Monday, August 27, 2007

Looking A Gift Horse In The Mouth

"Is that Sleigh as in kill?"
"No, it's Sleigh as in One Horse Open."

Blake Edwards' CURSE OF THE PINK PANTHER opened in August 1983, just a few weeks after the death of top-billed star David Niven. An Inspector Clouseau movie with no Clouseau, the film was following a series entry that did not do well at the box office and still contained the stigma brought on by the understandable hostility that it was a film which was essentially unnecessary. The reviews weren’t good and it didn’t do anything at the box office. That was that.

While TRAIL OF THE PINK PANTHER offered scenes of Dreyfus pouring his heart out to his psychiatrist about Clouseau that could be read as Edwards’ feelings about Peter Sellers. That angle is mostly ignored here, taking Dreyfus’ fear and hatred of Clouseau as a given. Throughout CURSE, several characters offer up the old saying, “Never look a gift horse in the mouth,” turning it into a bit of a running gag. The phrase is never uttered by Dreyfus, but it stands out as possibly Edwards’ warning to himself, how he should accept his past relationship with the great comedian and simply move on. He didn’t listen to himself.

But here’s the honest admission: I like CURSE OF THE PINK PANTHER. And I’m fully aware of how that sounds. But the movie is now 24 years old and to me it’s fully acceptable to judge it on its own terms. The film doesn’t always succeed, but it continually plays like a movie made by somebody who obviously understands comedy construction, which has become more of a rarity in this day and age. There’s no defending why this movie was made but there are reasons to defend the movie.

One year after the events of TRAIL OF THE PINK PANTHER, Clouseau is still missing. The President of France orders Dreyfus (Herbert Lom) to head up a task force to find him. The plan, is to program a new super-computer to find the world’s greatest detective who will then find Clouseau. Dreyfus, of course, sabotages the computer, programming it to do the exact opposite of what it is told. After Dreyfus reads out instructions to find a cop with such attributes as “Fearless, courageous, a born leader…” the computer, looking for the opposite, gives them Officer Clifton Sleigh of the NYPD. Sleigh arrives and, within minutes, Dreyfus is given cause to wonder if “Clouseau had any releatives in the states.” The trailer for this film, which ran before OCTOPUSSY, stressed the super-computer portion of the plot and I remember thinking, in that summer which also contained WARGAMES and SUPERMAN III, it seemed like every film was using a computer in its plot. Fortunately, once Sleigh is introduced his character takes center stage.

After the humdrum non-events of TRAIL, CURSE OF THE PINK PANTHER plays like a more energetic film from the get-go. Even the expository scenes with Dreyfus and Francois at the beginning play sharper this time around, even though they were probably shot concurrently with similar scenes in the previous film;even some dialogue gets repeated. Maybe everyone rightly felt that this was the “real” movie of the two and saved their best stuff for this footage.

Dreyfus dominates the first twenty minutes, but once Sleigh enters the scene the movie becomes all his. Given an “and introducing” credit in spite of the fact that he had already starred on TV’s SOAP, Ted Wass plays Clifton Sleigh. Done up to blatantly resemble Harold Lloyd, Wass was clearly fighting a losing battle in playing this role but comes off as willing and eager in the part. It’s a nice parallel to how the character, as clumsy as he is, genuinely wants to prove himself with this assignment. Now that we can watch the movie without having to compare him to Peter Sellers, I think he actually works very well.

It’s the structure that I like best in this film. Maybe Edwards was all too aware that he would not have an improvisatory genius like Sellers this time around, so he plotted it out to the second. Even with a running time at about 110 minutes, the movie doesn’t feel like it has a wasted second to me. To a great extent, it’s the beats that I notice. One recurring joke that seems like an Edwards signature comes as Robert Loggia ‘s mob boss is trying to plot Sleigh’s assassination. We have the mobsters discussing it underscored by Mancini, then we cut to the (disastrous) attempt, then we cut back to Loggia and his crew in a different location, still casually discussing it underscored by Mancini. It’s a rhythm unique to Edwards in his movies and works very well here. Sexual confusion in the series continues even as we introduce a new lead. A TV reporter quizzing Dreyfus harps on whether or not a woman will be considered by the computer and though the choice is “a man”, as she puts it, the instant we cut to Sleigh for his introduction he’s going undercover dressed as a woman. Later in the film, Sleigh has to be rescued from a possible mob hit by a woman and the film’s very final twist has an action taken by a certain female character, that seems to indicate some sort of thematic completion. What all this is supposed to amount to in the end I’m not sure but it seems…interesting. At the least, it continually appears to be something on Edwards’ mind.

