[box cover]

The Return of the Pink Panther

One of 1975's box office hits, The Return of the Pink Panther marked the return, after 11 years, of Peter Sellers to the role of Inspector Clouseau, the Parisian detective who transformed clueless bumbling into career advancement in 1964's The Pink Panther and A Shot in the Dark. This time the world's most famous diamond, the Pink Panther, is stolen again. The obvious culprit is Sir Charles Litton, a.k.a. the Phantom, the gentleman thief who stole the diamond previously when he was played by David Niven in the first film. Here he's debonair Christopher Plummer. But years ago Litton abandoned a life of crime to live large in the Riviera with his beautiful wife (Catherine Schell). So if the Phantom didn't steal the diamond, who did? It's a caper that Litton and Clouseau each pursue — predictably and often tediously — at cross purposes. Hilarity, if you define it generously, ensues. Also back is Herbert Lom as Clouseau-deranged Chief Inspector Dreyfus, who in seeking therapy only sharpens his homicidal focus. Burt Kwouk returns, springing from the freezer, as Clouseau's manservant Cato, "my little yellow friend."

Those of us whose memories have self-edited the film down to a Good Parts version remember this as the one with the blind man's "mihnkey," Clouseau asking Victor Spinetti for a "rheum" in a posh hotel, mishaps with swimming "pewls," and the fade-out to Lom in a padded cell interacting with both the credits scroll and the animated Panther himself. In between we get the expected allotment of Clouseau's silly disguises (a telephone repairman, a poolman, a nightclub swinger with a malformed mustache, etc.), crash-bang-banana-peel slapstick, prop gags, parrot poop in a drink, funny-accent humor, and an exploding toilet among other comic-strip destruction left behind Clouseau's deadpan buffoonery.

It's a sleek-looking production, putting that mid-70s gloss on a mysterious assassin, an elegant femme fatale, and political and underworld thuggery, while its cast jet-sets to location shooting in France (Nice, Alpes-Maritimes), Switzerland, and Morocco. Sometimes the pratfalling Clouseau set pieces feel like throwbacks plunked awkwardly into a Roger Moore-era Bond film. Typical for writer-director Blake Edwards and the series, some of the funny stuff works well, then other examples are stretched too long or arrive telegraphed like warmed-over Stooge bits. And why do a joke once when you can do it three times, right? Plummer has too much to do given how the slack and bifurcated plot rolls along like a car in neutral, and the revelation of the real thief delivers all the wow of diet cola with no bubbles. The series isn't sleepwalking yet, but you can see the yawn starting.

Fans of the Pink Panther series (who likely came of age in the 1970s and '80s when the films were Saturday TV movie staples) tend to rank this one as a favorite alongside its successor, The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976). Perhaps so, but as one-note vehicles go, even the tissue-light The Party is a better demonstration of the remarkable Sellers' gifts as a comic actor. Sellers was at his best when you could feel he wasn't hemmed in, when he could just go with his own well-honed instincts. But too often Edwards' tight-ass Clouseau films (with the exception of A Shot in the Dark, which wasn't exactly a franchise product) have Sellers displaying all the witty improvisational zing of a Celine Dion concert. Technically he's terrific, but the too-easy laughs are hit or miss.

Fortunately for this one, Plummer's repartee with Schell reveals a flair for Brit-com dash, and Schell is appealing despite a limited range and an evident inability to keep a straight face while sharing a scene with Sellers. (Hey, he had that effect on the cast of Dr. Strangelove too.) Henry Mancini's cocktail-swizzle-stick of a score moves us pleasantly through the film's unsteady pacing, beginning with the animated opening-credits-sequence-as-production-number.

*          *          *

A rights dispute with the former Artisan Entertainment kept The Return of the Pink Panther out of MGM's Pink Panther Collection boxed set in 2004. This edition from Universal's Focus Features line doesn't only correct that omission, it improves on the ill-favored Artisan disc from 1999. The newly remastered image (2.35:1, anamorphic) is spotless and sharp. The audio comes listed as DD 2.0 Stereo, though to these ears it's perfectly fine 2.0 monaural.

There are no extras, not even the theatrical trailer, unless you count the pre-menu trailers for other Universal/Focus Features discs, and the subtitles in English, Spanish, and French. (The Artisan disc's production notes, bio/filmographies, and trailer are not here.)

—Mark Bourne

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