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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
<i>The Pink Panther</i> series is slapstick fun that accidentally confronts its mortality

The Pink Panther series is slapstick fun that accidentally confronts its mortality

With Run The Series, The A.V. Club examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.

The cartoon panther says nothing—not in dialogue and not about the movie he’s advertising. Each Pink Panther film has an elaborate, animated opening-credits sequence, steered by luminaries like Friz Freling or Richard Williams, usually featuring a non-speaking panther capering mischievously to the catchy strains of Henry Mancini theme music as a little cartoon detective follows him in vain pursuit. And even when the cartoons focus on an animated version of a bumbling trench-coated man, they don’t really capture the true spirit of Inspector Jacques Clouseau, the accident-prone, thickheaded French detective who became the star of a decades-spanning series of comedies.

The cartoon Clouseau engages in boilerplate cartoon shenanigans in pursuit of the panther, vexed by seemingly omnipresent forces like a poor man’s Wile E. Coyote. The “real” Clouseau, the creation of director-writer Blake Edwards and the inimitable Peter Sellers, isn’t usually bedeviled by sinister forces. While his circumstances are often ridiculous and unwinnable, most of Clouseau’s notable pratfalls and punchlines are his own doing. This may be why he’s the more sympathetic character in The Pink Panther (1963) despite being something of a second banana to actual lead character Sir Charles Lytton (David Niven), debonair thief of the fabulous Pink Panther diamond. In this context, Clouseau is the guy just trying to do his job and getting in his own way. Even those more inclined to sympathize with Niven might notice that he comes across as insufferably smug for much of the film.

Niven and Sellers later both appeared in the James Bond spoof version of Casino Royale, and The Pink Panther, while deservedly better-regarded than Royale, feels compatible with that famous boondoggle. It has all the handsome photography, beautiful women, and lavishly depicted skiing of a mid-period James Bond picture. In other words, Panther is one of those lush ’60s comedies that’s sometimes more stylish than actively funny. Sellers engages in some side slapstick, expertly executed little gags about stepping wrong or misplacing his hand (onto a spinning globe or a too-hot lighting fixture), but much of the movie is sort of a wan romantic/sexual farce with semi-inane banter. Thankfully, Edwards gets into the more farcical spirit of things with a climactic costume-party set piece after Clouseau figures out that Sir Charles is the mysterious thief that he seeks, capping the scene off with multiple gorilla costumes, literal fireworks, and a car chase.

The series-in-waiting feels liberated from where it began a mere 90 minutes earlier. Edwards is best at orchestrating absurd slapstick stunts big and small, and that’s exactly what he and Sellers do for A Shot In The Dark (1964), the quickly-made sequel that sends Inspector Clouseau on his own misadventure. Niven, the diamond, and the cartoon panther are all gone. So, apparently, is Clouseau’s wrongful conviction as the Phantom from the end of the previous film. He’s free to fall besotted with Maria (Elke Sommer), a woman who seems like the obvious culprit for a murder, which soon becomes a series of murders, making Clouseau look worse and worse as he insists that she is innocent. It is the perfect case for Clouseau, because his poor comprehension and dogged determination produce results that are similar to keen intuition: Maria is not a murderer.

While The Pink Panther mixes a heist picture, continental self-satisfaction, and a side dish of slapstick, A Shot In The Dark more ably weaves together a genuine (if thin) murder mystery and a daffy (if low-key) developing romance between Clouseau and Maria, while upping its slapstick game considerably in the foreground. Edwards excels at both long set pieces and short bits of comic punctuation, like the running gag of Clouseau getting repeatedly carted off to jail whenever he dons a new disguise (he never has the proper paperwork or licensing for whoever he’s impersonating). Edwards establishes such a punchy rhythm to this gag that simple cuts to the same shot of a speeding, siren-blaring paddy wagon get some of the movie’s biggest laughs.

