--to track his scent. Edwards likely imagined the film as an homage to Citizen Kane, but with the abundance of retrospective clips padding its second half, Trail of the Pink Panther is more like the contractually-obliged clips episode that grants the cast of "Friends" one cakewalk per season. Despite an intoxicatingly strange segment that flashes back to Clouseau's adolescence (an unrecognizable Richard Mulligan appears as the Inspector's father), the glaring opportunism of the enterprise discourages an apologia of any kind. I'm sort of thankful for the exclusion of the sequel, Curse of the Pink Panther.
MGM has assembled the five films reviewed herein in the ponderously baptized "Blake Edwards' The Pink Panther film collection starring Peter Sellers: 6-Disc DVD Collector's Set - Special Edition." Owners of the previous compilation set (now out of print) will want to upgrade A.S.A.P., as the pan-and-scan presentations of the original discs have been dropped (thus diluting the volume of compression artifacts) and, in the first place, the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfers are not the same marginal efforts as before. The Pink Panther looks breathtaking--I've scarcely encountered a more gorgeous rendering of a Sixties movie; the rest are varying degrees of eye candy, mostly depending on the cinematography. (All five entries were shot by different DPs.) That said, A Shot in the Dark hasn't as clean a source print as the others, and its skin tones are infrequently a rosy shade that betrays the problematic Eastman stock on which it and The Pink Panther Strikes Again were likely photographed. The clarity of the Dolby Digital 5.1 remixes is equally impressive--the many incarnations of Mancini's unimpeachable theme have never resonated so. The technical improvement these DVDs represent compensates for the package's slim supplemental offerings.
Edwards chimes in at the pace of a tortoise for a feature-length commentary on The Pink Panther. A transcript of this yakker would be a string of halting ellipses; consequently, multi-tasking a listen with the optional pop-up "trivia track"--a great research tool--will not detract from either experience. Condensing the vital details of this initial platter's extras, John Cork's 23-minute "The Pink Panther Story", a documentary on the bonus disc, makes for a compromise of sorts: Edwards less distractedly discusses the genesis of The Pink Panther, reflecting in the process on his collaboration with the man he calls "Sellers." (He likens the cloudiest days on the series to receiving a terminal diagnosis.) Unfortunately and inexplicably, the piece rushes Edwards, producer Walter Mirisch, Sellers biographer Ed Sikov, editor Ralph E. Winters, stunt double Joe Dunne, and script supervisor Betty Abbott Griffin through the other films--for copyright reasons, I understand skimming past Return of the Pink Panther, but the infamous Trail, too? (Although Inspector Clouseau, the Mirisch Brothers' disastrous attempt to revive the franchise without Edwards or Sellers, is briefly touched on, Edwards's post-Sellers failures Curse and Son of the Pink Panther (Roberto Benigni's abortive attempt to launch a post-Jarmusch Hollywood career) are not.) Mirisch's aside about having to repaint the inside of a train because certain colours provoked Sellers is fascinating but prematurely tantalizing.
Under "Cartoon Theatre," find "Behind the Feline: The Cartoon Phenomenon" (11 mins.), a slightly out-of-synch featurette that introduces us to affable David H. DePatie, half of the team ("DePatie-Freleng") responsible for the animated "conversation pieces" at the beginning of every Pink Panther film, in addition to a slew (156, to be exact) of 7-minute Pink Panther cartoons distinct from the features (and unique in their Sendakian design)--six of which are included for our viewing pleasure. Pink torments a painter in the Oscar-winning The Pink Phink, a sadistic conductor in the brilliant Pink, Plunk, Pink, and a new age artiste in Psychedelic Pink. He's on the road to becoming a secret agent in Pinkfinger, the last we see of him; the John Byner-voiced The Ant and the Aardvark (a childhood favourite that's lost a little of its appeal) and The Great DeGaulle Stone Operation, starring Clouseau's Charlie Brown-esque alter ego, round out the selection of cartoons, which are in fullscreen with tinny, ersatz Dolby Surround soundtracks. The five movie discs contain combination still galleries and cast biographies (written to impart information not gleanable from the remaining appendices) plus always-mesmerizing theatrical trailers for the respective films. The packaging proper is destined to annoy: the cushiony exterior, fashioned to resemble a dust jacket, has a measly three inside flaps, necessitating a precarious overlapping of the discs two-by-two-by-two. Originally published: March 16, 2004.
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