A Shot in the Dark

A Shot in the DarkSynopsis: When a beautiful parlor maid (Elke Sommer) is accused of murdering her lover, the nutty Inspector (Sellers) leaps…er, falls…into the fray to save her in this irrepressibly funny Pink Panther classic.

The French have a word for a man like Clouseau: idot! Across Paris, baffled citizens want to know if the inspector is in hot pursuit of a criminal…or just in love with one! Mistakenly assigned to a high-prestige case in which a millionaire’s chauffer has been murdered, Clouseau finds himself falling for the prime suspect – a beautiful parlormaid whose talent for being in the wrong place at the wrong time is almost as great as his. But as the body count grows higher, and the parlormaid’s criminal record grows longer, Clouseau realizes he’ll have to find the “real” culprit quickly or his career will be flint!


A Shot in the Dark 8.25

eyelights: Peter Sellers. Graham Stark. Herbert Lom. Blake Edwards’ masterful staging. the interrogations.
eyesores: Elke Sommers.

“I believe everything and I believe nothing. I suspect everyone and I suspect no one.”

After making ‘The Pink Panther‘, Peter Sellers was slated to make ‘A Shot in the Dark’, a comedy based on the English version of the French play, ”L’Idiote’. He felt uninspired by the script and asked Blake Edwards, with whom he got on so famously during ‘The Pink Panther’ to take over the project.

Edward eventually relented but, having little time to rewrite the script, decided to morph the main character into Inspector Clouseau – thereby making the movie a part of the now-legendary Pink Panther franchise. ‘A Shot in the Dark’ would be released a mere three months after, to much acclaim.

The core of the story is pretty simple: Inspector Clouseau is mistakenly sent to investigate a murder at the high society Ballon household. After making a fool of himself, he is taken off the case by Chief Inspector Dreyfus, only to be reinstated after higher powers intervene. Clouseau is on the trail.

Naturally, all manners of absurd incidents befall him along the way. But this will not deter him: of the utmost overconfidence in his abilities, he believes that he is the only person who can solve this mystery. Plus which there is the added allure of the prime suspect Maria Gambrelli, the victim’s lover.

Clouseau will get his man, and this woman, at all costs.

Even though it has very little to do with the original film, ‘A Shot in the Dark’ is my second favourite picture in the whole Pink Panther series: its comedy is inspired, both in the slapstick and dialogues, the characters are terrific, and Sellers plays Clouseau just right – he hasn’t yet turned him into a full caricature.

What makes it really special is that one can see the birth of the series’ formula: Although the cartoon credits don’t feature the pink feline itself, they are in a similar vein, and there are the introductions of Kato (later Cato) as Clouseau’s faithful butler and Chief Inspector Dreyfus as his long-standing nemesis.

Henry Mancini would also return for this picture, providing yet another superb main theme and terrific score, but it’s the collaboration between Edwards and Sellers that is truly deserving of the attention here: since they had little time to work on the script, much of the humour has been improvised.

And it’s brilliant.

One of the perfect examples of Edwards’ genius, of when he was at the top of his game, is the opening sequence showing us everyone sneaking about the Ballon household in a coordinated choreogrpahy; it’s incredible comic timing and great theatre. It’s was discreetly cut together from only two or three long shots, too. Impressive. Classic.

Our first glimpse of Clouseau is in the cartoon credits by DePatie-Freleng, who had made the much-loved opening credits to ‘The Pink Panther’ and subsequent cartoon shorts. Although the cartoon version of Clouseau apparently had audiences in stitches at the time, it’s too random, and the humour is simple, for unsophisticated children.

When we first see Sellers as Clouseau, it’s after the credits. Unfortunately, it’s underwhelming: Clouseau is being driven to the Ballon mansion and he’s making a face. Then he falls into a fountain. But the moment he arrives at the house, soaked, and arrogantly starts interrogating everyone, it’s hilarious. Pure genius.

One of the things that Sellers added to Clouseau’s character in this picture is an outrageous accent that has him mispronouncing simple words – much to the dismay of the people around him, who don’t understand what he’s saying. He’s also very distracted, making others repeat themselves to mask his absent-mindedness.

Clouseau is so clueless that he even gets arrested by his own people. In an effort to follow Maria Gambrelli, thereby proving her innocence, he poses as a balloon salesman, a sidewalk painter, a hunter, each time being asked for his licence – which he doesn’t have. He also gets caught driving in the nude (don’t ask!).

There’s this brilliant scene when Clouseau is going over the facts of the case with his assistant, Hercule, striving for logic but using instinct instead. Too funny. And Graham Stark (as Hercule) is SO good. You feel his patience being tested, but he remains silent, professional. I can see him going home and getting drunk after a day working under this bumbling idiot.

Stark would return in various roles during the series, but the ones that become a staple are Kato and Dreyfus. Kato is played by Burt Kwouk, who would end up playing the token Asian in many films at the time; he’s terrific, perfectly stoic. Dreyfus is played by Herbert Lom. He’s is brilliant at combining frustration, bewilderment, intelligence and ridiculousness.

What’s great about ‘A Shot in the Dark’ is that, for those who have not seen a Pink Panther film yet aside for the first one, the first time people see Kato would have been quite the surprise, because he is actually introduced as a threat to Clouseau – and the payoff would be hilarious. I wish I could see it fresh; it would be amazing.

The relationship between Chief Inspector Dreyfus and Clouseau would become a central source of comedy for the bulk of the series. Dreyfus despises Clouseau to such an extent that he loses his mind, twitches, is consistently hurting himself by mistake, and frequently finds himself on the couch. It’s a truly inspired idea.

Another excellent scene comes when Maria is brought in for questioning. What they did here was to coordinate Gambrelli, Hercule and Clouseau so that Clouseau doesn’t see the other two coming in and out. But he hears them, and is baffled by the sounds. The timing of the choreography between them is pitch-perfect. It’s absolutely absurd!

There’s also the pool game that takes place when Clouseau goes to interrogate the Ballon patriarch (played to stuffy perfection by George Sanders). Clouseau attempts to join in, but has totally no clue how to use a cue stick; he ends up caught with Ballon, launching balls in the air, tearing the table and destroying the cue stand.

The final interrogation of the Ballon household is priceless. Clouseau is gambling that he will be able to trick the guilty party into revealing him or herself, much in the way that they do in whodunnits. But the way that he goes about it is so inept that the only result he produces (aside from frustration) is entirely inadvertent.

This concept was redone to greater effect in ‘The Pink Panther Strikes Again‘, but it’s still a classic.

The only weak moments are when Clouseau goes to the nudist colony, and then the long dinner date he has with Maria  – the latter somehow slows the pace down, despite all the humourous murders. Perhaps it’s because there’s little humour and no dialogue for that whole stretch – we’re just watching them enjoy themselves. Meh.

But, aside for that, ‘A Shot in the Dark’ is a fantastic comedy. In fact, I used to rate it even more highly than I do now, but I’ve watched it far too often through the years. At this point, it lacks its original magic, the spontaneous laughter it once provoked. Still, given how much I love it even now, it’s saying something about how superb it is.

Give it a shot. It’s silly, it’s absurd, but it’s well worth it.

Post scriptum: Although Clouseau would return four years later in the woefully bad ‘Inspector Clouseau’, Peter Sellers, Blake Edwards and Henry Mancini wouldn’t: their collaboration on this series would continue with the fourth entry in the series, ‘The Return of the Pink Panther’. In the meantime, they would make ‘The Party” instead.

Date of viewing: September 18, 2014

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