You would have to be a fan of farce and slapstick to appreciate much of the debut of the celebrated Pink Panther franchise. I enjoy slapstick, though this is limited here to mishaps with items of furniture, but farce tends to pass me by (although I laughed myself silly at One Man, Two Guv’nors on stage). And you should be aware that this is really a dry run for the Clouseau character later hilariously perfected by Peter Sellers.
The premise is clever. Bumbling detective Clouseau (Peters Sellers, minus the pronounced French accent that appeared later) is on the trail of ace cat burglar The Phantom (David Niven), unaware that his wife Simone (Capucine) is not only in cahoots with the jewel thief but his lover. The trail leads to Switzerland where the robber plans to steal the titular diamond owned by The Princess (Claudia Cardinale). The Phantom, aka Sir Charles Lytton, attempts to get to know her better by stealing and then rescuing her dog.
Meanwhile, to add to the confusion, Lytton’s conman nephew George (Robert Wagner) has arrived in town, and soon attempts to purloin his uncle’s mistress and on realising Lytton’s true identity stals his equipment with the intention of turning thief himself.
Lytton has the tendency to take a suite adjoining the Clouseau bedroom complete with linking doors to make it easier to make hay with Simone while the complaisant detective is lured elsewhere.
Cue a series of bedroom farces of the kind where Lytton attempting to make love to a drunken Princess in the lounge of his suite does not realise his nephew is in the bedroom and Simone expecting the uncle and finding the junior. And the classic of Simone, pursued by both men in her own room, having to hide them, on her husband’s return, in bed, cupboard, shower and bath.
There’s a fancy dress party where competing gorillas target the famed jewel and Clouseau, clunking around in armour, knocks into or knocks down anything in sight. And finding one of his men, dressed as a zebra, drinking on duty, harangues him with the threat of having his stripes (best joke by far).
But the bulk of the laugh out loud comedy originates from the inspector’s tussles with inanimate objects, doors, even approached cautiously, appearing to be capable of springing surprises.
Unfortunately, the first Pink Panther outing was not designed with Sellers expressly in mind and so the plot, necessitating accommodating the other stars via romantic interlude, does not play to his strengths. You get the impression of Sellers improvising his way into stealing every scene he is in with his brilliant physical comedy as there’s only limited value in his role as the duped husband.
After the sequel A Shot in the Dark (1964) where Sellers took center stage Blake Edwards would go all-out slapstick in his next venture The Great Race (1965) but here there’s neither sufficient Keatonesque or Chaplinesque buffoonery or Laurel and Hardy antics to maintain the comedic momentum.
David Niven (Bedtime Story, 1964) is perfectly serviceable as the master criminal especially as it calls mostly for his legendary charm, though he brings his double take quickly up to speed. Claudia Cardinale (Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968) is surprisingly good in a light-hearted role while Robert Wagner (The Biggest Bundle of Them All, 1968), a rising star at this point, comes over as slippery ingenue. Capucine (The 7th Dawn, 1964) has the most difficult part since she is in effect playing two roles, faithful wife and wanton lover.
Despite priceless roles in Ealing comedies and various attempts to embrace the Hollywood dynamic, this was the picture that turned Peter Sellers (Heavens Above!, 1963) into a bona fide star. It says a lot for the director that, having found a comedy genius on his hands, he did his best to accommodate him without allowing him to over-dominate what was in effect a carefully-orchestrated piece.
In small roles you will find John Le Mesurier (The Liquidator, 1965) and Brenda de Banzie (A Matter of Innocence, 1967) and the chanteuse in the ski chalet you might be interested to know was Fran Jeffries (Sex and the Single Girl, 1964). And of course the memorable theme tune, as celebrated as the movie itself, was composed by Henry Mancini (Hatari!, 1962). The film also spawned the famous cartoon series. Edwards wrote the screenplay with Maurice Richlin (Pillow Talk, 1959).
You could do worse than splurge on a five-disc box set.