A Shot In The Dark also offers the novelty of introducing series hallmarks like Cato (Burt Kwouk), Clouseau’s assistant who surprise-attacks him as part of an ongoing training, and Commissioner Dreyfus (Herbert Lom), Clouseau’s boss and nemesis. Dreyfus despises Clouseau, but as his fury builds, his composure gives way to what a minor Simpsons character once called “Clouseau-esque” clumsiness, functioning as a pratfall in miniature. Even before he’s driven mad and into full-blown supervillainy in The Pink Panther Strikes Again, in Shot he accidentally cuts off the tip of his thumb and stabs himself with a letter opener, with Clouseau nowhere in sight to take the blame. In his next appearance, he can’t keep straight the difference between his firearm and a gun-shaped lighter. The more Dreyfus stews over Clouseau, the more he resembles him.

A Shot In The Dark was certainly one of the speedier big-name sequels ever produced, its U.S. release trailing its predecessor by mere months, which makes the eleven-year gap between Shot and the next Sellers-Clouseau movie, 1975’s The Return Of The Pink Panther, especially odd. In the interim, there was a single Clouseau movie, which looks like more of a curiosity: Inspector Clouseau (1968) featured neither Sellers in front of the camera nor Edwards behind it, nor any of the recurring characters who the ’70s revival of the series treated as vital ingredients.

Alan Arkin briefly assays the role, and he’s no Peter Sellers. To even call him the George Lazenby of the series would be, at this point, a kindness; On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is semi-secretly a pretty strong Bond movie. Inspector Clouseau is something of a secret—its DVD release trailed the other films—but not a strong one. The movie’s very first Clouseau joke is way off: As Arkin’s version of the character exits an airplane, the camera pans down to reveal that… he’s not wearing shoes, and has entered into the pouring rain with only raggedy socks. The would-be gag keeps usual Clouseau logic—the far-fetched yet seemingly unavoidable process by which he would be left in the rain without shoes—entirely off screen.

Inspector Clouseau has some passable verbal exchanges, but it’s not witty enough to offset director Bud Yorkin’s inability to stage physical humor with more than a fraction of Edwards’ skill. A fair amount of the movie’s direction for Arkin involves him drifting into other characters’ personal space, and when he exits scenes without so much as a stumble, his Clouseau looks more like a garden-variety buffoon, with occasional bursts of frantic energy. A different take on the character to go with the different actor probably makes sense. But as Steve Martin would later demonstrate with an abbreviated series revival (not included here, as it’s clearly more remake/homage than continuation), anything short of Sellers-grade commitment to this part makes Clouseau’s ridiculousness ring false and shticky.

Inspector Clouseau does appear to initiate the series’ movement in the direction of James Bond, with a few Bondian gadgets and some pesky assassins. But it’s debatable whether later entries actually took their cues from it; it’s easy enough to imagine Sellers and Edwards never laying eyes upon this off-brand stopgap of a movie. Though the two men had a rocky relationship, they did eventually reunite, after a period of professional and personal turmoil for Sellers. In quick succession, they made Return as well as The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976) and Revenge Of The Pink Panther (1978). These films codify the running gags of the series into a comfy, enjoyable routine.

Return most resembles a modern comedy sequel: It plays the already-established greatest hits (battles with Cato; an apoplectic Dreyfus; a search for a thief who has absconded with the Pink Panther diamond; even the character of Charles Lytton, though played by Christopher Plummer instead of David Niven) louder and longer for a victory lap that might remind younger fans of Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.

Return is not unlike one of those periodic Bond-movie insistences that Bond is back, baby, and doing all the stuff you remember him doing in other Bond movies. The movie has so much merry reverence for Pink Panther touchstones that it takes forever to get going (which becomes something of a serious trademark in its dotage). The usual antics also go bigger than even the more slapstick-oriented Shot In The Dark. Clouseau destroys furniture and museum pieces, submerges multiple vehicles in a single swimming pool, and gets smeared with Looney Tunes-style gunpowder in the aftermath of small explosions. Even the smaller-scale moments broaden. The accent Sellers does for Clouseau is more exaggerated and less distinctly French than ever; the previous two films don’t make much of pronunciation gags, but Return goes to that well almost immediately and keeps going back.

