Memories can be misleading, but I vaguely recall an evening in 1977 or '78 when my family was having dinner at another family's house, and my brother and I were hanging out with a bunch of other kids in a basement den, watching a network broadcast of The Pink Panther Strikes Again. It was one of the funniest movies any of us had ever seen, and during the commercial breaks, we'd adopt outrageous French accents and act out the slapstick (in a safe, slow-motion way) and laugh ourselves silly. Then it was time to go home, about an hour into the movie. And to this day, I've never seen the rest of it.
In fact, until this week, I'd never seen the entirety of any of the Pink Panther movies. Just like the James Bond films I wrote about for Better Late Than Never a few months ago, the Pink Panther series was all over TV when I was a kid, which means I saw a lot of the movies in pieces. But as I grew up, I never developed any burning desire to see any of the Pink Panthers from start to finish, for a number of reasons. In general, I have a low tolerance for broad slapstick, particularly in that heavy-footed "Isn't this a gas?" style of the '60s and '70s. I also run hot-and-cold on the career of Panther director Blake Edwards, who's one of the chief architects of that "sophisticated but wacky" style. I like colorful sets and fashionable clothes and veteran actors as much as the next nostalgic schmoe, but when the go-go music starts and the gorilla suits come out, I tend to reach for the TV Guide.
Yet I have this enormous The Pink Panther: The Ultimate Collection box set that was sent to me last year, and it seems a shame not to put it to use. And since The Pink Panther 2 is opening today, and since I seem to be the only A.V. Club writer who's never really seen the original films… well, Better Late Than Never it is.
There was some debate among my A.V. Club colleagues about whether I should watch the first film, The Pink Panther, which is widely regarded as a middling entry in the series, or if I should jump ahead to A Shot In The Dark, which is considered an undeniable classic. I decided it wouldn't hurt to take a spin through both.
Having now watched The Pink Panther, I can see why some of my colleagues warned me against it. (Keith Phipps described it as "paced like a Bergman film," while Zack Handlen dismissed it as "passable.") Released in 1963, The Pink Panther arrived right in the thick of the international thriller/caper-film boom, and though it's pitched as a mild parody of that genre, the genre itself had become so larky and tongue-in-cheek by the early '60s that there was really nothing left to parody. As critic Pauline Kael pointed out, John Huston and Truman Capote's absurd 1954 adventure-comedy Beat The Devil "killed off" any notion of taking spies and femmes fatale and double-crosses and elaborate heists seriously, and even though Beat The Devil was a notorious flop, its "to hell with everything" style became commonplace in bloated, star-laden Hollywood action pictures by the dawn of the next decade.
Strictly on a plot level, The Pink Panther doesn't even try that hard to impress. David Niven plays a worldly jewel thief known as "The Phantom," and Robert Wagner plays his nephew, a fledgling crook who's unaware of his uncle's secret identity. Both men are after "The Pink Panther," an enormous diamond with a cat-shaped flaw, and they've tracked the gem to an Italian skiing resort, where it's in the possession of the exiled daughter of the former Shah of Lugash. Niven's aided in his plot by the uni-named Capucine, the long-suffering wife of a bumbling French police inspector, played by Peter Sellers. And if it weren't for Sellers' 20-odd minutes of screen time, The Pink Panther would likely be a barely remembered ripple in the whole early '60s heist-flick wave.
It's not that The Pink Panther is a total dud without Sellers. Blake Edwards (who also co-wrote the film) definitely brings the glamour, with sexy dance sequences, fun on skis, and a knowing tone about sexual politics. (When Capucine teases Wagner to distract him from Niven's plot, then immediately turns cold again, he barks, "What are you, a sexual yo-yo?"). But Edwards also can't resist zany sound effects, or that irritating aspect of farce that has situations spiraling out of control just because characters can't take no for an answer. As for the extended costume-party climax, I think it was best summarized by critic Dave Kehr: "The gorilla suit finale is a little heavy."
