Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Moving Finger Writes

Following the 1978 release of REVENGE OF THE PINK PANTHER there were plans for Inspector Clouseau to live on, but without the involvement of Blake Edwards. THE ROMANCE OF THE PINK PANTHER was a script that Peter Sellers had co-written and the film was in active development with names such as Sidney Poitier and Clive Donner mentioned as possible directors. The plot had Clouseau falling in love with a cat burglar named “The Frog”, to be played by Pamela Stephenson but the plans sadly ended with Sellers’ death on July 24th 1980, just a few weeks before the release of his final starring role, THE FIENDISH PLOT OF DR. FU MANCHU. But surprisingly this would not mean the end of Clouseau.

Several years later, it was announced that Blake Edwards would direct not a new PINK PANTHER film, but two new PINK PANTHER films simultaneously, one that would use previously unseen footage of Sellers as Clouseau and one that would introduce a new character. Putting aside the issue of how prescient Edwards was in doing this, years before sequels to BACK TO THE FUTURE and THE MATRIX were made in such a fashion, it’s unclear exactly why Blake Edwards chose to extend the series. Even interviews from the time don’t really offer a good reason. It couldn’t have been the money—for simply licensing the use of the Pink Panther character for the aborted Sellers project he was paid $3 million by the studio. And certainly the director had reached a sort of creative peak at this time. Certainly after making “10”, S.O.B. and VICTOR/VICTORIA—a fantastic run to me—he had nothing to gain by going back to the PANTHER series. Maybe it was the challenge. Maybe he was offered creative freedom. Maybe it really was the money. Maybe it was a chance to claim total auteurship of the series once and for all. No matter the reason, the Christmas 1982 release of TRAIL OF THE PINK PANTHER (and its follow-up, which followed eight months later) was generally seen as an attempt to cash in on the memory of a beloved deceased comedian. And it’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that Edwards’ critical reputation never fully recovered from the reception these films received.

TRAIL OF THE PINK PANTHER is made up of three types of footage: previously unseen Sellers footage, all new footage featuring other actors and flashback scenes from other films in the series. If you’re familiar with the films, it becomes clear that all of the unused footage seen here was originally shot for THE PINK PANTHER STRIKES AGAIN. None of them are directly connected to any story, unlike the vast amount of plot-oriented scenes that were in REVENGE. What exposition there is during the first section is given by other characters when Clouseau is conveniently not around. This provides a rather aimless feel to the first third, after which it becomes something rather different. It can’t really be considered an elegiac film, since no one on screen seems particularly upset that Clouseau is presumably gone. And even if there is a small feeling of elegy, it doesn’t really seem right for the character of Clouseau to be handled this way. It’s as if there’s a hole at the center of the film, a hole that is the dead actor whose name is above the title and everyone seems to be doing the best they can to avoid mention of it. The basic story is a case of 97 minutes where nothing much happens, so there’s not very much of a story to summarize.

The Pink Panther diamond is stolen once again. Clouseau is requested by the government of Lugash to investigate. Meanwhile, Dreyfus is still going mad from everything that Clouseau does. In the middle of yet another session with his psychiatrist, Dreyfus gets a phone call which possibly answers his greatest wish: Clouseau’s plane, heading for Lugash, is mssing, presumed lost in the sea. While elated, he is terrified that Clouseau may still turn up. Meanwhile, television reporter Marie Jouvet (Joanna Lumley) begins interviewing various people who knew Clouseau so she can learn more about him and his history. By the end of the film, no character has learned of the whereabouts of either Clouseau or the diamond.

And that’s pretty much it. Dreyfus gets paranoid that she will learn something, but nothing ever comes of it. The mob, led by Robert Loggia (playing a different part than in REVENGE) gets worried she will learn something, but nothing ever comes of it. It’s not even clear why an investigative reporter is interested so much in Clouseau’s past instead of investigating the circumstances of the missing plane. For that matter, if anyone is investigating the missing plane we never hear about it. Marie Jouvet is a television reporter who, like the newsreel man in CITIZEN KANE, does most of her interviews without any sort of camera. And there’s no Rosebud to be discovered here anyway. Maybe there’s a thematic idea behind having each respective interview take Jouvet further back in Clouseau’s past, but none of it results in anything very interesting.