Despite its sequel bloat, the movie is often very funny, and Edwards has a field day with some of his set pieces, like a bravura extended sequence of Clouseau and a bellboy sneaking around a hotel room. Return’s excesses prepare the series for the even-more-Bondian turns that follow. In The Pink Panther Strikes Again, Dreyfus has gone mad and takes control of a doomsday machine, becoming a world-threatening megalomaniac for the express purpose of killing Clouseau. Revenge has Clouseau presumed dead by the world in a (protracted) setup reminiscent of the Bond picture You Only Live Twice.

Strikes Again is one of the silliest entries, but as such, it forges its own identity. It’s hard to imagine the French detective from the first few Pink Panther movies repeatedly attempting to cross a moat and laying siege to a supervillain’s lair via makeshift variations on a pole vault, but this is what the movie wants to do, and it mostly works. (Honestly, it’s an aesthetic perfectly fitting for a movie that uses “Strikes Again” in its title). But both Strikes Again and the spottier Revenge make bizarre changes to Clouseau as they draw him into bigger, more outlandish plots. Whether Sellers was growing restless with the character or Edwards was just hungry for bigger, weirder opportunities for physical comedy, Clouseau becomes increasingly infatuated with elaborate, nonsensical disguises, like a hunchback costume with an inflatable hump that leaves him floating far off the ground.

The Sellers performance embraces these more rococo elements; even in his more familiar guises, later-period Clouseau is louder, wackier, and more prone to panicking or screaming, where in the past Sellers would chase deadpan obliviousness with a well-placed cry of surprise. His brief, strangled scream as he falls out of a window in A Shot In The Dark is one of the funniest moments of the series. His more frenzied reactions in Strikes Again and Revenge are not. By Revenge, the character’s increased mugging, combined with the movie’s insistence on involving Dreyfus in the plot yet again (despite him literally disappearing before our eyes at the end of the previous film), makes the series feel pretty tired well before it arrives at the fireworks factory—and even then, it’s more manic and less precise than past Edwards extravaganzas).

Revenge would prove to be the final proper Clouseau film. Edwards and Sellers began planning another, but Sellers died in 1980. This did not stop him, however, from appearing in Trail Of The Pink Panther (1982), a bizarre attempt by Edwards to continue the series using deleted scenes, recycled footage, old characters, and flashbacks to Clouseau’s formative years. (Why Edwards didn’t just make a Young Clouseau movie outright is a mystery unto itself.) Trail was shot concurrently with the Sellers-free Curse Of The Pink Panther (1983), which follows American Clouseau equivalent Clifton Sleigh (Ted Wass) as he searches for original-recipe Clouseau. No one seems to have considered how dispiriting a prolonged search for Clouseau would play with the real-world knowledge that Sellers had died; both movies seem best intended for children just old enough to watch a Pink Panther movie but just young enough to remain unaware that Sellers is not still alive and well today.

It’s difficult to say which film is worse. Curse is an earnest but ill-advised attempt to soldier on without Sellers, while the more mercenary Trail at least offers glimpses of his genius, even if his widow successfully sued over his posthumous appearance. The charitable view of Trail is that it pays tribute to Sellers by showing that even his outtakes had some great moments. The charitable view of Curse is that at least it doesn’t try to force a dead man to give one last performance. But it does soullessly check off characters (Dreyfus, Cato, Sir Charles) and story points (the missing diamond, the missing Clouseau) carried over from Trail. Ted Wass never really carves out his own identity as Clouseau’s American counterpart, and his falls look weirdly obligatory. He often seems vaguely embarrassed, and frankly, it’s the right reaction.

Regardless of which bad post-Sellers movie is nominally funnier or less morally repugnant, they essentially comprise a two-movie death rattle, sometimes extending to its cast. Edwards brought Niven back for both movies presumably to shore up the series’ continuity, and these appearances turned out to be the actor’s last. Because of this, the attempt at a simulated reunion now looks even more ghoulish. Edwards himself went on to make many more movies after the Pink Panther series seemed to finally be buried for good, only to exhume it one last time in 1993 for Son Of The Pink Panther. This would prove to be Edwards’ final film as a writer/director, as if he was determined for everyone involved with the series to take it all the way to their graves. (Henry Mancini, too, got to claim Son as his final film, and though Herbert Lom made a few subsequent TV appearances, it was his last feature.)

