Tuesday, December 1, 2020

The Pink Panther Series: Part 1 (1964-68)

The Pink Panther

For years, the famed Pink Panther diamond has been the national symbol of Lugash, a North African kingdom whose royal family is proving increasingly unpopular.  The young Princess Dala is on holiday in where she makes the acquaintance of suave and dashing Sir Charles Lytton. Unbeknownst to her, he is the master thief known as The Phantom, and he's planning his his biggest heist of all...

The Pink Panther is regarded as one of the greatest comedies of all time, and is a perfect start to the series. More of an ensemble piece, this surprises many accustomed to the later entries, as the famous Inspector Clouseau isn't actually the main character! If you were to pick anyone, David Niven's gentleman thief would be the main lead, but everyone gets to share screentime fairly equally.

The tone of the film is very different too, relying less on slapstick and focusing more on witty interactions. That's not to say there's no physical comedy though, as we still have some classic moments. Even though the movie may be a more subtle kind of comedy, it still has some laugh-out-loud moments, like the skiing scene later on.

Location is important in a picture like this, and it certainly delivers. From the swanky Parisian scene to the alpine ski lodge, and the fancy palace balls, there's much to admire visually here, and the costume party at the end gives some extra flair to the proceedings, as well as more opportunity for humour.

The characters are the most important part of the film by far. Whil not the main lead, Inspector Clouseau makes a great impression. It's interesting seeing the differences between his portrayal in this film compared to the later entries. While still a klutz, he's a lot less clumsy, and has little of the defining arrogance or underdog charm he'd later have. He's basically the boss here, ordering everyone else around. Even his accent is less pronounced, though still amusing.

Charles Lytton meanwhile is witty, sophisticated, and everything a man could wish to be. But unsatisfied with this, he gets his thrills from swindling innocent ladies and stealing their prized possessions. Though he may have bit off more than he can chew with Princess Dala. His American nephew on the other hand is not exactly witty or sophisticated, and has all the seductive capabilities of a brick to the face. But he plays a fun role throughout, even if another writer could have easily trimmed him from the film.

Clouseau's wife Simone is just an unlikeable bitch. She has her moments, but it's hard to look past her being a philanderous slut! It's a shame, really, because she's played in an amusing enough way, but it can be hard to really get behind her.

Princess Dala on the other hand is a mischievous young minx in the best way. Smart and crafty, she knows exactly what's going on with Sir Charles, but the jury is out on whether she's actually into the whole idea, especially given the anti-royalist attitudes coming from her people, who are demanding she give up the Pink Panther diamond.

Seeing how they interact is a real treat, and the whole seduction scene is performed brilliantly. It's absolutely steaming! You can feel the heat coming off the screen, all thanks to the writing, acting, and direction all coming together in perfect unity.

The actors all do fantastically here, from suave David Niven, to the scene-stealing Peter Sellers, exotic Capucine, enthralling Claudia Cardinale, etc. As an ensemble piece, this is a rousing success, with everyone giving it their all. Many familiar faces of British film and television pop up too, much to my enjoyment.

The animated intro is a great opening treat. For the first time we see the iconic cartoon kitty, and it's a fun beginning. He's actually the one on the run this time round, having to defend himself from a barrage of threats. Usually it would be the opposite, so it's an interesting difference.

The soundtrack to this film is great! Not only do we have the introduction to the world-famous theme, but a variety of other 60s tracks, and even some full musical moments, like the Italian nightclub piece Meglio Stasera

The Pink Panther is certainly a different kind of [kitty] than its successors, but it's still highly regarded as not just one of the best entries in the series, but one of the best comedies of all time.

A Shot in the Dark

The well-to-do Ballon household is rocked by the murder of the chauffeur. The culprit seems obvious-Beautiful maid Maria Gambrelli was in the room when the man was shot, and everyone else seems to have an alibi. An open and shut case, if not for the dogged Inspector Clouseau's insistence that Maria is innocent, and merely protecting the true culprit. Tho this end he releases her and starts building up a rapport with the girl, all while more and more murders occur, casting doubt on his theory...

A Shot in the Dark stands as an all-time comedy classic. Building on what came before, and delivering more  along with many new treats, it's a laugh-out-loud experience! The film began life as a stage play in France, and was adapted to the screen by Edwards and co. to be the follow-up to The Pink Panther, replacing the original lead with Clouseau, and adding their own new material.

This is a fast-paced movie, going from scene to scene, gag to gag, never resting too long to bore you, or for you to lose interest. As an amalgamation of a stage play and a new script, the story works for the most part, with the lion's share of the screentime being devoted to Clouseau's various schemes, ill-fated and hilarious.

The many setpieces are a joy to watch, with the standout being the nudist colony. The running gags are hilarious, and build on each-other perfectly, never feeling lazy or bored, and always provoking a laugh.

What I really didn't like though was the movie's opening, where we see the Ballon Household (or rather their silhouettes) going about their nightly duties before the murder. It basically just consists of people entering or exiting rooms, and that's it. I get what it's trying to do, but we can only see things from the periphery, and what we're seeing just isn't interesting. You can barely even tell what's going on, or who's who. The biggest problem is that it's 4 minutes long! And we've still got the animated credits to get through yet, so that's a total of 8 minutes before the movie really starts! I feel sorry for any kids in the audience.

The plot is fairly convoluted, sometimes in a funny way, but overall is just boggles the mind a little. Part of the problem is that despite their interactions and personalities playing such an important role in the story, we never really get to know the Ballon household, nor do we know those who died. I didn't even remember meeting half of them. I was confused who was a wife, sister, lover, or aunt, etc.

