[box cover]

The Pink Panther Film Collection

MGM Home Entertainment

Written by Blake Edwards, Maurice Richlin, William Peter Blatty,
Frank Waldman, Tom Waldman, Ron Clark
and Geoffrey Edwards

Directed by Blake Edwards

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Review by Clarence Beaks                    

The crowning achievement of neither director Blake Edwards or star Peter Sellers, The Pink Panther series was nevertheless a massively popular and (most crucial to its longevity) profitable comedic playground in which these two men could ply their considerable slapstick talents. Though there's not a consistently "great" film in the bunch (only A Shot in the Dark and Return of the Pink Panther, which is omitted from this DVD collection due to a rights issue, come close), the films are, at their best, handsomely produced confections — the filmic equivalent of a warm and gregarious dinner guest.

Unfortunately, they also became a creative crutch for both artists, enabling Sellers' worst tendencies toward unfunny excess and Edwards' willingness to phone it in for a paycheck. By the late '70s, these comedic giants rode this cash-cow to respective career nadirs — a result of either over-familiarity with the material or, more likely, each other. As has been recounted in many entertainment biographies (as well as alluded to on this collection's documentary), the relationship between the two was a tempestuous one, forever threatening to derail the productions and drive the perpetually sick Sellers to an early grave (he would eventually succumb to the heart disease that kept him in ill health for much of his life two years after completing the series' fifth installment). By Sellers last complete performance as Clouseau (the sixth film, Trail of the Pink Panther is a hastily edited together pastiche of the actor's outtakes plopped into a shaky narrative regarding the inspector's sudden disappearance), Edwards seemed to be humoring his mercurial star, allowing him to indulge in painfully lame physical shtick and poorly conceived characters hardly worthy of his particular genius.

Minus the aforementioned Return, as well as Edwards' two successive attempts to resuscitate the franchise, Curse of the Pink Panther and Son of the Pink Panther, with Ted Wass (!) and Roberto Benigni respectively (had he only waited a few years, he might've had a shot with that one), The Pink Panther Film Collection at least offers a pretty clear picture of how Edwards/Sellers managed to enthrall generations of filmgoers and television viewers (the pictures were network "Movie of the Week" mainstays throughout the late '70s and early '80s). Though eventually a sad case of diminishing returns in terms of entertainment value, the series also charts the public's shifting taste for more sophisticated comedy to a preference for broader, physical-based shenanigans with an often puerile undercurrent.

The Fortunate Accident

The Pink Panther (1963) began life as a star-studded caper comedy intended to be anchored by David Niven as the debonair jewel thief Sir Charles Lytton, aka "The Phantom," a man audacious enough to carry on an affair with the wife of his tireless, if thoroughly inept, pursuer, Inspector Jacques Clouseau. And had Peter Ustinov, originally cast as Clouseau (and, coincidentally, batman to the higher-ranking Niven in World War II), not backed out of the production, following Ava Gardner's lead (who had been cast as Clouseau's philandering spouse), it's entirely possible that there would have been no Pink Panther franchise (though a great thespian, Ustinov was hardly anyone's idea of an explosive comedic talent). But when Peter Sellers came on board as the incompetent inspector, the picture was suddenly given a raucously funny performer who easily could run away with the proceedings.

By sheer force of personality, Sellers is absolutely focal point of The Pink Panther, but Edwards, exhibiting his under-appreciated command of the widescreen, never lets the actor dominate the picture. The narrative is still driven by Lytton, who has his mind set on purloining the titular Lugashi jewel, named for the panther-shaped flaw at its center, from its possessor, the ravishing Princess Dala (Claudia Cardinale). He intends to do this at a picturesque ski resort in Switzerland, where, as always, he will use his dashing societal status as cover to get close to the young princess. Hot on the Phantom's trail is Clouseau, who arrives at the resort with his unfaithful wife (Capucine), thus lending Lytton unwitting assistance in his scheme. But Lytton is beset by unexpected interference in the form of his gallivanting young nephew George (Robert Wagner), who also has it in his mind to make off with the priceless jewel — though he amazingly, and quite inexplicably, is unaware that his Uncle is indeed the Phantom.

