What a strange, messy phenomenon the Pink Panther franchise is. When it began in 1963 as a slight, indifferently pleasant movie about a jewel thief (played by the ever-smarmy David Niven, who was given the lion’s share of the run-time) and an inept side-character vaguely pretending to hunt him down , expectations for a sequel, let alone a cottage pop culture phenomenon, were little. Now, the first film, The Pink Panther, did not exactly set the world on fire, nor does it truly qualify as a phenomenon. But relative to what it might have been – a throwaway ’60s fluffy star piece with some entirely game actors in the distinctly ’60s laconic-swinging mode so ubiquitous in 1963 – something caught fire.
Yet it was that inept side character, and not the smarmy jewel thief, who proved the immediate success story, so much so that he was written hastily into another screenplay to facilitate another vehicle for the character to generally mess up the place and lack a clue. That character, Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers) proved a most unlikely attraction to strike a chord with an audience; buffoonish, insistent, and doughy in both his messy confusion and his inability to admit to his inability to do anything else except be confused, he was a ’30s screwball side-character who had inexplicably skipped a few decades and stumbled into his own feature film series in the ’60s.
Fittingly stumbled, I might add, for stumbling is all he did in both of his early ’60s releases. Stumbling around his own words, stumbling around a loose approximation of the human form given a detective’s mustache and magnifying glass. But mostly, stumbling around a plot of hokum and gibberish from the master of hokum and gibberish, Blake Edwards, a man who had inadvertently struck gold with an understanding of the laid-back train-wreck that was the pop culture of the early 1960s. Something about those two early ’60s films, in all their shaggy-dog refusal to conform to the mechanics of plot and their sideways dalliances with light absurdity, just fit the culture of the 1960s like a glove.
So did their intro sequences, it would seem. The opening of the first film trotted out a cartoon Clouseau that, bemused trench coat and hat hiding any human identity and evoking a brash detective mystique that is soundly mocked, doesn’t look much different from the live-action character when all is said and done. Said opening focused on that character’s hunt for an elusive cartoon panther, who happened to be pink because in the 1960s all things were arbitrarily bright, lest you fail to notice them. Until, of course, the panther got the best of the detective. That opening evoked the lithe, playful spirit of the film, but it soon attained a life all its own, swallowing up the source material in a long-running series of sly, cool-speckled animated shorts that sauntered right up to the line of poking fun at cartoon history and ’60s culture.
So popular these cartoons were, in fact, that a good eleven years after the original two live-action films, the first with Clouseau as a comic foil and the second with him as the featured player, someone decided to hand Edwards the money to make another film with Clouseau at the center (a third feature film, 1968’s Inspector Clouseau, involved neither Edwards nor Sellers and almost killed the series). Bringing the series back from the dead was accompanied, of course, with the help of another short animated side-trek slinking around that famously slithering Henry Mancini song that just wanders up to your ear and hushes “60s” before it dances away in a cloud of its own cool. Amazingly, despite the tone of this resulting 1975 The Return of the Pink Panther film being out-of-whack with the entirety of the 1970s, it was a hit and went on to birth a series of almost yearly releases, all boasting what were essentially Pink Panther shorts as intros.
Perhaps the theme of “man stumbles around the world searching for a point and never finds anything” has a certain cynical, nihilist cruelty that actually fit the ethos of the 1970s whole-cloth, and if Edwards intended this he is some sort of mad genius no one has given him credit for. The Clouseau character, and the man who played him, was a hit again, and his dogged tenacity and persistence in the face of his own incompetence and a world gone mad (the absurdism of the 1960s now serving as a reflection of the hopelessness that surely felt like absurdism in the 1970s) forged a genuine connection with audiences who had fun with his common-man detective persona. But deep down, they laughed all the more because they understood where he was coming from. If the world got you down, maybe the best thing to do, or at least the easiest, was keep on trudging, pretending like you had a plan and a path, and to blinker any obstructions from your view. Clouseau posited blissful ignorance, and by 1975, that was all many Americans thought they had left in the well.
But we aren’t here to talk about unintended applications of ’60s cool in the 1970s (although I admit I have managed to do just that for almost 800 words without much talking about the specifics of our present subject). We are here to talk about the best of these features, and amazingly, the only one that boasts not one ounce of the series’ title character, the panther, in any form. The second film in the franchise, the final one before the eleven year gap in the series populated only by the dozens of cartoons: 1964’s A Shot in the Dark. If it lacks the panther, it makes up for it by centering the not-so-secret weapon of the series, as well as the not-so-secret weapon of any film he was featured in: Peter Sellers, as Inspector Clouseau.
