The world’s most hilariously disaster-prone detective is back on the case as Peter Sellers stars in this merry masterpiece of sheer slapstick sleuthing fun!
When the priceless Pink Panther diamond is stolen yet again, the inimitable Inspector Jacques Clouseau is saved from an unwilling early retirement and sent off to the country of Lugash to investigate. Certain the heist is the work of a suave jewel thief known as The Phantom, Clouseau unleashes his formidable array of outlandish disguises and preposterous deductive powers in madcap pursuit of his would-be quarry. Tracked by his own, nerve wracking boss, Clouseau carves a path of comical, crime-busting chaos across all of Europe in this delightfully zany comedy romp!
eyelights: the return of Peter Sellers, Blake Edwards and Henry Mancini. the further development of the series formula. Christopher Plummer’s delivery.
eyesores: Catherine Schell’s fake laughs. much of the physical humour. Christopher Plummer’s inability to do action.
Clouseau: “How long have you been a bellboy?”
Bellboy: “Oh, too long, Monsieur.”
Clouseau: “Keep up the good work, and I shall see to it you become a bellman.”
After the dismal failure of ‘Inspector Clouseau‘, the Pink Panther series had been laid to rest. It wouldn’t be until the mid-’70s that reviving the series was even considered. By then, Blake Edwards and Peter Sellers’ respective careers had lost so much momentum that United Artists weren’t even interested in the idea of another sequel to the comedy classic.
So Edwards turned to Baron Lew Grade, a successful British producer whose many credits include ‘The Saint’, ‘The Prisoner’, and none other than ‘The Muppet Show’. They agreed on a two-picture deal, starting with ‘The Tamarind Seed’ and eventually negotiated to put another Pink Panther film on the screen. The result would be ‘The Return of the Pink Panther’.
It would become the biggest box office success of the series yet! (Eat that, United Artists!)
1975’s ‘The Return of the Pink Panther’ was not just the return of the series, it was the return of three of its chief components: writer-director Blake Edwards, Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau, and series composer Henry Mancini. It is said that Edwards, who had a famously difficult relationship with the star, would only make the picture if Sellers were involved.
This makes total sense: Sellers owned the part, and the series. Legend has it that David Niven (who starred in the original picture as Sir Charles Lytton, the notorious Phantom, and for the whom the picture was intended to be a vehicle for future films), once asked that the Pink Panther music be changed as his walk-on music at the Academy Awards because “it was not really my film.”
In any case, the picture got off to a rollicking start: after some deliciously amusing cartoon credits (for the first time not by DePatie-Freleng), we are treated to the elaborate heist of the Pink Panther diamond, a clever sequence that lasts for maybe ten minutes. This is played entirely seriously, aside for the use of the Pink Panther theme to provide a little bounce to the sequence.
This is what’s interesting about ‘The Return of the Pink Panther’: it pretty much emulates the tone of the original picture by alternating between comedy sequence and straight ones. The key difference is the setting and the participants, but it does exactly what the title suggests, and that is to bring the series back to its roots: the original film, characters and the infamous Pink Panther.
Our first look at Inspector Clouseau follows the heist. He is now a beat cop, and he casually bashes himself in the eye as he attempts to gallantly salute a woman passing by. He then proceeds to wrangle with a blind accordionist over his licence. It’s pure delight. It shows that Clouseau’s not entirely incompetent; it’s just that his attention to detail and logic are out of whack. Hence the laughs.
His inability to stop a robbery in progress, and even unwittingly abetting it, because he’s distracted by the accordionist (and his pet monkey) only serves to stoke the red hot fires of loathing that Chief Inspector Dreyfus feels for him. Their subsequent exchange is hilarious. But Dreyfus has his hands tied and he is forced to send Clouseau to Lugash to investigate the theft of the Pink Panther.
…all the while dodging multiple attempts on his life.
‘The Return of the Pink Panther’ does more than just return to its roots, it also continues to cement the series’ formula that was built with the first two picture. With the re-introduction of Dreyfus, Clouseau’s arch-nemesis, also comes his man servant and side-kick, Cato, who attacks him anywhere and anytime. There’s also the matter of Clouseau’s accent, which has become much more pronounced.
But there is one huge departure, and it’s in the casting department: David Niven was “not available” to reprise the role of Charles Lytton (a.k.a. The Phantom), so he was replaced by Christopher Plummer. Similarly, Capucine has been replaced in the role of Lady Lytton (formerly Ms. Jacques Clouseau) by the equally delectable Catherine Schell. Exactly why the original actors were bypassed is unclear.
