James Rosario is a writer, filmmaker, and musician based in the Asheville, NC area. His record label, Bigger Boat Records, releases...
Directed by Blake Edwards
Reviewed by James Rosario on September 17, 2018
The Pink Panther was meant as a sophisticated caper film with an ensemble cast. David Niven was the headliner, with Claudia Cardinale as the eye candy and Peter Sellers as the comic relief. It’s easy to see, however, that Sellers steals the entire show, and it raises the question: did anyone ever think it would be any other way? The cast is very good from top to bottom - with Robert Wagner and French model and actress Capucine rounding it out - but Sellers is the glue. His Inspector Clouseau would spawn several sequels and become the model for physical comedians for years to come. It’s a very funny movie with an exceptional cast, if, perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, only one real star.
It starts with that unforgettable score by Henry Mancini. You know the tune, even if you don’t know where it’s from. It’s one of those pieces of music that sticks with you, popping into your brain at unexpected times. For example, I host a monthly film screening at the library where I work. A few days ago, a kid (he couldn’t have been more than eleven) saw a flyer for the screening of The Pink Panther we’re having next month. He started humming the score right then and there in the library as he checked out his books. I was surprised, and I couldn’t help but smile. I must admit, I wonder where he picked it up from?
By the time Inspector Clouseau makes his appearance, the film is well established. Niven plays a wealthy Lothario named Sir Charles Lytton who doubles as the famed cat burglar, The Phantom. Cardinale is Princess Dala, the owner of The Pink Panther, the largest diamond in the world. The Phantom, naturally, has his sights set on the diamond and follows Dala to northern Italy. Sellers’ Clouseau has made it his life’s work to apprehend The Phantom, and so heads to the Italian Alps as well. The thief is sure to strike, and he won't be fooled again. Away we go.
The gag that introduces Clouseau sets the mood for the entire film. It’s a perfect example of what I love about physical comedy - and as one of my all-time favorite comedy figures likes to say, “it’s only funny when the sap’s got dignity.” (if you know the famous comedian who said that, this film is for you). This being an ensemble cast, Sellers isn’t always on the screen. But when he is, he’s always “on.” His mere presence is funny. You know something wild, clumsy, and hilarious is about to happen, and you’re never be disappointed. Clouseau is, in no way, aware of how ridiculous he is. It wouldn’t work if he were yucking it up or playing to the lowest common denominator. Instead, he maintains a constant poise - working almost as his own straight man - always with his dignity neatly intact. If he were embarrassed about his foibles he’d be tragic and sad. He’d be pitiable. By not playing to the audience for pity, Sellers locks on to something more human - life, and how it must go on regardless of how many mishaps one has.
Let’s not forget the rest of the cast, though. Robert Wagner holds his own as the sneaky American, and Claudia Cardinale is about as glamorous as you can get this side of Marilyn Monroe. Capucine carries nearly all the exposition on her shoulders alone (she’s an unsung hero, really), and David Niven’s cocky Sir Charles is a perfect foil to the whole affair. I read a story about Niven not long ago. In it, he said that in the years following the film’s release, he eventually asked the hosts of various TV and radio shows to stop playing its theme when he made his entrance. He said that it was hardly his film anymore - that it was clearly Sellers’. Make of that what you will.
As good as The Pink Panther is, the direction by Blake Edwards is a bit stiff. Some scenes play out as if we’re watching a sitcom or stage production instead of a movie. I can understand this approach in part, as Sellers was a one take kind of actor. Having the camera set up to cover an entire room in hopes of catching the whole shebang at once might have been the only way to capture it all in one go, but it leaves things seeming rather perfunctory at times. As rigid as the camera movement (or lack thereof) may seem at times, I’ll take it over missing a single gag any day of the week.
The Pink Panther is presented by the Fairview Library as the second film in a monthly four-part retrospective on the life and career of Peter Sellers. All screenings will be hosted by The Daily Orca's James Rosario, who will introduce each film and lead a discussion after.
Tuesday, October 2nd - The Pink Panther
Tuesday, November 6th - Dr. Strangelove
Tuesday, December 4th - Being There
All screenings start at 6p at The Fairview Library • 1 Taylor Road, Fairview, NC.
Free popcorn provided by Grail Moviehouse.