What really disappointed me was the climax, which should be the big 'a-ha!' moment, but instead focuses more on shenanigans than exposition. They're very funny, but they're distracting from what should be the grand unveiling of the mysteries! The reveal itself is also a confusing mess, with everyone shouting at everyone else. The only saving grace is what happens at the end, courtesy of Dreyfus.

Inspector Clouseau is in the limelight here, and is a force of nature. His stumbling is all perfectly timed, and his arrogance and sense of justice is amusingly balanced, never making him obnoxious or unlikeable. He fails too much for his personality to ever come off as off-putting, and he is instead endearing to us. He's a romantic soul too, even if he is a total dope about it. Peter Sellers really puts the final pieces in place for the character here.

Maria Gambrelli is a sweet and waifish girl, even if she is incredibly suspicious. I like that the movie never shames her for having been of a...sexually open persuasion, nor does Clouseau ever have second thoughts about romancing her in the face of this. Elke Sommer is such a beauty, and less is more with her portrayal.

Herbert Lom delivers an absolutely stellar performance as the manic Dreyfus, fully formed as a character from his very first scene onwards. In  only his first time in the role he has all the mannerisms and idiosyncracies down pat, from his exasperated behaviour, his famous eye twitching, and even the way he says *Clouseau*.

Cato, as played by Burt Kwouk, is an inspired addition. A subversion on old pulp movies, where there'd often be a sinister Oriental assassin creeping into the hero's room ready for the kill, here it builds up like that, and engages in combat, only for the phone to ring and Cato to assume a casual stance, answering the phone clearly and calmly. Even without that context the joke still works on its own merits, and he's a wonderful presence, as well as a nice bit of diversity for a 1960s production.

The rest of the actors deliver fun performances, even if they only have small roles. From the debonair George Sanders, to the softly spoken and exasperated Graham Stark, there are many familiar faces here to enjoy.

The music here is decent, with a good main theme, even if some rescorings do sound a bit weird (what on earth were they playing them on??). The introductory song though, In the Shadow of Paris, felt a bit too melodramatic for me. I suppose it was meant as a joke, but it felt too earnest, like it had all the melodrama and no self-awareness. I also couldn't help but get the impression that Edwards was really proud of this song, constantly pushing it onto us as the movie goes on.

The direction by Blake Edwards is predictably great, and the gags are all shot with perfect. It's all the more impressive when you consider the difficulty in filming something going intentionally wrong, like that pool cue scene.

A Shot in the Dark has some issues, but not only is it a classic regardless, it may actually be better than its predecessor! A wonderful spectacle to enjoy...

Inspector Clouseau

A daring group of robberies have struck England, and the Prime Minister has called on the great Inspector Clouseau for help, much to the chagrin of local law enforcement. The French detective's unorthodox approach doesn't win him any new friends, but he soon uncovers a vast plot, and without realising, he may play a part in it...

Inspector Clouseau was the first attempt to continue the Pink Panther series without Peter Sellers. Or anyone else, for that matter. There's no Blake Edwards, or Henry Mancini, not to mention none of the recurring cast members. Geez, it really is no wonder many lists of the series completely leave this out. It's too disconnected to really fit comfortably in the main canon.

The plot is pretty bog-standard stuff. Not necessarily a bad thing if it's told well, as the original film's story could be described as such, and yet look at how unique and fresh that was! Sadly the story here is a bit of a bore. I liked it when the gang steals Clouseau's face and begins to frame him, though it comes in a bit too late, and doesn't have the consequences and humour it probably should have.

Clouseau's anger and arrogance here is not fun and endearing as in the other films, but genuinely annoying. He also shares zero chemistry and very little screentime with the female sidekick, making her professed love for him at the end feel completely out of nowhere.

Alan Arkin was the actor with the unenviable position of stepping into Peter Sellers' shoes, and he gives a mixed performance. On one hand, he looks the part here and is normally a great actor, even doing a wonderful job as the equally foreign Sigmund Freud in The Seven Percent Solution. But there's just something in his performance that doesn't work. In some scenes he underplays it, which is good in theory, as a common mistake of those imitating Sellers is to overact their hearts out, but Arkin's Clouseau comes across a bit lifeless and bored half the time. As for the other half, he overacts in the most shrill irritating way imaginable! Scenes deserving of special scorn are anything involving the "PLUM PUDDING!", and the game of jacks.

The rest of the acting is generally competent. A lot of familiar faces from British television show up here, and are welcome sights. We even see Anthony Ainley, briefly! One weird touch is that everyone wearing the Clouseau masks are played by Arkin in what looks like copious eye shadow!

When this film was released, critics were predictably negative, declaring that the once great series had run out of steam. It's funny to think that in the moment that was perhaps true! Granted, saying a series with two of the greatest comedies of all time followed by one mediocre entry has run out of steam is ridiculous, but considering that we lose the main talent and get a mediocre entry, and wouldn't see a 'proper' sequel for almost 10 years, for a period it must have looked like the series had had its day!

The direction here is pretty good. There's nothing wrong with how the movie looks, from the camerawork, to locations, or effects. This leads to a climax that's nicely all over the map, through land and sea, plus a little air.

Let's end things on a high note and discuss the music. It is exceptional! Composer Ken Thorne delivers a wonderful score that Mancini would be proud of! It has a peppy 60s caper feel to it, and I could listen to it for hours! It's a shame these musical tracks couldn't have reoccurred throughout the rest of the series.

Overall, Inspector Clouseau is an unimpressive picture in its own right, and really doesn't stand toe to toe with the classics. It's not the worst thing to check out if you're having a complete marathon, though frankly I can't think of a greater torture than watching A Shot in the Dark and not immediately following it up with Return of the Pink Panther. Also of note, this film is also likely to give you a craving for Lindt chocolate. Whether this is good or bad depends either on your proximity to any, or whether you like it or not...

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