The Pink Panther (1963)

The Pink Panther (1963)Synopsis: Arriving at a posh resort with her precious “panther” a large gem with them image of a leaping feline inside sexy Princess Dala meets the debonair Sir Charles. She is unaware, however, that Charles, a.k.a. “The Phantom,” is a professional thief who steals from the rich and gives to…himself! Enter Jacques Clouseau, the clumsiest inspector ever to trip over a case. Can he stop Charles’ attempts to relieve the princess of her diamond? Can he even exit a room without breaking off the doorknob? Or will The Phantom steal away the “cat” and leave Clouseau to hold the bag?

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The Pink Panther (1963) 7.75

eyelights: the principal cast. Sellers’ nuanced physical humour. the choreographed comedy. the opening credits. the ‘Pink Panther’ theme.
eyesores: Claudia Cardinale. the interminable seduction scene. the contrived and illogical ending.

“Any more behaviour like this and I’ll have your stripes!”

‘The Pink Panther’ is a classic. It’s also a cultural landmark: it’s the movie that finally made an international star of Peter Sellers, it created a long-lasting franchise, put its cartoon panther in nearly every home, and entrenched its iconic theme in the pantheon of the greatest and most recognizable themes ever composed. It may not be self-evident now, fifty years later, but ‘The Pink Panther’ would become omnipresent for nearly three decades.

And it all began with this 1963 comedy.

What’s fascinating about its success is just how unexpected it was. Initially designed as a vehicle for David Niven, who plays debonair jewel thief The Phantom, it was completely co-opted by Peter Sellers, who only had a secondary part in the picture. He was truly the only funny person in it: for all the one-liners and gags littering the picture, only he could make any of them work. And, to top it all off, he made even the mundane hilarious.

It’s a well-known fact that Sellers was never Blake Edwards’ first choice: Peter Ustinov, who at the time had a flourishing acting career (he’d just won an Academy Award for ‘Spartacus’) was originally slated to play Inspector Clouseau. A gifted comedian, he would have been well-suited for the part, especially as a side character. But he wouldn’t have made of Clouseau the main attraction, as Sellers invariably did. Pop culture would not have been the same.

It’s phenomenal to watch Sellers steal the show from the film’s stars, because they’re (almost) all so very good: David Niven is brilliant as ever, smooth as silk, funny, charming, with a twinkle in his eye; Capucine is lovely, and plays her character smart, capable; Robert Wagner is vibrant, mischievous and has a mesmerizing voice. And yet, even though they get top billing and their characters win in the end, Sellers’ Clouseau is the one we remember most.

It’s all in his performance: Sellers infused the character with a physicality that begs for attention. Whereas everyone else played it straight and narrow, his every screen moment is littered with small gestures, inflections, looks. His whole body language make him more interesting, more three-dimensional, than anything the other character said – and that’s when he’s not outright in full physical comedy mode. And when he is, he is incendiary.

Sellers added an extra dimension to Clouseau that redeems the character: dignity. Although he would become more of a caricature as the series barreled onward, morphing from dignified to arrogant, his earliest incarnations endear him to us because we know that he is trying so damned hard to be virtuous and to be successful in all he does – it’s just that, behind his unshakeable composure, lies dimness and incompetence.

This makes him both commendable yet terribly funny.

If not for Sellers, and especially with Peter Ustinov in his stead, ‘The Pink Panther’ would have merely been a middle-of-the-road caper comedy. (With Alan Arkin or Steve Martin in the part, it would have been woefully unfunny, if not grating – but more on that in future posts.)

For me, it all comes down to a few key scenes and set pieces:

