Whenever I review a movie from over 50 years ago I attempt to recall whether I saw it when it first came out. I’m not sure I ever saw this one before it became available on Amazon Prime Video recently. It’s the original, and it’s the ignition point for a series featuring the bumbling detective Jacques Clouseau (Peter Sellers). It’s The Pink Panther, from 1963, released through United Artists.
In case you missed this one, it goes like this: A despotic ruler in an Asian nation is “given” by his grateful subjects a magnificent stone, a nearly flawless diamond. “Nearly flawless” is what gives this story its title. The flaw, visible deep within the stone, is the image of a panther, only pink. Get it?
He makes it a gift to his young daughter.
Years pass, and the scene switches to northern Italy, where police are on the trail if a notorious cat burglar known as “The Phantom.” A mysterious woman meets with an equally mysterious man on the street. The arrival of the police breaks up the confab, and the two race for safety. The woman ducks into a building and sheds her disguise. She walks past the unsuspecting police and to safety. The police inspector, detective Jacques Clouseau, vows, “We must find that woman!”
Immediately he does. It’s his two-timing wife Simone (Capucine). And this sets the theme for this wilted plot. Also, not revealed is why a police inspector is working a crime in Italy.
Simone is in cahoots, and in bed, with English gentleman Sir Charles Lytton (David Niven), also known as The Phantom. He has a room adjacent to the Clouseaus. How convenient!
Of course, this movie is going to be about the fabulous gem, the Pink Panther, and how master thief The Phantom is going to try to steal it.
By now the daughter of the eastern oligarch has grown up, and she is Claudia Cardinale, Princess Dala in exile after rebels have taken over her late father’s realm. She has the rock, and the crooks want it. Sir Charles, famous womanizer that he is, puts the move on her, a daunting task, since she has no vices and is known as “the virgin queen.” Remember, this came out in 1963, when virginity was more highly prized.
Sir Charles engages in an elaborate ruse, involving the theft of Dala’s pet dog, to make her acquaintance and to ingratiate himself . It’s as far as he gets is her, plying the virgin queen with a couple of glasses of champagne, following which the virgin passes out on the floor.
For some reason this song and dance number has been inserted into the plot. It definitely breaks up the continuity, what there is to begin with. Here a ski lodge singer (Fran Jeffries) dances and sings “Meglio Stasera (It Had Better Be Tonight).” Very provocative.
What with his wife playing both sides of the blanket, Inspector Clouseau has a devil of a time throughout the movie snagging any serious sack time. Simone’s devices for putting him off are without number. Of course there is going to be the standard bedroom farce, with Simone juggling Sir Charles, his nephew George (Robert Wagner), M. Clouseau, plus any number of chamber maids and butlers as she hides various visitors in associated places throughout the apartment. Here she distracts her husband while George makes his getaway from a bathroom closet.
It all comes to a head at a wild palace costume party. Uncle and nephew, separately in gorilla costumes, rip off a Marx Brothers routine with this double identity skit, as each cracks the opposite side of a wall safe.
Then the fireworks at the palace go off, and everybody scatters.
Next to be reincarnated is a Keystone Cops routine, as the movie devolves into a wild car chase through and about an Italian piazza, with police chasing crooks, chasing each other. In the end, it’s the princess who has outsmarted them all, taking the jewel for herself. Mme. Clouseau is enamored with both the Lytton men, and convinces Dala to help pin the theft of the jewel on Inspector Clouseau. As he is hauled off to prison, mobbed by adoring women, who think he is the fabulous Phantom, Mme. Clouseau rides off into the sunset with the two thieves. This device was revived 15 years later in Silver Bears. A banker (Tom Smothers) takes the fall for a swindle and heads for prison, while his cheating wife goes off with the real crook.
This was the big break for Peter Sellers. He had played films for 13 years prior to this, but this one made him. He was the bumbling Cousteau in the follow-up, A Shot in the Dark, The Return of the Pink Panther, and others. But before the others he played a triple stint in Dr. Strangelove, including the title role, the President, and the (nearly) unflappable Group Captain Lionel Mandrake.
This movie established the character of Clouseau, although Clouseau gets slighted on screen time. Subsequent installments are dominated by Clouseau, scene after, scene, pratfall after pratfall, establishing the name in the lexicon.
Blake Edwards co-wrote and directed this turkey—stunning to all who can imagine. By then Edwards was well-established—having since 1948 written, directed, produced, or a mixture of all a portfolio of respectable films. These would include (some of which I have seen) Operation Petticoat, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Experiment in Terror, Days of Wine and Roses, and Soldier in the Rain. His career extended to 1991 with Switch.
The real jewel of this production is the iconic theme music by Henry Mancini. Mancini and Edwards also teamed up for Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Experiment in Terror, to good effect.