That said, there’s plenty that doesn’t work. Sleigh’s introduction, while thematically interesting, isn’t really all that funny. Harvey Korman’s return as Professor Balls doesn’t do much for me, nor does the funning gag about the “Instant Companion” that Sleigh is supplied with. And Burt Kwouk’s Kato has less to do than ever before. I freely admit this is a strange case—enjoying a comedy more for its precise construction that for the actual laughs that happen. As we follow Sleigh from New York to Paris to Lugash to Nice to Spain, it’s a continually interesting production visually. The car chase in Nice is also very good—is it shot in some of the same locations as the chase in NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN?—and once we get to Valencia the film becomes consistently enjoyable to me. The carnivale in that section resembles the similar setting of THUNDERBALL and it’s hard not to think that Edwards amused himself by having the bad guys follow Sleigh by having to jump and dance along with everyone in the crowded street. Sleigh saying “I sound like Stan Laurel,” as an attempted seduction takes place still doesn’t make any sense to me, though. The investigation moves to Majorca and Sleigh follows the trail via parasail to a health spa run by the mysterious Countess Chandra where he discovers…well, I won’t give it away but it does provide justification for the trailer running before OCTOPUSSY.

In addition to Lom, Kwouk, Korman, Loggia, AndrĂ© Maranne, David Niven and Capucine we also get the returning Robert Wagner, playing George Litton for the first time since 1964. Beats me why he didn’t appear in the previous film, since the stuff was obviously shot at the same time. Maybe they agreed to only pay him for one movie. Maybe he absolutely refused to appear in the talk show-type scene in that film. Either way, Wagner gets the prize for most bored-looking celebrity cameo here. For the record, Capucine offers “It looks like suicide,” upon seeing Sleigh take part in the parasailing, somewhat unfortunate considering she killed herself several years later.

Other interesting faces turn up throughout. Joanna Lumley returns, this time as Countess Chandra, playing one brief nude scene covered in mud. Graham Stark plays a bored waiter during the Instant Companion sequence. William Hootkins again plays the cab driver in Nice, his American accent this time acknowledged, but unexplained. Then-first daughter Patti Davis plays the French television reporter, Joe Morton is a New York cop and the great Bill Nighy is seen very briefly as an ENT doctor. Pat Corley, who later played Phil on MURPHY BROWN, is very funny is his one scene as the Dreyfus-equivalent in New York to Sleigh’s character and British actress Leslie Ash makes a definite impression as the mysterious woman Sleigh meets in Valencia who calls herself Juleta Shane (a name I once stole for use in a script). There’s also the actor who is credited simply as Turk Thrust II, but again, I won’t discuss that.

Henry Mancini’s score is also particularly good this time around, lending an early 80’s synth feel to the main theme that also seems to emphasize the CURSE in the title. The Clifton Sleigh theme also blends in well with the surroundings, with a sneaking around-version that closely recalls the James Garner sneaking around music from the previous year’s VICTOR/VICTORIA. Unfortunately, this is the only PINK PANTHER to never have a soundtrack release.

As eager as Wass comes across, the film must still deal with the spectre of Peter Sellers on its shoulder. In fact, the Sleigh character seems slightly discarded at the end so it can deal with such plot necessities. The final scene comes off as an attempt to bring the entire series full circle, back to 1964’s THE PINK PANTHER, which is a bizarre idea considering the lack of continuity through the films. But it does give the impression of a sense of completion. Maybe that’s what Blake Edwards was going for. While I like some of this film, I'm very well aware of what it is I'm defending. Unfortunately, the one-two punch of these post-Sellers PANTHER films may have been a detriment to his career. He certainly continued making films at a surprising rate through the rest of the decade, but critically he never again reached the heights of “10”, S.O.B. and VICTOR/VICTORIA. In trying to continue the series without the presence of Peter Sellers, it’s very possible he forgot that he was very much looking a gift horse in the mouth.

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