Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Way to the Palace Hotel

“I wish you were dead.”
“Well, of course, you are entitled to your opinion.”
“And you are not! Out! Out of my sight!”
“You want me to leave?”

In a way, many of the films of Blake Edwards seem to take place in a kind of eternal summer. They seem to exude this feel of lounging about, sipping a cocktail as Mancini plays in the background. Of course, this will immediately be followed by somebody violently crashing through your ceiling, but you can’t tell if that person is a man, a woman, or a man dressed up as a woman. Also, you won’t be frightened or shocked when it happens. You’ll just be annoyed. But if it helps, the Mancini music will still be playing. And that feeling of summer is there.

By the early seventies the careers of Peter Sellers and Blake Edwards had reached respective low points, with each man having involvement in several straight films that had failed at the box office. Edwards in particular had suffered the huge financial disaster of DARLING LILI to the point that it came out in several different versions (much of this wound up as the inspiration for his later S.O.B.) and THE CAREY TREATMENT had also been taken away from him and recut by MGM. The initial idea to return to the character of Inspector Clouseau began as a television miniseries to be produced by Lord Lew Grade, who Edwards had directed THE TAMARIND SEED for in 1974. This eventually became the film THE RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER, released in May of 1975. Peter Sellers of course returned as Inspector Jacques Clouseau, Herbert Lom of A SHOT IN THE DARK came back as Chief Inspector Dreyfus, but David Niven was unavailable to reprise the role of Sir Charles Litton, so Christopher Plummer was cast in the part.

The first thing to focus on is the degree that each PANTHER sequel is in a way a total reboot. There’s little point to look for a continuing storyline (with the exception of going from RETURN to STRIKES AGAIN) and even less reason to look for real continuity. The original PINK PANTHER was never meant to be a Clouseau vehicle and only partly became one when Peter Sellers began to walk away with the movie. A SHOT IN THE DARK, made immediately afterward, courts next to no continuity with its predecessor and in fact was based on a stage play. The idea to include Clouseau came when Blake Edwards was brought in as a replacement for the original director and they simply decided to use the character again. For RETURN, much of the reason to bring the character back was based on career doldrums and there is again little continuity with what came before. Clouseau is much the same, but Dreyfus is still his superior—an unlikely occurrence considering the end of A SHOT IN THE DARK. Also, while the film brings back the character of Sir Charles Litton, he is not only played by a different actor, but he doesn’t really seem to be the same character. In fact, what little backstory we get on the two characters don’t even seem to match up with what occurred in the original film and they barely share any screen time here anyway. Again, all this matters very little.

The plot is very simple. The world famous Pink Panther diamond is stolen and the government of Lugash demands that Clouseau, “the famous French detective who recovered the Pink Panther the last time it was stolen” (not really, but moving on) be assigned to the case. Clouseau immediately suspects Sir Charles Litton, who has long been suspected to be the famous jewel thief the Phantom, of the crime. As Clouseau survives several assassination attempts, Litton, living in retirement in the South of France, learns of the crime as his wife Claudine (not the character Simone played by Capucine in the original film) returns from a Parisian shopping trip. Desperately bored in retirement, Litton sets off for Lugash to uncover the culprit himself. Clouseau meanwhile, sets off following Lady Litton all the way to from Nice to Gstaad in the hope that she will lead him to her husband.

Simple, but almost too simple. Part of the problem with THE RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER is that all interesting plot developments stop at around the hour mark. Litton’s storyline has potential as a comfortably familiar ‘send a thief to catch a thief’ sort of thing, but for what is supposed to be the meaty section of the film it never really goes anywhere. The character of Charles Litton in RETURN just isn’t very likable or interesting. I’ve always liked Christopher Plummer, but his innate coldness as an actor doesn’t seem right here. On the charm level, he’s definitely no David Niven. Or Cary Grant. The performance of Catherine Schell (one of the allergy girls in ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE) is another problem. She’s very attractive but at times doesn’t seem to be able to do much other than smile blankly and, in the most controversial element of the film, visibly cracks up at Clouseau’s antics. This really only happens a few times, but the negative effect it gives off makes it seem like a lot more. Whether this was done for the sake of the story or if Schell really couldn’t keep from laughing, it’s just kind of confusing. Of course we need to know that she’s on to Clouseau in these scenes, but it still leaves a sour taste in the mouth. And besides, there’s a reason why Marx Brothers movies never had characters laughing at their antics. If they did, it would kill the joke. For the record, the plotting also doesn’t do full justice to the character of Clouseau, since as things turn out he isn’t really allowed to solve anything, or even accidentally solve anything, in an enjoyable way like he did in A SHOT IT THE DARK. There’s a little bit of that near the end—I’m trying to avoid details here—but the fact that there isn’t enough of it maybe accounts for why THE RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER comes of as slightly unsatisfying.

That’s about it for the unpleasantness. Now the good news. Much of the film remains absolutely hysterical. From Clouseau’s first scene where he manages to miss a bank robbery occurring literally right behind him to his continuous bafflement of his journey from the train station to the hotel in Gstaad to every instant of Herbert Lom’s Chief Inspector Dreyfus being driven insane by him, more movies that I’m this critical of should be this funny. All you need to do to demonstrate how good Edwards could be at his best is to check out the scene where Clouseau, being primped by Cato, is blabbering on about how all great detectives have “instinct” in common, saying how important it is, when in the very same shot he goes to answer the door, is handed a bomb and promptly ignores it. And Dreyfus demonstrating to Francois how he put “the real gun” in the bottom drawer sends me into fits of hysterics every single time. Peter Sellers does some amazing work throughout, sending Inspector Clouseau even further into his own zen-state than he had probably ever considered when first playing him a decade before. The lack of forward momentum does catch up with the film by a certain point—Clouseau’s adventures in Lady Litton’s hotel room in the second hour do go on too long, but the best parts of the film make it all worth it.

Burt Kwouk and André Maranne return as Cato and Francois, respectively. Graham Stark, Hercule in A SHOT IN THE DARK, here plays Pepi, the Peter Lorre-type who is confronted by Charles Litton in Lugash. Edwards’s doctor Herbert Tanney appears as the Nice Police Chief, billed as “Serge Tanney”-his last name is also heard as Charles Litton’s alias when he enters Lugash. Henry Mancini’s score is, admittedly, not one of my favorites by him, but does make for nice listening. One track, entitled “Dreamy” on the album, sounds the most like the classic-era Mancini we know and love.

At its best, THE RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER has a feel of both Blake Edwards and Peter Sellers reconnecting with their love of screen comedy. It’s no secret that the two men had a rocky working relationship but in the wake of the career troubles they had experienced, the funniest sections of this film offer a feeling of freedom, of two comedy geniuses with nothing to lose and are once again returning to a type of humor that they excel in. With the next film in the series, they would take the opportunity to expand on that freedom, perhaps to heights of insanity they had never considered when they were making this return to the character of Inspector Clouseau and the insane universe he inhabits.


Kimberly Lindbergs said...

the films of Blake Edwards seem to take place in a kind of eternal summer

I love that sentiment. It's very true and I can personally remember seeing many of Edwards’s films during the summer for the first time on TV when I was a kid so they remind me of summer for personal reasons too.

I have real affection for all the Pink Panther films with Sellers. They're so much fun and if I'm feeling really crappy they can cheer me up right away.

Unknown said...

I recently bought the box set of Pink Panther movies and a projector. There is no better quiet night in than sprawling out on the sofa and soaking up the panache and hilarity of the Sellers / Edwards partnership.

I empathise with Jacques Clouseau but secretly want to be Sir Charles Lytton!