Plummer is always charming, but he’s not effortlessly congenial like David Niven, whose silky smooth presence always warms a movie. Plummer is also terrible at delivering action sequences: for example, he decks a guy that he misses wildly and runs like a wimp. But he emulated David Niven’s delivery, making the character sound the same, which impressed me. He’s good. Sadly, he’s not nearly as good.
Catherine Schell always graces the screen with her presence. She comes off as slightly detached, like a doe in headlights sometimes, but she’s absolutely lovely. However, the fake laughs and crack ups she gives her character are horrible. In fact, they’re a big blight on the movie, both because they look fake, but also because it’s contrived to show us how “hilarious” the moments are – which they often aren’t.
And then there’s Peter Sellers, as the original and the only true Inspector Clouseau. It was a disaster to replace him in ‘Inspector Clouseau’, and it’s with not just relief but renewed glee that we welcome him back. Unfortunately, Sellers was not in top form here. While his delivery is absolutely brilliant (although his accent is perhaps too ridiculous to be believable), his physical comedy is uneven.
I’m not sure what the cause of this might be: Was Sellers a bit rusty by 1975? Or was this due to his poor health, which would eventually require the use of stunt doubles in ‘The Pink Panther Strikes Again’? It’s hard to say without some sort of historical evidence, but it’s clear that he already had doubles for this one, as evidenced by the slipshod editing that sometimes failed to conceal them.
Nevertheless, Sellers, while not at the top of his game, delivers a far richer performance than any of his substitutes, including Steve Martin: when he’s on, he totally on. A perfect example of this is when he’s at the pool, spying on Lady Lytton, but gets distracted by a beautiful young woman diving in the pool. His timing in flipping backwards into the pool at the same time as her is perfect.
But most of what he does best in ‘The Return of the Pink Panther’ is subtler: it’s in the little looks of confusion that Clouseau gives off, the defective craftiness that he takes pride in, the arrogance that Clouseau is invested with, the gestures he makes that compromise him. A perfect example of this is his inspection of the crime scene: he was utterly clueless, but remained dignified throughout.
When Sellers’ performance is exaggerated (as in is the case with Clouseau’s newfound accent), he is at his weakest here. An example of this is when Clouseau goes to the Lytton mansion to bug their telephone and tries to infiltrate the household by impersonating a telephone company operative. This devolves into some ridiculous visual gags and pratfalling. It’s a massive fail.
Another one is when he enters Lady Lytton’s hotel room, pretending to be the cleaning staff. The routine is rather hit and miss. It’s not especially funny, but there’s this confounding gadget that Clouseau puts a light-bulb in. What is it? And why would the bulb keep popping out? Maybe if I knew what it was I would understand why it’s doing what it’s doing and then find it funny. Or not.
The problem with these sequences is that much of the humour in ‘The Return of the Pink Panther’ rests on them: they’re incredibly lengthy and they’re sandwiched between more serious sequences involving the Lyttons. The latter can be mildly amusing, but they’re not nearly the reason why someone watches a Pink Panther. Unfortunately, the clunker Clouseau bits bog the picture down.
Again, this is not to say that this is not a funny movie. It certainly has its moments. But it sometimes limps along, and not at a breezy pace either: the film runs at close to two hours in length. The bar had been set pretty high with ‘A Shot in the Dark‘, and this one just doesn’t meet expectations. But, compared to its contemporaries, it’s a riot. And compared to ‘Inspector Clouseau’ it’s a masterpiece.
‘The Return of the Pink Panther’ at least has ambition and it benefits from the skills of the wealth of experience of its participants. Blake Edwards makes the most of his set pieces, and has set the picture in more exotic locations (ex: Morocco, Switzerland) than any other film in the series. It also features the considerable skills of Henry Mancini, who delivers yet another masterful score.
What’s especially surprising about ‘The Return of the Pink Panther’ is that its greatest achievements aren’t as much in the physical comedy, as in the dialogues, which can be brilliant. This is absolutely not what would come to mind when thinking of this series. Still, it’s not enough to pull it out of its quagmire: this ‘Return’ produces some of the loudest laughs, but also some of the longest silences.
And yet, although it may not be a full return to form, it’s a welcome return nonetheless.
Date of viewing: October 2, 2014