The second feature in our Clouseau double-feature was actually the first Clouseau movie, The Pink Panther. But the funny thing about that is that The Pink Panther is not really an Inspector Clouseau movie. It’s a competent (if a little staid by modern standards) caper film wherein cat burglar The Phantom (David Niven) has had his girlfriend (Capucine) marry the bumbling French inspector Clouseau so that he can get away with his thieving shenanigans.
The screenplay is so very French, you’d think it was written by a Frenchman. And indeed it was: Maurice Richlin, who also wrote the suspiciously French-feeling Pillow Talk co-wrote this tale of seduction and thievery.
It’s very clear that the hero of the story (or anti-hero) is supposed to have been The Phantom, and we spend a lot of time with Niven in his conquest of The Princess (Claudia Cardinale) which, again, is competently done. And in the original script, Clouseau (originally to be played by Peter Ustinov) was more of a patsy than a buffoon. Sellers’ improvisations (and Edwards’ encouragement of same) created the character would immediately dominate the series.
And it’s easy to see why: Without Sellers’ Clouseau, it’s a bland, fun early ’60s crime caper with sort-of Bondian overtones. If you didn’t actually forget it, it would probably blur pleasantly in your memory with other films of the era. And then Sellers shows up and there’s magic. (Curiously, my mother, with a distaste for slapstick, buffoonery, and most kinds of comedy loves Sellers and these movies.) He has a perfect blend of overconfidence and incompetence but, as I noted in A Shot In The Dark, he’s still somehow likable.
It’s probably that his heart is pure: he has an almost Don Quixote-ish self-image, the upstanding gendarme, the detective in pursuit of the truth. He is more likable than the presumably more competent Inspector Dreyfus, because Dreyfus is (for lack of a better word) “establishment”. Dreyfus will do what he’s told, he’ll take orders from on high and shrug at corruption. Such a thing would offend Clouseau.
This is why Clouseau trumps The Phantom as well: A lovable rogue has to be rebelling against the system (or some broken part of the system). Robin Hood has to be fighting King John. Han Solo has to be fighting (in the sense of refusing to be a part of) the Empire. Even Don Ameche’s unfaithful layabout in Heaven Can Wait is endearing because…well, that’s a more intriguing one which I will write on in detail some day.
But what’s Niven doing? He’s stealing from The Princess. He’s also trying to bed her, when she is appalled by the modern promiscuity of 1963. And he’s trying to set up a man who, for all his buffoonery, believes in justice and righteousness, and always acts (however comically) from that basic love what is good and right.
The punch line of the movie, immediately discarded, is that Clouseau ends up being framed as The Phantom and is on his way to jail. The detectives who arrest him, however, assure him that he will gain incredible fame and fortune as a result of his notoriety as a suave, sophisticated jewel thief, which seems to offer some consolation.
Wonderfully shot. Beautiful women. Besides Claudia Cardinale and Capucine, the late Fran Jeffries shakes her booty at the camera from about a foot away as she sings whatever forgettable ’60s pop-crooner tune they crammed into the film. And for the ladies, a young Robert Wagner (as The Phantom’s ne’er-do-well nephew) makes the moves on Capucine as well, when she mistakes him for his uncle. (Now, Wagner was 33 and Capucine was 35, but he’s supposed to be fresh out of the college he didn’t attend.)
Iconic music. Iconic titles by De Patie-Freling that netted a cartoon show based on the anthropomorphized…um…imperfection-that-looks-like-a-panther. Shot in the Dark would also result in a cartoon show, the title sequence actually receiving a standing ovation at…Cannes? But just as Clouseau outshines the Phantom here, cartoon Clouseau would be outshone by the cartoon Pink Panther.