Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With Coming 2 America now available to rent from home, we’re offering our own belated sequel to a past Watch This theme and singing the praises of more good comedy sequels.
Released only a year after The Pink Panther, A Shot In The Dark was the film in which Peter Sellers’ incompetent and oblivious Inspector Clouseau came into his own; it marked the introduction of Clouseau’s trademark accent (which Sellers is said to have borrowed from a hotel concierge a week into filming) and of the characters of Dreyfus (Herbert Lom), the police commissioner who is driven insane by Clouseau’s antics, and Cato (Burt Kwouk), the valet whose job it is to ambush Clouseau at inopportune moments so the detective can keep his fighting skills sharp. Previously a bumbling scene-stealer, Clouseau was now the star of the show—though not yet a complete cartoon.
Technically, it was more a spin-off than a sequel, but given that continuity in the Pink Panther series is as haphazard as any of Clouseau’s investigations, this seems like a moot point—the film wasn’t even supposed to feature Clouseau until Blake Edwards had the script (which featured a different inept French police detective) rewritten to entice Sellers. Oddly enough, the rewrite was handled by William Peter Blatty, who would later become famous for The Exorcist. Odder still, in the hit Broadway farce that provided A Shot In The Dark with its source material, the role given to Sellers’ Clouseau was played by William Shatner.
The plot is a standard murder mystery. A chauffeur has been found dead at the estate of the wealthy Benjamin Bellon (George Sanders), and a maid named Maria (Elke Sommer) is suspected to be the culprit by everyone except the smitten, periodically Quixote-esque Clouseau. Although the story was significantly reworked by Edwards and Blatty, its stage-bound origins partly explain why it feels more coherent than the later Pink Panther movies, which cashed in on Clouseau’s popularity, even when Sellers was absent (as in the next film, the forgotten Inspector Clouseau) or dead.
It has to be acknowledged that, both together and apart, Edwards and Sellers have a deservedly awful reputation when it comes to Asian stereotypes—we’re talking about everything from Breakfast At Tiffany’s to The Fiendish Plot Of Dr. Fu Manchu. Kwouk’s brief appearances as Cato are funny here, but the character increasingly became a caricature as the series progressed, turning some of A Shot In The Dark’s most memorable jokes into formulaic running gags. A little of the character goes a long way.
Out of all the films in the series, this is the one that best showcases Edwards’ tight control over comedy, which is obvious from the opening sequence, a long crane shot that follows the amorous goings-on at the Ballon estate as live-in servants sneak into each other’s bedrooms. This isn’t to say that the film is short on obvious improvisation (a particular routine with a wristwatch comes to mind) or truly ridiculous sequences, like Clouseau’s trip to a nudist colony, in which he attempts to preserve his dignity with a well-placed guitar. Decades later, the rise of Judd Apatow-style improv would turn Hollywood comedies into salvage jobs, with constant cuts between close-ups. In that light, it’s hard not to admire the dedication of this movie’s cast members, who manage to keep straight faces as Sellers bumbles his way through Edwards’ long takes.