Originally written as a vehicle for charming British actor David Niven to star in a string of films centred around the devilish jewel thief “The Phantom” and his escapades, “The Pink Panther” ended up becoming a comedy series oriented around Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau due to his unprecedented popularity with audiences. Handsome playboy Sir Charles Lytton has been eluding capture for years as the masked bandit “The Phantom” and has his eye on his latest conquest, the famed “Pink Panther” diamond. He follows the owner of the diamond, Princess Dala of Lugash, (Claudia Cardinale), to an exclusive ski resort in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, and seeks to woo the Princess and steal her jewel. Hot on his heels is Inspector Clouseau, the bumbling policeman who has been investigating the Phantom and has intelligence that he may be poised to strike again. Little does he know that his wife Simone (Capucine), is a double agent and has been having an affair with Lytton for years, helping him avoid detection and pull of his heists. Will Clouseau outwit the Phantom after all this time? Whether he does or doesn’t, its a fun ride nonetheless.
The film is in many ways so typical of films in the 60s, incredibly stylised and invested in the art of pure entertainment and escapism. It’s a cinema experience in a way that is different to films of today, which are often so determined to instil realism and grittiness and bad lighting as if in some kind of morbid contest on which director can paint the bleakest picture of the world possible. In this world however, the men are impeccably dressed in their suits and smoking jackets, and the women are stylish and sexy in that distinctive 60s sort of way. In this world, the rooms are impeccably and luxuriously furnished, people are at least reasonably attractive, if somebody falls out a window there is a handy five feet of snow to catch them, there is always enough whiskey and champagne to go around and no shortage of people offering. Its a fantasy world, and its intoxicating. Even the stakes throughout the film are never really that high; if Lytton gets caught and goes to prison he’ll con his way out, if Clouseau never catches the Phantom he’ll be forgiven because nobody really expects to catch him anyway, if Princess Dala loses her diamond, she’ll be sad but she’ll have plenty more to keep her company.
As I said earlier, this was initially designed with David Niven in the forefront, so Clouseau isn’t actually in the film as much as I thought he would be. The main laughs, aside from Clouseau knocking things over and falling over his own feet, come from some pretty elaborate farcical style sequences. One involves Lytton, Simone, Clouseau and Lytton’s nephew George (Robert Wagner) running in and out of Clouseau’s bedroom, behind the curtains, under the bed and out the window, always just in the nick of time to avoid the other. Its typical of the farcical plays and films of the 1960s, often British, where the physical comedy is orchestrated, perfectly timed and incredibly difficult to get right. Some of it is funnier than the rest of it, and strangely these moments are scattered throughout the film rather than the comedy being the driving force. The romance between Lytton and Dala is strung out for far too long and its not terribly interesting, the pacing for both a comedy and heist movie is far too slow and the bizarre rendition of “Meglio Stasera” in the middle of the whole thing seemed out of place. Despite this, there are genuine moments of comedic brilliance by Sellers and even by Niven, and you can tell that the cast are all enjoying themselves.
I suppose I always had an impression in my mind of what Peter Sellers’ famous Inspector Jacques Clouseau would be like. He was a perfectly formed picture of a little man with a neat moustache, loudly and shamelessly throwing his weight around where it wasn’t welcome with his purposefully obscene French accent, arms flailing wildly and eyes popping out of his head as he ultimately, but completely accidentally, saves the day. I have to say, Peter Sellers in “The Pink Panther” is completely different to what I was expecting, or what Steve Martin’s interpretation led me to believe it would be at least. Sellers’s Clouseau is surprisingly understated; when he trips or knocks something over it’s still within the realms of what a clumsy person would actually do and he doesn’t ever come across as a caricature or cartoon. Is it hilarious? On the whole I don’t necessarily think so, save for a couple of real belly laughs. But its fun and surprisingly sweet with some incredible set pieces and elaborately staged farcical romps and I did not expect for my final thoughts on Clouseau to be of him as a sweet natured guy who loves his wife and wants to help as much as he can rather than as a buffoon or one trick clown.
By Jock Lehman