  • Our first introduction to Inspector Clouseau is in his office, as he’s discussing the Phantom case with a  colleague. Deep in thought, pacing back and forth, he absent-mindedly spins the large globe in the middle of the room only to return and attempt to rest on it. Objects in motion tend to remain in motion. Sometimes these objects put other objects into motion.
  • Clouseau trips over Sir Charles Lytton (Niven) as the latter is carried through the resort lobby in a stretcher. And remains on the stretcher as they carry the pair through. It’s awkward, and not entirely funny, but it’s an image that can’t be wrested from my mind.
  • When Clouseau burns his palm on a fireplace and grabs the first cold thing he can find, Tucker’s beer mug, and shoves his hand in it. The indignation in Tucker’s voice when he protests “That’s my beer, old man!” is absolutely priceless. That, and his sense of priorities.
  • There’s a series of bedroom sequences between Clouseau and his spouse (Capucine) that are interspersed throughout the picture. Those are by far the best, collectively, because they frequently also involve both Niven and Wagner – even if the onus is on the bumbling Clouseau. What’s amusing is twofold: how Clouseau messes everything up, and how his spouse attempts to lead a double life right in front of him. It’s quite an ingenious, multi-levelled pas-de-deux. And a ménage à quatre, at that!
  • The mirror gorilla safe-cracking routine is another unforgettable moment. It’s a classic, really, even if it’s not performed with the exactitude the scene deserves. It’s just so absurd and I can totally imagine how laughably strange it would be in real life.
  • The car chase at the end is another utterly absurd sequence that stands out from the rest. It’s actually the penultimate scene, and yet it’s the only thing I remember when I think of the final moments of the picture: the old man trying to cross the road while cars are zooming back and forth in this otherwise deserted Italian courtyard, only to grow more ridiculous as two cars stop on either side of him so that its occupants can discuss their plans (ignoring him entirely). And, finally, when the striped police officers trot by in their costume – instead of getting out of it and hopping into a car like everyone else.

I would probably rate the picture much more highly if not for these elements, however:

1. Claudia Cardinale, as Princess Dala, is a serious weak link in this cast: her performance is contrived, unnatural and her delivery is stilted (to be fair, she was dubbed by another actress, but this actress still had to fit the words in Cardinale’s mouth). She is also desperately unfunny. Painfully so. And yet she gets as much screen time as Niven, Capucine and Sellers.

2. The seemingly endless seduction scene between Charles Lytton and Princess Dala grinds everything to a halt: the dialogue isn’t especially interesting (let alone noteworthy), there is no chemistry between the two (if anything, Lytton feels like a father figure to Dala) and it contributes very little to the movie as a whole or anything to the plot. And it’s so bloody long, uncut by any other action.

*MAJOR spoiler alert*

3. The ending is absolutely preposterous. Firstly, there’s the notion that Clouseau would be asked to take the stand without prior advisement (why was he there in the first place, then?). Secondly, the defense lawyer’s questioning is about incidental things that literally prove nothing. It’s all supposed to come together when he reveals the jewel in his handkerchief – that this is proof that he was the thief all along.

But here’s how this makes no sense whatsoever:

  • Clouseau’s reveal of the diamond is coincidental. He could have spent the whole time on the stand without going for his handkerchief. So the villains were banking on pure luck to get off scot-free.
  • Clouseau likely would have felt its weight in his breast pocket, given how heavy it is, and found it well beforehand.
  • It’s quite obvious that he’s confused about the questioning or even about finding the diamond in his pocket. Anyone in attendance would see that it’s a set-up. Or, at the very least, be sceptical about it.
  • Finally, if he actually was the Phantom, and he had stolen the jewel, it’s obvious that he wouldn’t have it on him whilst in court. Again, any reasonable onlooker would gather from this that he was set-up.

So, basically, the end is a facile twist that’s as stupid as it is unfunny.

*MAJOR spoiler alert*

Naturally, this doesn’t prevent the film from being extremely entertaining, and it was a smash for good reason. But the interesting thing to note that audiences fell in love with the Pink Panther cartoon character that was introduced in the film’s opening credits sequence – wherein the panther amusingly makes multiple attempts at adding himself to the credits. He was cute and mischievous, and people wanted more of him.

A year later, he began to show up in a series of theatrical short films.

Bizarrely enough, for all his success, he wouldn’t show up again in the Pink Panther/Clouseau films until the fourth one of the series, ‘The Return of the Pink Panther’. Neither would Henry Mancini’s “The Pink Panther Theme”, which would find itself backing the shorts but not the next two pictures. And yet, it’s so intrinsically linked to the series that it’s arguably as essential to its success as “The James Bond Theme” is to that series.

Clearly, the filmmakers were taken aback by the film’s success, and didn’t initially devise a winning formula; it was evidently not premeditated. The series’ formula would begin to be developed with the next film, ‘A Shot in the Dark’, with its recurring characters and gags, but it would take until ‘The Return of the Pink Panther’ before it all came together neatly, continuing on until Peter Sellers’ untimely demise in 1980.

1963’s ‘The Pink Panther’, however, for all its missteps and inadvertent good fortune, seeded the fertile ground that was the Blake Edwards-Peter Sellers collaboration. Even though they had a tumultuous relationship, they would eventually make six more films together – and they were already set for at least another Pink Panther, perhaps more, when Sellers died. ‘The Pink Panther’ may not be the strongest entry of the series, but it’s the one started it all.

Date of viewing: September 11, 2014

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