Director: Blake Edwards
Cast: David Niven, Peter Sellers, Claudia Cardinale, Robert Wagner, Capucine, Colin Gordon, John Le Mesurier
Plot: An esteemed jewel thief (Niven) is hunting a precious gem, called the Pink Panther. But he has Inspector Clouseau (Sellers) hot on his heels. If only Clouseau wasn’t utterly useless…
The Pink Panther’s first outing is surprisingly unique, mainly for the fact, Clouseau was such an unexpected hit that the movie didn’t initially think to make him the main star. When Blake Edwards initially concocted the story of a jewel thief going after a rare, and now infamous, Pink Panther diamond, it wasn’t supposed to be entirely about a bumbling idiot of a detective. Rather, Peter Sellers was hired to make the cop on the anti-hero’s tail that little bit out of the ordinary. There is good fun to be had in this charming comedy. However, initial reactions to Seller’s barmy police officer were so positive that Edwards recalled the cast and filled this film with much more Clouseau, making him more predominant in the first act. The end result is a film that is bizarrely unlike any Pink Panther we have seen before, yet with that comedic tone we have to come to expect.
For the first half of the film though, the first Pink Panther movie is highly disappointing. It felt like it should be funnier than it actually is. It reminded me of an old-fashioned Shakespeare comedy (pipe down, egotistical Panther fans – this is going to be a negative comparison), where Shakespeare and Edwards have come up with a funny chain of events, but call it a day at that. As though the very fact, these things are happening is enough to win the film critical acclaim. The plot sees a virginal princess inherit a rare Pink Panther diamond, only for the country to turn against her rule and demand the jewel back as the property of the nation. The princess defends her ownership and flees to a holiday resort. Well aware the jewel is exactly the kind of bait he needs to catch his notorious nemesis, the Phantom, Inspector Clouseau heads to the resort to see if there is any sign of him. That’s when the film becomes a Shakespearian case of double-crossing and secret identities. David Niven plays Sir Charles Lytton, secretly the Phantom. He poses as a confidante to the Princess, in the hopes of seducing her. Meanwhile, Clouseau has no idea his own wife is the Phantom’s lover, meaning that whenever he gets close, his own spouse purposefully keeps him occupied. However, also thrown into the mix is Lytton’s roguish nephew, charmingly played by Robert Wagner, who wants a slice of the action and decides he wants to seduce Clouseau’s wife as well. It sounds like a strong start for a decent comedy with characters criss-crossing, making fools of each other and generally getting up to no good. Yet, for most of the running time, Edwards refuses to make good of this winning situational comedy. The film seems to drift by with the odd gag, but played far straighter than you want it to be. It is hardly a bad film, with solid dialogue scenes between characters. Even with her voice dubbed, Italian actress Claudia Cardinale is superb in her first American movie role, charismatic and seductive throughout. But this film is never anything more than slightly watchable. There isn’t even too much mystery until the very end, as the plot focuses on the planning of the heist. It means that for a lot of the time Clouseau isn’t so much detecting, as hanging around a holiday resort, trying and failing to seduce his wife. Perhaps this is a symptom of Sellers’ best scenes being added in after.
It does pick up for the ending. The first truly worthwhile scene is a drawn-out set-piece that actually makes good use of its love tri…square? French model Capucine, playing Clouseau’s treacherous wife, meets David Niven in her hotel room to discuss their plot, only for Robert Wagner to burst in and try to seduce her, unaware his uncle is hiding under the bed. Then Clouseau returns, meaning that Wagner is also hiding. Capucine rushes around for a good fifteen minutes, trying to keep these three separate men from running into each other in one hotel room. It’s cheap ‘cheating wife’ territory, but with an added player to the stock scenario, marks the first time this movie actually manages to engage the viewer. The punch-line is a safe-for-work, yet eyebrow raising joke about an explosion beneath the sheets. That was one joke to cleverly slip past the censors (also look out for the line: “Get your hands off my asp!”). Then the finale notches everything up one more level. There is a masked ball, a jewel to be stolen and every player hidden in the room. Edwards throws everything into the kitchen sink: an exploding firework, two identical gorilla disguises and even a pantomime zebra… But what was it that made the Pink Panther grow into a strong franchise and what is so special about Peter Seller’s bumbling French Inspector to make him become the later lead in the movie? At first, he is, like most of the movie, annoyingly tame. He simply falls over a lot and says the wrong thing at the wrong time. But it is more about the humour than him simply being clumsy – he is totally, utterly, impossibly inept. It’s not just the tripping over the carpet that amuses but the fact he cannot get a single action right, without some damage. The funnier moments are simply when he fails to hang his hat on a peg several times in a row. He is made endearing through his total lack of ability. Amusingly, because of his incompetence, you are rooting for him to win. And that is what later went on to fuel these movies.
The best bit of the film is still that opening credits sequence however. The iconic music, the animated panther. I don’t really know if calling the credits the high point of the film is an insult or a compliment…
Final Verdict: Surprisingly different from the expected Pink Panther movie with Clouseau in the supporting role and comedy that is slow to start.