A major production of modest pleasures, The Pink Panther is breezily entertaining, if terribly insubstantial. Niven is suitably suave as the champagne-swilling Sir Lytton, allowing him to get away with wooing a woman 30 years his junior, though it should be noted that his lengthy fireside seduction of Dala is a tad too protracted (Edwards' normally sparkling dialogue veers into some mushily pedestrian territory here). But it's always fun, and, at least for men, instructive to watch Niven pitching woo, and he certainly doesn't disappoint in this respect. Meanwhile, Sellers' reined-in characterization of Clouseau is practically unrecognizable, even compared to his work in the subsequent film. Never a true master of the pratfall (his was a brilliance honed on the radio), he's clearly uneasy with a number of the bits, but he still contributes some grin-worthy moments (his peculiar insistence on flinging the hotel room door open is classic Sellers).

The real star of the show, however, is Edwards, who effortlessly keeps all of the narrative plates spinning while avoiding the chaotic inanity that frequently engulfs such all-star productions. Even the trademark musical interlude, performed here by Fran Jeffries, isn't terribly annoying. And while addressing the subject of music, let the congregation now praise Henry Mancini, whose jazzily iconic theme and nimble score are two of the film's most crucial attributes. It's not a stretch to assume that more people are likely acquainted with Mancini's music than have actually seen the film that spawned it, but despite its overt familiarity, it never once overwhelms the picture.

The only real uproarious moment in the film comes in the last act, where Edwards pulls off a brilliantly choreographed car chase through a confusingly circular Swiss intersection. It's a superb payoff to an otherwise pleasant trifle.

The Retrofit

A massive overhauling of a bedroom farce by Harry Kurnitz (itself suggested by the French play, L'Idiot by Michel Achard), A Shot in the Dark (1964) never was intended to be a part of The Pink Panther series. But the overwhelming success of the previous picture, coupled with numerous pre-production troubles, forced Blake Edwards to assume control of this looming disaster and write it as a Clouseau film. Miraculously, he emerged with an inspired comedy that, laugh-for-laugh, could be one of the funniest films ever made until it just dies in its too-busy conclusion. But until then, Edwards directs Sellers to his best portrayal of Clouseau, who's enough of an imbecile that he doesn't need the thick accent to push the character over into the overbearing buffoonery of the later installments.

The story finds Clouseau getting assigned, against Chief Inspector Charles Dreyfus's (Herbert Lom, making his first series appearance) wishes, to investigate a murder at the mansion of millionaire Benjamin Ballon (George Sanders). Though all evidence clearly implicates Ballon's lovely maid, Maria Gambrelli (Elke Sommer), Clouseau, his judgment seemingly clouded by his infatuation for the woman, believes her innocent. Even when she is repeatedly discovered in compromising positions with other freshly murdered victims, often speechless and grasping the murder weapon, Clouseau still refuses to acknowledge her readily apparent guilt. Instead, the inspector, in his own incomparably moronic fashion, sets about questioning every other resident of the Ballon estate, including its arrogant patriarch, claiming that "instinct" tells him Gambrelli is protecting someone.

Co-scripted by Edwards with William Peter Blatty, A Shot in the Dark establishes all of the tropes that would recur in each successive Pink Panther film. Lom's Dreyfus is blessedly saner and bereft of the facial tics that would eventually drown him in villainous caricature, while Clouseau's manservant Cato (Bert Kwouk), charged with attacking his employer at the most unexpected moments, is a shamelessly funny, and decidedly un-PC, creation. But this is a Sellers' showcase, and it's amazing to see how, over the course of a year, his facility for physical comedy improved. His billiard room episode with Sanders' Ballon, in which he destroys a cue rack and "grazes" the pool table, is one of the series' high points, while his rapport with his old "Goon Show" mate Graham Stark, who plays Clouseau's far swifter subordinate Hercule, is a study in comedic timing. If only Edwards hadn't wrapped the picture up in such a disappointingly conventional and forced manner (the physical shtick during the sequence is shockingly clumsy), A Shot in the Dark could've been something quite exceptional.

The Best of the Rest

Following the huge box office success of the Clouseau revival The Return of the Pink Panther (1975), Edwards and co-writer Frank Waldman took their broadening of Dreyfus to its logical extreme, turning him into a madman bent on killing Clouseau, and, while he's at it, world domination. As a result, they push everything else to the extreme, too. The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976), the first sequel with a patently senseless title, is little more than a gag-fest, and the hit-to-miss ratio is just positive enough to render the film an agreeable bit of foolishness.

