Friday, August 3, 2007

A Good Closet Ploy

"Do you know what kind of a bomb it was?"
"The exploding kind."

It’s hard to ignore that THE PINK PANTHER STRIKES AGAIN opens with an establishing shot, featuring a sign reading “Psychiatrique Hospital”. The point is clear: this entire film takes place in an insane asylum.

THE RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER was such a big hit that Edwards and Sellers were probably given free reign and there’s a feel to this follow-up, which came only a year and a half later, that they’re taking advantage of what they know works. Screen time doesn’t have to be wasted on Christopher Plummer anymore. This film takes place in a world that has already fallen off the brink and Clouseau seems to rule.

The film opens on former Chief Inspector Dreyfus presumably cured and about to be released from the mental hospital he had been committed to at the end of the last film. This gives the impression of one film carrying over into the next smoothly, but this isn’t really the case. Clouseau, visiting the hospital to speak on Dreyfus’ behalf, drives his former boss insane again almost within minutes of his arrival. After the credit sequence, Dreyfus has already escaped from the hospital. No point in wasting any time.

Reports out there suggest that early cuts of the film ran over two hours, but it was then cut down to about 103 minutes before release. Much of this footage wound up getting used later in TRAIL OF THE PINK PANTHER and a few bits seem to have been redone in revised form for REVENGE OF THE PINK PANTHER, adding to the déjà vu. But for STRIKES AGAIN, any running time it ever had would have probably presented a film that is very funny but also kind of all over the place.

Once Dreyfus has escaped, he immediately makes another attempt on Clouseau’s life which is of course unsuccessful. So he decides to create his own criminal empire with one ultimate goal: killing Clouseau. To achieve this goal, he kidnaps a nuclear physicist, Professor Hugo Fassbender, and forces him to build a “doomsday weapon” with which he hopes to blackmail the powers of the world so they will hand him Clouseau. Before this fact is even revealed to the world, Clouseau is assigned to travel to England to investigate the physicist’s disappearance.

The sequence where Clouseau arrives at Fassbender’s house, searches the premises and interrogates the staff is well known as one of the most hysterical sequences of the entire series. The whole thing is almost unbearably funny, yet it’s interesting how you could ask someone who’s just seen the film what it has to do with the plot and they might very well not have any recollection. There’s a slight feel to the first section of the film that resembles a mystery story where the lead begins investigating a small case, only to find it balloon into a large one. The Bond film DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER begins with a similar plot structure, even down to a montage of criminal activity occurring while exposition is given, and like that film this plot structure is pretty much abandoned by a certain point. The reasons given that lead Clouseau to Munich or the castle for the climax are extremely slim and are easily forgotten moments after they have been discussed.

Not that there’s any reason to complain, considering how funny the movie is. But it’s an extremely schizophrenic movie, going in a succession of scenes from a slapstick scene with Clouseau to the villainous Dreyfus in his castle to a series of odd White House scenes with a very unconvincing Gerald Ford lookalike. All of a sudden Dreyfus has become a sort of Bondian supervillain plotting mass destruction and it’s hard to resist asking, where did this come from? It’s also hard to avoid noting how, when Dreyfus plots the disintegration of the UN building, he expresses frustration that there will be no crater where the building once stood. “I want wreakage! Twisted metal! Something the world will not forget!”

Unlike the film that came before, Clouseau is totally at the center—in some ways he’s both the hero and the McGuffin—and is allowed to actually forward the plot this time around. The film is really too all over the place to be called the “best” of the entire series—A SHOT IN THE DARK qualifies for that honor—but it can easily be called the funniest. Herbert Lom takes his enlarged role and runs with it. He’s even seen playing the organ in his castle, providing a nice memory for anyone who saw him starring in the Hammer version of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. Burt Kwouk as Kato and André Marranne as Francois again appear. Herb Tanney appears in drag as “Norwiegan Assassin”, credited as Sado Tanney. The singing voice belonging to transvestite butler Jarvis is not actor Michael Robbins who plays the role, but is in fact that of Julie Andrews. Lesley-Anne Down is very beautiful as Russian spy Olga and particularly good is Leonard Rossiter (also in DEADLIER THAN THE MALE) as Quinlan, the British cop in charge of the Fassbender kidnapping. It’s a small role, but he stands out because the character truly seems to be making an attempt to not let what happened to Dreyfus happen to him.

Graham Stark gets the dual credit of Munich Hotel Clerk/Alpenros Hotel Clerk, which he explains in his book “Remembering Peter Sellers”. In devising his cameo apperarance for this film, Blake Edwards devised a scene where Clouseau would encounter Stark playing a German hotel clerk with a tiny moustache—in other words, a Hitler moustache (it’s easy to imagine Stark this way. Stark writes that he knew the scene would never be used because Sellers would never be able to keep it together long enough for a usable take and he was apparently proven right. So that sure looks like the back of Stark’s head very briefly handing a key over to a Clouseau imposter and it was left to Edwards to come up with another scene. The solution was for Stark to play a different desk clerk under old age makeup, smoking a pipe. According to Stark, they spent an entire day shooting his scenes, continually smoking the pipe, and he began to have a strange feeling as they worked. It wasn’t until much later until, he claims, someone told him that marijuana had been secretly placed in the pipe he spent all day smoking. Anyway, it was these circumstances that led to the world getting the classic “That is not my dog” bit.

The Henry Mancini score features the debut of “The Inspector Clouseau Theme”, kind of this series’ equivalent of John Barry’s 007 theme that turns up in a few of the Bond movies. Finally providing an actual theme for the character was a good idea and works flawlessly in not overpowering the comedy. There’s also a fair amount of serious music to underscore Dreyfus’s use of the Doomsday Machine and it works just right.

Certain elements already display some Edwards films to come—the gay nightclub where Clouseu tracks down Jarvis is a clear forefunner to VICTOR/VICTORIA. But the setpiece at the Oktoberfest in Munich where assassin after assassin accidentally kills each other instead of their target of Clouseau remains jet black today and is just as funny, with timing that is perfect to the millisecond. It’s a sequence like this which makes THE PINK PANTHER STRIKES AGAIN the ultimate expression by Edwards and Sellers of this character of Clouseau that they had created. It remains a masterful comedy to this day.

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