Ah, but then there's Inspector Clouseau, Sellers' enduring comic creation, who's responsible for all the sequels and cartoons and remakes. Given how iconic Clouseau's trenchcoat and hat and catastrophic clumsiness have become, it's surprising how subtle Sellers is in The Pink Panther. Watching Sellers pace around a tight room—bumping into objects and people without ever destroying anything or hurting himself—is a lot more amusing to me than seeing him fall out of a window while waving his arms madly. This Clouseau is just a little out of step with everyone around him, and Sellers' reactions to his mistakes are amusingly abashed.
In fact, the two scenes in The Pink Panther that made me laugh out loud have almost no movement at all. In one, Sellers asks Capucine to warm her cold feet against him, and when she does, he utters a soft, offscreen yelp of surprise. In the other, a bottle of champagne smuggled into bed by Capucine suddenly goes off, serving as a sly metaphor for premature ejaculation.
Barely a few months after the release of The Pink Panther in the U.S., Edwards brought Inspector Clouseau back in A Shot In The Dark, a more out-and-out comedy that Scott Tobias attempted to psych me up for by saying, "Prepare to be blown the hell away." Well, I don't know that I was "blown away" exactly, but A Shot In The Dark is definitely more consistently entertaining than its predecessor, as well as being quirkier and, of course, funnier.
Stepping away from capering, Edwards and co-writer William Peter Blatty (yes, the guy who wrote The Exorcist) stick Clouseau into a drawing-room murder mystery, loosely adapted from Marcel Achard's play L'Idiot. George Sanders plays an aristocrat who calls in the cops to investigate a murder at his estate, and insists that Clouseau stay on the case even though the inspector is clearly incompetent (perhaps to draw attention away from his own guilt). The other prime suspect for the murder is Sanders' sexy maid, Elke Sommer, to whom the inspector takes an immediate liking. The only problem is that everywhere Sommers and our hero go, people keep turning up dead.
If I'm a little reserved in my praise for A Shot In The Dark, it's only because my block against madcap '60s comedies still pertains. I wasn't actively annoyed by anything in A Shot In The Dark the way I was by the door-slamming farce of The Pink Panther, but I could've done with less of our hero getting attacked by his Chinese servant Kato, and less of Clouseau's boss getting ever twitchier, until it's revealed at the end that he's the mysterious man in the shadows who's been trying to kill Clouseau for most of the second half of the film. What makes the Clouseau character hilarious—in my opinion—is his muted, controlled reactions to the chaos he causes, and the outsized reactions of A Shot In The Dark's supporting characters sometimes throw the tone off. (It's sort of like the old theory that audiences are more likely to cry if a character doesn't.)
That said, just as a piece of cinema, A Shot In The Dark is superior. It's about 12 minutes shorter than The Pink Panther, and it features a somewhat darker lighting scheme that gives the image more depth. The opening murder—shot through open windows from the exterior of Sanders' estate—is beautifully choreographed, almost like an Alfred Hitchcock sequence re-imagined by Jacques Tati. And the movie contains several justly famous scenes: Clouseau playing billiards with a warped cue, Clouseau stripping off his clothes and continuing his investigation in a nudist colony, and especially Clouseau literally stepping on toes in his final "I've gathered you all here to reveal the identity of the murder" speech. (The string of confessions and the ultimate fate of the guilty bump that last scene up to an even higher plane.)
Yet again, though, my favorite moments in A Shot In The Dark—the ones that actually made me laugh, and not just smile—were a lot more modest. I enjoyed it when Clouseau responded to the question, "Would you like to examine the body?" with an overeager, "I would be delighted!" I liked him getting flustered during his run-down of the facts of the case and complaining, "I've broken my pointing stick! I have nothing to point with now!" I liked the purposefully drawn-out scene of the inspector and his assistant trying and failing to synchronize their watches. And I could've watched a whole movie of Clouseau trying on disguises and then immediately getting arrested—always in a jump-cut.
And so I stare at my big pink box set of Pink Panther movies and wonder if I should press on into the '70s, into the Sellers and Clouseau that I remember from when I was 7 years old. I'm thinking… not. Better to preserve the fond memory of one silly night when I was a boy, and the recent memory of a tight-lipped Peter Sellers disguised as a painter, and getting nicked by the gendarmes.