Sellers’ great strength as an actor was a total and complete dogged persistence to selling the material he believed in, completely passing by the absurdity and the slightness of it all and committing to the character at the core of it. Which is the perfect way to play a character who was defined precisely by his belief in his own tenacity and alertness (even when he is very much not alert) and deep, passionate commitment to the sanity of the nonsense around him. Sellers, essentially, understood what made the character tick. He believed in the character in exactly the way Clouseau needed to believe in himself, and he never played down to the material. All of the zaniness around him worked precisely because Clouseau was always there never giving in to it. Sellers always listened to his character, never presenting him like the nonsense that he was. Especially in this feature film, the character’s first time in the lead, Clouseau is not the tiredly broad, mugging caricature he would eventually become, but a somewhat brutish, pitiful workaday detective hiding his own confusion from himself.
Admittedly, and paradoxically, while Sellers is at his peak in A Shot in the Dark, it is also the film that rests on Clouseau the least (perhaps because it was not originally written with Clouseau in mind). Rather, it relies the most on director Blake Edwards. The plot is inessential, as all of the plots in these films were inessential. But the material, which delves into murder and romance among the family members and hired workers of a French aristocrat, has the sufficient density to confound and circle around Clouseau as is necessary for the character to be necessarily flummoxed. The sexual intrigue also in this case allows the film a laugh (satire is too strong and nasty for such a light film so free of acid and bile) at the expense of the increasingly open sensuality and naughtiness of the time period. A sensuality, specifically, that was deeply puritanical in the classical American tradition but was just being opened up to the slick, subtextual cool of the much more freeing cinema of Europe around this time.
The way the film, and Edwards specifically, replicates some of this European filmmaking but uses it for laughs doesn’t so much make fun of the superficial chill of European cinema at the time as it makes fun of the indifferent way American films tried to incorporate some of this chic sexuality without really knowing what to do with it. It is the story of Clouseau, who sounds like an American giving an intentionally belabored, broad French accent, bumbling around all of this urbane, sexual cool and pretending to fit in with his European accent. And it is the story of American film, in Clouseau’s body, bumbling around the urbane, sexual cool of European cinema, struggling to pretend that it fits in. In other words, Clouseau himself, a half-hearted European characterization that misses the essential character of France entirely, is a metaphor for American cinema of the 1960s, flat-footed and desperate in its desire to recreate the norms of Europe in the 1960s and wholly missing the point. It is not for nothing that Clouseau ends up at a nudist colony midway through the film and stumbles around like a cadaverous American prude; American films spent much of the 1960s doing exactly the same.
Thankfully, this playing around with the half-hearted Europeanness of American cinema at the time also doubles nicely as an excuse for Black Edwards to utilize some of those European visual tools and really come into his own as a director. the opening scene, a really sharp long take around the French manor that pauses for some fantastic still shots of rooms, painted like dioramas, as we watch the little people swim around inside like fish in an aquarium, is unmistakably European. It is a neat trick, essentially allowing his film to poke fun at films that try to visualize their cool while Edwards himself actually gets to visualize a sense of style and cool in his own film, and then and only then making fun of the cool by throwing this idiotic stereotype of a French character into the cool and pointing out how little he belongs in the story. Again, the stuffy Westerner playing France; Edwards is having fun with the inflexible hammer that was America trying to mold itself into the fine chisel and scalpel of Europe.
It would almost be possible to interpret this opening sequence as a work by Jean Pierre Melville, so perfectly does it recreate the visual language of chilly-serious ’60s cinema. Elsewhere, sequences where a black-gloved hand attempts to off the lead characters are so visually similar to the burgeoning giallo genre at the time it almost makes one want to see Edwards try a genuine horror movie on for size. That sort of audio-visual irony is the sort of work only a master can pull off (and it lies in perfect unison with the way Sellers plays the character like a boorish Melville gangster rather than any variety of likable, sympathetic being).
Edwards was a fair weather master, sure, but at least this once, he was a master. He uses this opportunity to show off grandly, to at once work as a serious filmmaker and to poke fun at other American directors who felt the need to be serious filmmakers without any clue as to what they were doing. If other Panther films were vehicles for Sellers and Sellers only, A Shot in the Dark is a work that uses Sellers with a clarity of purpose and a point within its larger vision, a work that sees a director understanding the abilities and necessity of his lead actor and exploring him as part of a tapestry of cinematic visuals. All of this, too, in a work that is ostensibly a lark, and a work that insists on its own greatness and craft so little. It is a work of ’60s pop that is parodying the self-consciousness cool of ’60s pop and getting to play ball with that pop all the same. Not bad for some barely-there sequel to an inoffensively funny crime caper about a bumbling detective.