The Pink Panther
Where it all began, and in an alternate universe, a bumbling Peter Ustinov would have portrayed the French detective over the course of a series of movies, while Sellers would have solitarily shown up in Topkapi. That might have been quite fun, if much less iconic in repercussions, since Ustinov would surely have fitted in with the ensemble found here, rather than gradually manoeuvring his fellow participants to the periphery of the screen. The Pink Panther’s appeal for me was always the broad selection of players, although I hadn’t revisited it in decades; I think you can say that, easily watchable as it is, it needed more twists and turns of plot to make it truly satisfying; later instalments were all about Clouseau making a tit of himself, but here, there are X, Y and Z individuals with their own game plans, none of them particularly incisive. At least, until they don gorilla costumes.
Indeed, the costume party is the part I recall best, and it remains the most energised and engaged sequence. The gradual encroachment of Sellers on the movie is fairly self-evident just from the presence of David Niven, nominally the lead, who’d been undergoing something of a renaissance ever since Around the World in 80 Days ruled the Oscars and (very nearly) the box office in 1956; he won Best Actor two years later for Separate Tables, and co-starred in 1961’s (very near) champ The Guns of Navarone.
Sellers, meanwhile, was only big in Britain, even if his relationship with Kubrick was beginning to bear fruit. Find Sellers in The Pink Panther, and you find slapstick and the comedy of pain that appealed both to the performer and his director Blake Edwards. Find Niven/Sir Charles Lytton/master burglar the Phantom, and you find a smooth charmer who wouldn’t go amiss in To Catch a Thief, and for whom the Topkapi gang would be dismissed as mere riff-raff. Albeit, Sir Charles does encounter a couple of comedic mishaps (a skiing incident, being shut out in the cold); nevertheless, they’re very gentle ones.
The gist of the final line-up is that, after Ava Gardner withdrew from the production and was replace with Capucine (as Mrs Clouseau), Ustinov’s wife advised hubby against proceeding on the grounds that she wasn’t classy enough. Robert Wagner, probably known foremost to me for Hart to Hart when I first saw the film, had been working for more than a decade when he got the role; he’d been under contract with Fox for most of the 1950s and most famous for being Mr Natalie Wood (and let’s face it, until he became Jonathan Hart, that was how he’d remain). Capucine was probably best known for Walk on the Wild Side (which, given she played a hooker, may have been instrumental in Mrs Ustinov having a talk with Mr Ustinov). Claudia Cardinale meanwhile, an Italian playing an Indian dubbed by a New Zealander doing a modified RP (Gale Garnett), was prolific in her home country but very much a case of her beauty preceding her elsewhere.
There was, then, ample opportunity for Sellers to make his mark on relatively innocuous material. It’s very easy to imagine a scenario where, even with Sellers on board but playing it straighter, The Pink Panther never became a phenomenon. But from the opening titles, featuring the now-famous title character/jewel, there’s a sense of a foregone conclusion (it should be noted that, despite the likes of Operation Petticoat and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Edwards wasn’t yet pigeonholed as comedy guy, preceding Panther with acclaimed alcoholic drudge drama Days of Wine and Roses and thriller Experiment in Terror). They set up the picture’s malleable tone nicely, complete with a wolf whistle when Cardinale’s name appears.
Clouseau: If my little pigeon wants a glass of milk, she shall have one.
That tone falls perfectly into place as Clouseau attempts to rest on a spinning Globe and, upon announcing “We must find that woman” (who eluded the authorities with some swag), we see “that woman” is his wife (his befuddled inquiry “How you can survive on a police officer’s salary?” Is later repeated to him during the trial). Indeed, much of the comedy here consists of Clouseau attempting to engage in conjugal relations with Mrs Clouseau and her finding ever more creative ways to forestall the same. Other moments of note find him kissing Colin Gordon’s hand instead of Princess Dala’s, playing the violin atrociously, triumphantly plunging his fists into bowls of porridge and, found guilty, nevertheless enjoying suggestions of his own appropriated criminal ingenuity.
Sir Charles, in contrast, is identified as “a sort of contemporary Don Juan” (Niven is showing every bit of his 53 years, however). As such, he has a thing with Simone and gets Princess Dala pished (“If you were your father, I doubt very much I’d have kissed you”). And yet, Niven gets to do relatively little in the way of the expected suave, Raffles-esque manoeuvres (he’s also continually undermined by Wagner as his nephew George). Apparently, he saw the character as a Thin Man-type part he might return to, before Sellers intervened (Niven had played another role made famous by William Powell in My Man Godfrey remake a few years prior). Niven would return to the character about two decades later, post-Sellers and when he was ailing himself; the title might have been better placed as The Phantom Strikes Again (repeated twice in the movie) than The Pink Panther. On his solitary rematch with Clouseau, it would be Christopher Plummer playing the role (Return of the Pink Panther).
Clouseau: How dare you drink whilst you’re on duty!
The exclusive costume party finds Clouseau in a ridiculous knight outfit and both George and Sir Charles as gorillas. Curiously, Elite member Lord Cravenwood – an innuendo-packed name if ever there was one, and identified by the picture as a screaming queen – is also in gorilla garb, initially unmasked by Clouseau to reveal another mask beneath (I wonder if this inspired McGoohan for The Prisoner finale Fall Out? Possibly not). IMDB credits Francesco Tensi for the role, in which case I’m assuming he was voiced by someone else. My favourite moments here involve Clouseau’s men disguised as a panto zebra; as anyone who has seen Rentaghost can attest, a pantomime horse – or zebra – is a veritable comedic goldmine, and this one doesn’t disappoint, with Clouseau reprimanding his men for drinking directly from the punch bowl.
Sir Charles: Besides, when the Phantom strikes again, the inspector will be free as a bird.
The Pink Panther effectively tells us that stealing stuff was okay in the ’60s (as long as you remember to let the innocent idiot off… eventually), which wasn’t the most common Hollywood response. Niven showed more honesty, demurring Henry Mancini’s theme when he presented at the following Oscars as it was “not really my film”. Rather than the projected Phantom series, it was Sellers who plunged straight into sequel A Shot in the Dark, with the result that both pictures featured in the Top 10 1964 movies at the US box office (as reported by Wiki, at any rate. Panther received a showing on New Year’s Eve 1963 in Boston, but was otherwise a 1964 film, and in the UK too). The latter film is rightly regarded as superior, with some taking a particularly dim view of the original, that it is rather dull and unfunny. I wouldn’t go that far. Patchy definitely, and with longueurs, but it retains a certain charm.