The restored Sellers footage is ok, with some scenes naturally funnier than others, but I don’t think STRIKES AGAIN was hurt by losing any of this stuff. Harvey Korman’s appearance as Auguste Balls provides an interesting contrast with REVENGE, where the character was played by Graham Stark. One gets the feeling that by the time they did the latter version of the character they made it a point to move it along faster and the difference in performers reveals that Harvey Korman plays his scene as a special guest appearance, while Graham Stark manages to create a full comic persona out of the role.

Once Jouvet begins her investigation, the only Sellers we see from that point on are clips from previous films. It’s annoying enough when a clip show is done on TV but here we get the unusual sensation of watching a clip movie, which really isn’t that much fun. I like Joanna Lumley and there’s nothing wrong with what she does here, but since none of it can ever go anywhere it’s pretty ineffectual. Maybe her character is developed a little more than William Alland in KANE, but not much more. It’s Herbert Lom who gets some of the juiciest stuff to play here and he makes the most of it. As he sobs to his psychiatrist it’s tempting to look at Dreyfus as an surrogate for Edwards trying to deal with Sellers (more on this idea when discussing a subsequent film) and as far as the all-new footage on display throughout TRAIL, it’s Lom who gets most of the laughs. Richard Mulligan, on the other hand, plays Clouseau’s father in a sequence that seems designed to be the big show-stopper of the latter half of the film. I think that Mulligan is amazing in S.O.B. but here none of this stuff does anything for me. By the time this section rolls around, complete with portrayals of young Clouseau in flashbacks, it really feels like it’s time to close up shop.

Returning to the series for the first time since 1964, David Niven (famously dubbed by Rich Little as his voice was too weak by this point) is Charles Litton and Capucine is Simone Litton, both playing their scenes together as if on a talk show. Burt Kwouk is again Cato, but AndrĂ© Maranne, who as Francois gets to be the sounding board for Dreyfus, has some of his best material in the series this time around. Graham Stark reprises his A SHOT IN THE DARK role as Hercule Lovejoy and William Hootkins (Porkins in STAR WARS) plays the French cab driver whose American accent is never explained. Denise Crosby (at the time about to marry Edwards’ son Geoffrey, who co-wrote the script with his father) plays the moll to Robert Loggia’s character and is presumably doing a Jean Harlow impression. More surprisingly, Julie Andrews makes her only in-the-flesh appearance of the series, playing the silent role of a cleaning woman outside the office of Dreyfus’ psychiatrist, just before he takes a spectacular pratfall.

Various familiar character actors from previous films are glimpsed in small roles, including some from STRIKES AGAIN who also turn up in linking footage meant to help the plot along. The most interesting element of the Mancini score is that the album is, much like the film, a compilation of selections from previous films. It contains what I think is the only real release of the theme to A SHOT IN THE DARK and also my favorite selection from this film, “The Easy Life In Paris”, a lovely piece which would fit in perfectly with any Best-of Mancini compilation.

Ultimately, TRAIL OF THE PINK PANTHER is a movie that isn’t very much of a movie. The end credits contain a montage of Sellers highlights from the previous five films and it’s no great shock to say that it’s the funniest part of the film. The legacy of Peter Sellers is great enough that it can’t be hurt by this film, even if it was followed by multiple lawsuits involving his widow, Blake Edwards and MGM/UA. Stranger still is that a follow-up is promised at the end and, in spite of the first film’s box-office failure, was going to arrive in theaters. TRAIL OF THE PINK PANTHER may have marked the true, final end of Inspector Jacques Clouseau as the world knew him, but the universe his films are set in was not yet finished.

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