The Pink Panther
US (1963) Dir. Blake Edwards
Anyone reading this of a certain vintage will have two images in their mind upon seeing the title The Pink Panther – either the madcap antics of the inexplicably ranked Inspector Clouseau or the silent cartoon character with his own TV show who drove a flashy sports car (pink, natch). This film will therefore be an eye opener to them.
The young Princess Dala of Lugash is given the world largest diamond, the Pink Panther, by her father the Maharajah. The diamond is so named because of a tiny pink blemish inside the jewel resembling a panther. Twenty years later, Dala (Claudia Cardinale), now exiled from her country, is on holiday at a ski resort in Northern Italy, and it is expected a prolific jewel thief known as The Phantom will try to steal the Pink Panther.
France’s Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers) has a lead to catch The Phantom in the form of a female accomplice. Clouseau heads to the resort with his wife Simone (Capucine), unaware she is the accomplice and is having an affair with The Phantom aka Sir Charles Lytton (David Niven). Meanwhile, Lytton’s debt riddled American nephew George (Robert Wagner) arrives at the resort to steal the diamond, but becomes smitten with Simone, oblivious to her relationship with Uncle Charles.
It is likely most people will be more familiar with the Pink Panther films from the ‘70s in which the focus was the chaos caused by Clouseau and the conniptions he would drive his boss Commissioner Dreyfus to as a result. These openly zany sequels which would define this franchise only vaguely resemble this first film, not just from being a decade apart but in style and narrative.
Originally designed to be a series based around David Niven as Clouseau, it soon became apparent he was better suited as The Phantom, and maybe the series could follow his exploits instead. Peter Ustinov and Ava Gardner were to play Mr and Mrs. Clouseau but Gardner’s diva demands were refused and she left the project with Ustinov following soon after. Sellers was the next choice for Clouseau and the rest as they say…
Very much a product of its time with skits, comic set pieces, and plot beats likely to look a little tired to modern viewers, this is still a fine humorous romp capable of surprising us with its subtle wit. A rather hasty opening section introduces us to the leading players to set up the sinuous relationship web that is to follow, managing to show the depth of the planning of Lytton and Simone’s raids, and Clouseau’s buffoonery.
Compared to the later films, Clouseau’s slapstick routines aren’t consistently catastrophic but do serve as a portent of things to come. It starts with little things like burning his hands or bumping into doors, and ends with him almost blowing up Dala’s mansion (okay, that is catastrophic), with a middle section of vignettes straight out of the Brian Rix farce playbook.
With the majority of the film taking place within the ski resort, the stage play feel is most recognisable during a protracted scene in the Clouseau’s bedroom. Lytton has an adjoining room to the Clouseaus and Simone makes every excuse to get rid of her hubby to smooch with Lytton instead, usually foiled at the last moment. On the first night, Simone accidentally gets into bed with George, who snuck into his uncle’s room without his knowledge, and this was enough for the young playboy to decide his next target.
Having lured Clouseau away on a fake lead, George makes his move on Simone but Uncle Charles has already tried and is hiding under the bed. Clouseau soon returns from this dupe, forcing George to hide in the bathroom, but the Inspector wants a bath before he gets frisky with his missus. It may seem corny today but the timing of the moving parts going back and forth, both the actors and in the editing, make it a fun comic distraction the Marx Brothers would be proud of.
Elsewhere, smoothie Lytton has set up a series of mishaps to gain the trust of Dala, and the headstrong but vulnerable princess falls for his dapper charms, with the aid of some champagne. As seductions go, this is chaste compared to what we’d see today yet has an element of sensuality about the way a tipsy Dala effectively talks herself into falling for Lytton.
Dala’s position as a political exile is rather underplayed, offering no explanation how she can afford to maintain a life of luxury after being deposed by a military coup following the death of her father. The new government insist Dala returns the Pink Panther to the people of Lugash but she refuses. This would surely make it a very dangerous jewel for anyone to hold, therefore a foolish risk for Lytton to steal too.
Being a ‘60s film, the main female roles teeter on pure eye candy whilst the darker skinned characters aren’t ethnic, although Claudia Cardinale was barely touched to allow her natural beauty to radiate. On that note, Sellers doesn’t put on much of a French accent as he would in the later films, robbing us of the famous mispronunciation gags (“A berm?”), though the physical comedy compensates.
Unfortunately for David Niven, who gladly sends himself up here as Lytton, the general consensus was that the flawless performance of Sellers as Clouseau stole the show, and his role become the lead thereafter. Other trademarks which would become synonymous with the franchise includes Henry Mancini’s iconic theme tune and the aforementioned cartoon Pink Panther who stars in the credits.
Maybe The Pink Panther is a film that reveals its classic status on repeated viewings but for a first time watch, there are significant traces of its future magic to be found in its subtle, less manic presentation, along with the potential of Clouseau as a comic icon being instantly obvious from his first (hilarious) prat fall.