The plot has Dreyfus kidnapping a brilliant scientist, Dr. Fassbender (Richard Vernon), whom he forces to build a laser beam that can make whole buildings disappear (once its built, they do a successful test run on the U.N.). Clouseau, now the highly regarded Chief Inspector, is charged with finding the missing professor and stopping Dreyfus, thus playing into his former superior's hands, since the loon has hired a number of the world's greatest assassins to knock off his hopelessly dim nemesis. Of course, these killers don't stand a chance, and, indeed, they're the ones who wind up getting snuffed out due to Clouseau's cosmic good fortune.

Because the film manages enough laughs, one doesn't mind the thorough ineptitude of the plotting (it's all as meaningless as any of the Austin Powers movies). The best bits find Clouseau laying waste to a living room while questioning the professor's help, as well as the obligatory Cato brawl, which is bizarrely punctuated by a left-field Hunchback of Notre Dame gag. This entry also features the best animated opening credit sequence, in which the Pink Panther pops up in a variety of classic film moments. They should've stopped with this one, but it was the most successful installment yet.

The Rest

Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978) features precisely two funny moments: the rolling out of the hilariously defective super-vehicle, "The Silver Hornet", and Clouseau excoriating Cato for opening up a "Chinese nookie factory" behind his back. Other than that, this is a leaden affair that finds Phillippe Douvier, leader of the "French Connection," trying to kill Clouseau to gain respect among their competing crime lords. When it's believed he has succeeded, Clouseau inexplicably winds up in a mental hospital, while the still insane Dreyfus is brought back to investigate his murder. Eventually, Clouseau manages to escape, and he enlists Cato and Douvier's secretary/mistress, Simone Legree (Dyan Cannon) to catch his would-be assailants. Aspects of Enter the Dragon and The Godfather are parodied here to lame effect, while Sellers looks depressingly sick, making the rough physical comedy, even though much of it was performed by Sellers' longtime stunt-double, Joe Dunne, hard to watch. Edwards was by now obviously bored with the franchise: His direction is slack, his framing is unusually slipshod, and he lets Sellers get away with making Clouseau's dialogue largely indecipherable.

After roaring back to life as a filmmaker with his trio of early-'80s hits — 10, S.O.B. (arguably his best work), and Victor/Victoria — Edwards sullied the memory of his longtime star/adversary with the dreadful Trail of the Pink Panther (1982). Opportunistically constructing a narrative with outtakes, the picture has Clouseau flying off to England where he thinks Sir Lytton has absconded once again with the Pink Panther. On his way back from England, his plane disappears, and the rest of the film consists of Joanna Lumley playing a reporter who questions Clouseau's old acquaintances, their remembrances complemented by flashbacks to the funniest parts of the previous installments. In other words, it's a sitcom clip-show for which Blake Edwards expected moviegoers to pay full price. The director's amazing contempt for the audience is misanthropically symbolized in the opening animated sequence, wherein Clouseau urinates Edwards' "story by" credit. This film has no business being in this DVD collection.

*          *          *

MGM Home Entertainment presents all of these films in The Pink Panther Movie Collection, all in pristine anamorphic transfers (2.35:1) with outstanding Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Only The Pink Panther disc features substantial extras, though the commentary track from Blake Edwards is sadly useless. For the most part, the retired director seems to be struggling to remember humorous anecdotes, and he largely resorts to describing the action as it happens. Making up for this though is the feature-length "Trivia Track," which actually is full of the sort of juicy tidbits that should've made Edwards' commentary a delight.

There also is a supplementary disc in the collection which features two short featurettes and a sampling of the DePatie-Freling cartoons. Of particular interest is "The Pink Panther Story" (30 min.), a somewhat candid but disappointingly brief overview of the franchise sporting interviews with Edwards, producer Walter Mirisch, editor Ralph E. Winters, film historian Ed Sikov, and a few others. But while Edwards acknowledges his difficult relationship with Sellers, the running-time of the documentary ensures a decided lack of detail. It also deals primarily with The Pink Panther and A Shot in the Dark, sparing the visibly frail Edwards from having to justify his troubling sequelitis. The other featurette is "Behind the Feline: The Cartoon Phenomenon" (11 min.), which offers a history on how DePatie-Freling were approached to do the opening credit sequence for the original film, and how they parlayed their excellent work into a small but-enduring cartoon industry. The shorts included are the Academy Award winning "The Pink Phink," as well as "Pink, Plunk, Plink," "Psychedelic Pink," "Pinkfinger," "The Ant and the Aardvark," and "The Great De Gaulle Stone Operation." Rounding out the extras are photo galleries for each film and theatrical trailers.

— Clarence Beaks

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