Trail of the Pink Panther

I taped back-to-back movies on channel 278, CHARGE!, one evening. I can’t identify the motivating force for wanting to watch them. There was a good chance I wouldn’t and belatedly purge them. What was the harm? But I did watch and, despite their wide disparity in content, found them linked by extra-cinematic elements that made their appearance in CHARGE’s lineup appear less than fortuitous.

The first was the sixth film in the Peter Sellers Inspector Clouseau series, Trail of the Pink Panther (1982). The unfortunate aspect of this venture is that Sellers had died two years before. Director Blake Edwards unashamedly went forward with this project. Indeed, he conceived the film as a “tribute” to Sellers. Sellers wife wasn’t impressed, winning a $1.4 million  lawsuit in which she claimed “insulted the memory of her late husband.”

Mention of this film in conversation brings out groans and grimaces few films achieve. The audiences might have had more right to sue, speaking of insults, but those who saw the movie in a theater are just as culpable as Edwards. Trail tacitly approves of using outtakes and archival footage, pasted with new scenes, and calling it a film. (Years ago, I wrote about a phenomenon I dubbed as Un-Movies, films that aren’t really films. Most of my examples didn’t descend to this level.) The outtakes were from the 1976 The Pink Panther Strikes Again. We are also shown some admittedly funny excerpts from The Pink Panther (1963), A Shot in the Dark (1964), and The Return of the Pink Panther (1975). However, these great scenes contrast severely with the less than funny outtakes with Sellers AND the outright unfunny new material.

More painful than the resurrected Sellers plodding about is the return of David Niven as Sir Charles Litton, as the Phantom, the original thief of the Pink Panther diamond, and Capucine as Litton’s wife, formerly married to Clouseau. My interest in watching this film centers on Niven’s appearance in it. He was 76 years old and not in great health. I had read that his voice was so weak during the film that Edwards had it dubbed by using Rich Little, one of the great voice impersonators. I listened closely to Niven’s Litton speak and could barely discern the dubbing and guessed that I wouldn’t have registered it had I not known.

David Niven is one of the few actors who grates on me. Either I don’t like his films — The Bishop’s Wife (1947), The Moon is Blue (1953), Around the World in 80 Days (1956), My Man Godfrey (1957), 55 Days at Peking (1963) — or didn’t like him, in particular, in a good film — The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Dawn Patrol (1938), The Guns of Navarone (1961), The Pink Panther. In the latter film, he has the nominal top-billing but is completely outclassed (out-funnied) by Sellers. What bothered me? His brand of artificial Britishness, the very thing that didn’t bother me about Cary Grant. Maybe I see him as a poor man’s Cary Grant. It didn’t help that I had read a review of a Niven memoir, The Moon is a Balloon, which essentially branded him a phony.

Another actor from the past films brought into this sad scenario is Herbert Lom, Chief Inspector Dreyfus. His scenes are new, as he has been reinstated into the Surete, despite having been interned in an insane asylum. Of course, he isn’t “cured” and still regularly visits a psychiatrist. His actions and emotions are close to the most realistic in the Pink Panther universe; that is, he hopes Clouseau is dead and doesn’t want anyone to search for him.

I am not talking about the plot very much because there really isn’t one. After half a movie of Sellers outtakes, Clouseau disappears. No explanation is given, save that he “might” be dead. Although, at the end, we see Clouseau from the back standing by a cliff. The film had started with another heist of the legendary diamond, but we get no true resolution of the crime. A reported (Joanne Lumley) gets interested in the story and she carries us and her fruitless search to the end.

Getting back to Blake Edwards salute to the great Peter Sellers. Could he really have been blind to either the exploitation of a dead actor’s career or, worse, the absolutely unfunny and uninvolving film from this exploitation? You might reason that he did it to revive his over stalled career. Actually, he made Trail on the heels of three of his most successful and best films: 10 (1979), S.O.B. (1981), and Victor/Victoria (1982).

I wish I could say that the Pink Panther nonsense stopped here. Incredibly, Edwards made another film simultaneously, Curse of the Pink Panther (1983). No Sellers and, apparently, no Clouseau, who has disappeared. Niven/Little appears in this film as well. I have put it in my Netflix queue but don’t think I have the strength to write about it. Behind Curse in the queue is what was to be Edwards’ last film, Son of the Pink Panther, (1993), with Roberto Benigni.

The second film on CHARGE that I had DVRed. . .will have to wait until the next blog.

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