A Shot In The Dark

UK (1964) Dir. Blake Edwards

When a murder has been committed and you are the police responding to the call, you send your best man to investigate the case right? It stands to reason. What you don’t do is send the one person most liable to make a complete hash of it, especially if he allows his judgement to be swayed by a pretty face.

At the country home of wealthy Benjamin Ballon (George Sanders) one night, there is a lot of movement as the family and members of the staff creep around, in and out of each other’s rooms, up to who knows what. This activity is brought to a close by the sound of two gunshots, resulting in the death of Spanish chauffeur Miguel. The police are called and the case is assigned to Inspector Jacques Clouseau (Peter Sellers).

Flanked by his assistant Hercule Lajoy (Graham Stark), Clouseau arrives at the mansion to survey the scene. He is taken to meet the prime suspect, the maid Maria Gambrelli (Elke Sommer), and immediately falls for her. Despite all the evidence pointing to Maria, Clouseau is convinced she is innocent and sets out to prove it, to the chagrin of his boss Commissioner Dreyfus (Herbert Lom) who has already had his fill of Clouseau.

1963’s The Pink Panther first introduced the world to the bumbling Inspector Clouseau, a character that wasn’t the focus of the plot but with Peter Sellers stealing the show, this soon changed. The route to this sequel is an unusual one in that A Shot In The Dark is adapted from a Broadway hit by Harry Kurnitz, which itself was based on a French play, L’Idiote by Marcel Achard.

Sellers was going to star in Kurnitz’s production but didn’t like the script and pulled out. Blake Edwards was asked to direct the film version but refused, only relenting on the condition he rewrote the script to replace the lead character with Clouseau, and he and Sellers could repeat their improvised skit formula from the previous film. Luckily for us, the deal was agreed – less fortunate was the relationship between Sellers and Edwards which collapsed at the end of filming and they didn’t reconcile for four years.

It has been said the best art comes from situations of conflict, and it is remarkable such a funny film could be made with the director and lead actor at odds with each other, not discounting how much trust they have to put in the other for the extemporaneous gags, of which there are many. Whilst this became a trademark of the Pink Panther series, other notable facets of the Clouseau character that made him such a beloved comic icon were established in this film.

Clouseau’s heavy French accent was a little more pronounced than in the first film, with the debut of the misunderstood words gag – “She had a bermp on her head”; also making his first appearance is Clouseau’s servant Cato (Burt Kwok) beginning the long running gag of their playful fights; and of course, the mentally unravelling Dreyfus, the first signs of his famous twitching eye and accidental self-mutilation are found in this instalment.  

Back to the story, and the opening scene of the farcical interloping between rooms is almost Hitchcockian in construct and execution, taking its cue from the classic opening of Rear Window and the scanning of the apartment block from a wide shot. At this point we haven’t been introduced to the cast, everyone is a shadowy figure until they step into the light, and even then their identities remain a mystery.

The fatal gunshots are also obscured by an open door, making us wait until after the animated opening credits to learn exactly who has been shot and to meet the cast – but not after Clouseau has made a literal splash upon his entrance. Presumably, his wife left him after the first film as he is now living with Cato and so readily takes to Maria, who claims that despite having the gun in her hand, she doesn’t know how it got there.

Naturally, the smitten inspector interprets the blatant facts a lot differently from Lajoy, insisting Maria is covering for someone and is determined to find this person and absolve Maria of the accusations against her. This leads to another running gag of Maria being released from prison and Clouseau loitering with intent to follow her only to be arrested himself. The scenarios become wilder and funnier each time, with little tweaks to the pay off of the police van driving through the streets.

Realistically, the story becomes incidental in lieu of the litany of chaos Clouseau creates from the most inane of beginnings. And the script cleverly works this into the climax, a masterful, mostly one-take scene in which Sellers seamlessly stumbles and fumbles his way through the obligatory group gathering revelation, wrapping the whole mystery up  without Clouseau being involved!

Picking a favourite or funniest scene is hard as there are so many, but this being nearly 60 years old means the jokes and sight gags have since been recycled many times. That said, Dreyfus nonchalantly declaring “I’ve just cut my thumb off” is up there for me, or maybe Clouseau’s struggle with the billiards cues. Whatever the ratio between the scripted and improvised scenes is , kudos to Edwards and Sellers for both.

You may have noticed that unlike other films in the series, there is no reference to the Pink Panther at all, not even the namesake cartoon character in the opening credits. I can only surmise that this was to propel Clouseau into the spotlight as his own character and distance him from the first film. Also Henry Mancini composed a new theme tune for this film which is just as easily recognisable.

Generally regarded as the best film in the series, A Shot In The Dark might not hold up as well as the later films for some, but is certainly the more seminal work.

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