Amazingly, star Roberto Benigni was not claimed by the grim reaper following Son Of The Pink Panther, surviving to win the Best Actor Oscar for his film Life Is Beautiful. Son has neither the sad-clown pathos of that film nor the clearer personality of Beningi’s Italian comedies of the same period. The idea of a comedian with a decidedly different style but a similar facility for slapstick taking up the mantle of Clouseau makes more sense than the previous schemes Edwards concocted, at least.

This only makes Son better than the worst of the series; Benigni doesn’t really have the pomp necessary to play a bumbler with a sense of duty. He’s the most committed of the series’ alternate Clouseaus, a more natural fit than Alan Arkin and a more engaging presence than Ted Wass. But ultimately, Son Of The Pink Panther hamstrings its star and itself by attempting to position itself as an early crack at a legacy sequel, bringing back familiar faces even if they don’t quite make sense: Claudia Cardinale, who played the princess in The Pink Panther, returns, but she’s playing Maria, Elke Sommer’s character in A Shot In The Dark, whose relationship with Clouseau is retconned to be both more important (having produced Clouseau’s son) and less important (she describes their coupling as very much accidental) than it initially appeared. More confusing on a story level, Dreyfus also returns, reputation seemingly intact despite half a lifetime of trips to the insane asylum, and takes under his wing the son of the man he tried to murder on multiple occasions. Edwards suddenly seems determined to provide Dreyfus, of all characters, with a happy ending. He somehow doesn’t have the heart to let go of a character who is literally disintegrated on screen four movies earlier.

Maybe Edwards was, by this point, immersed enough in his series to become inured to any sense of finality, not unlike Clouseau himself, who sometimes registers the danger he’s in but rarely notices just how dire it could get. Clouseau, for all of the disasters his bumbling causes, is a lucky man, barely escaping death countless times, obliviously ducking assassins’ bullets and emerging from electrical or explosive mishaps basically, in the words of Daffy Duck, “singed, but triumphant.”

The Pink Panther series began feeling like a lark: first for Niven and company, then for Sellers and Edwards to orchestrate the slapstick of their dreams in subsequent installments. Eventually, it becomes a strange, seemingly unwitting expression of mortality. Just as Dreyfus resembles Clouseau the more he resents him, Edwards’ dogged determination to keep his brainchild alive turns the franchise into an inexorable death march, a series of pratfalls into the next world.

Edwards probably didn’t see it that way, of course. He appeared to believe that the series could imitate the endlessly self-reviving Bonds, with Clouseau spawn and variations keeping the slapstick tradition alive. It’s hard to decide what’s more unusual: that Edwards thought that maybe Sellers-free Pink Panther movies would prove as durable as Bond spectaculars, or that in his slapdash way, he nearly willed it to happen despite a firm, unwavering lack of interest from just about anyone else in the world. Consider that Sellers made his debut not long after Connery first played Bond and took a break around the same time; that he left the role for good shortly before Roger Moore retired from spycraft; and that Edwards attempted to continue with Benigni just before Pierce Brosnan debuted as 007. Steve Martin even took his crack at Clouseau the same year Craig rebooted Bond. Edwards damn near matched Bond’s longevity while logging far fewer good and/or popular films.

But he could only outrun the inevitable for so long, namely because Sellers died long before any of the proper Bonds. The star is the Pink Panther series’ ultimate weakness, and its invaluable strength. James Bond may be the retrograde idea of what many men would like to be; the Sellers version of Inspector Clouseau is closer to who we really are. And despite the celebrated perseverance of the human spirit and/or Clouseau, we sure as hell don’t last forever.

Final ranking:

1. A Shot In The Dark (1964)
2. The Return Of The Pink Panther (1975)
3. The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976)
4. The Pink Panther (1963)
5. Revenge Of The Pink Panther (1978)
6. Son Of The Pink Panther (1993)
7. Inspector Clouseau (1968)
8. Trail Of The Pink Panther (1982)
9. Curse Of The Pink Panther (1983)