It is not my favorite of the franchise, but The Pink Panther is a treasure all on it’s own. This first in the series brought to everyone’s attention Peter Sellers‘ brilliant character Inspector Jacques Clouseau. But the part of the bumbling French detective almost belonged to someone else. Peter Ustinov turned down the part at the last minute, making way for Sellers. The production crew was so impressed with Sellers’ work that the movie was retooled to involve more screen time for the character and paved the way for the actor to steal the show from the movie’s intended leading man: David Niven.
Niven is Sir Charles who happens to also be a mysterious jewel thief known only as The Phantom. The criminal changes his M.O. with every theft but always leaves behind a white glove with a P embroidered on it. Sir Charles is in the Swiss Alps at the same time as middle eastern Princess Dala, played by the ever-captivating Claudia Cardinale. She owns the most glorious diamond in the world, known as the pink panther because of a cat-shaped flaw in the rosy stone. The Phantom thus plots to get his hands on the gem.
Knowing that where the pink panther is the Phantom is surely near, Inspector Clouseau has taken up residence at the same hotel as the thief and the princess. Little does he know, however, his wife Simone (Capucine) is having an affair with Sir Charles and is helping in the criminal plot.
After gaining an in with the princess by failing to rescue her kidnapped dog, Sir Charles attempts a romantic relationship. Meanwhile, Charles’ nephew, the equally deceptive George (Robert Wagner), arrives at the hotel and stays in his uncle’s suite, unaware of his guardian’s secret identity or his affair with Simone.
The plot to secure the diamond climaxes at a Rome-based costume party hosted by Princess Dala. Two gorilla-dressed men –at one time being Sir Charles and George– attempt to empty the princess’ safe, but she steals the diamond first. The men are nevertheless arrested for the crime and must find someone else on which to pin the robbery. A certain bumbling inspector makes the perfect mark.
The Pink Panther lacks some of the mainstay characters that would come to occupy the later films, such as Kato and Chief Inspector Dreyfus. But the movie succeeds in preempting them with a wife for the clutz. As we see in the later films, no woman is really interested in Clouseau despite his best efforts. With Simone, Jacques repeatedly tries to make love to her only to have his every effort foiled. Her feet are too cold, she needs warm milk, she accidentally uncorks a bottle of champaign beneath the blankets, etc. Capucine plays the role so straight-faced, showing just how patient a relationship with Clouseau has made her.
In one particularly enjoyable sequence, Simone has let Sir Charles into her room via a door adjoining their suites. Clouseau unexpectedly returns and the door between the rooms now being locked, Charles ducks under the bed. Entering under the ruse of a bell boy is George, who has been kept unaware of the affair his uncle is having. Simone hides him in the bathroom, which is sufficient only until Clousseau opts to bathe. Simone takes a bath first, hiding George under the suds. Once Charles as moved to a spot behind the window curtains, George ducks under the bed. This is where Jacques attempts to get frisky, driving Charles onto the balcony from which he ultimately falls into roughly 10 feet of snow. George slips out through the room’s front door once that champaign bottle goes off.
It was not until the second movie, A Shot in the Dark –my favorite– that Sellers amped up the French accent to make Clouseau’s dialogue all the more ridiculous. So some might view his performance in The Pink Panther as much more subtle than the later films. He still stumbles about with the greatest of ease (one cannot forget the spinning globe gag) and dryly accents his every fumble. For instance, when retrieving a sleeping pill from the bathroom for his wife, we hear off screen the spilling of a multitude of pills on the floor. This is followed by crunching footsteps as Clousseau returns to the bedroom. He then walks back to replace the glass of water, again crunching on those pills. Lastly, he steps on his violin on the floor.
Much credit for the comedy belongs with Director and Co-Author Blake Edwards. An expert of comedy in the 60s and beyond, Edwards shows us just how masterful he is in this spot-on comedy. As usual with the director, the opening credits for The Pink Panther are just as humorous as the rest of the film. Done in the cartoon form he would become known for, we feel we are watching an animated episode of the Pink Panther. And no review of a Pink Panther film would be complete without mention of Henry Mancini’s awesome score. Seeing the film’s only Oscar nomination, Mancini creates that unforgettable Pink Panther theme tune and composes with Johnny Mercer the equally infections “Meglio Stasera” song performed throughout the film.
- The Pink Panther is set for midnight ET March 27 on TCM.