Picking Up Clouseau

Having seized on the fact that there was more value to be gotten out of the character of Inspector Clouseau, Blake Edwards went in to A SHOT IN THE DARK with his eyes at least somewhat open — he’d had a hint of how crazy Peter Sellers could get, but he hadn’t yet had to direct him during a full-on delusional tantrum (I’m not aware if psychoanalysis or psychology or psychiatry have invented a term describing exactly what it is Sellers had, or was — perhaps we had best think of it as Peter Sellers Syndrome, and content ourselves with delineating its symptoms as best we can).

This film really births the Clouseauverse — if we’re going to focus on this idiot, then he needs a life, surroundings, people in that life. A boss, obviously. And how does this boss feel about Clouseau? The brilliant answer is to make Chief Inspector Dreyfus not only fully aware of his subordinate’s incompetence, and personally offended by it, one of those apoplectic police chiefs that American cop shows would become full of, but also someone who is so tortured by the mere idea of Clouseau — “How can I relax in world which has Clouseau in it?” — that he’s driven to madness. As Lom’s eyes close in distress, we cut to Clouseau an instant before his eyes widen with a look of messianic intensity. Alone in a vehicle he can believe in his fantasy of brilliance. Anywhere else, he has a front to keep up because he knows damn well he’s a clown.

Clouseau’s name seems to be a combination of Jacques Cousteau — famous Frenchman — and H.G. Clouzot — French crime exponent — and “clues” and “oh” — detection and disaster. Dreyfus’ name, on the other hand, calls to mind a famous case of unjust persecution, which is about right.

It’s absurd that Blake Edwards didn’t direct under his birth name, on the other hand. The name William Blake Crump is like a strip cartoon that builds up an image of spiritual poetry and ends with crashing to the ground in a tangle of bruised limbs.

We start with a sequence comprised mainly of two very elegant roving crane shots, telling a story which is mysterious — a bedroom farce viewed from the outside. With a tragic chanson that kind of quashes any humour. But that’s OK, we don’t need the film to be funny until Clouseau.Animated titles — with a different theme tune — I really love this bit of Mancini and I don’t know why it wasn’t used again. The cartoons are cruder this time, but in a lovely stylised way. Without a Panther to persecute the Clouseau cut-out, Depatie-Freleng resort to having the cartoon universe turn on him, with doors and lights and fizzing bombs from nowhere persecuting the poor guy, kind of like the hostile film Keaton gets stuck in in SHERLOCK JR (which will be a reference in future title sequences).

But we do get a nice gag about Herbert Lom’s Dreyfus being an adulterer. And he has a little desk guillotine for his cigars, that’s… sweet? Fiona became excited. “Of course he’s got a guillotine! That was Herbert Lom’s dream project!” And indeed, Lom wrote one book, Dr. Guillotine, about the inventor of the humane execution device that ended up being used to decapitate on an industrial scale. “Hoist by your own petard,” as Claudia Cardinale’s Princess would say. The idea of inventing something that proves to be a catastrophe for you seems pertinent to William Blake Crump and Richard Henry Sellers, too.

I have actually already written about this one, so you can check out my earlier appraisal here. It covers Lom’s account of his casting and the first shot of Sellers. But how quickly can Clouseau make an idiot of himself?

In his second shot in the film. He gets out of his car and immediately falls in the fountain. He doesn’t hang about. Each of THE PINK PANTHER films, of which this is one despite the lack of P words in the title, takes a different sub-genre of crime film/fiction — so this is a country house murder mystery, RETURN will be a Hitchcockian wrong man chase film, STRIKES BACK is a Fu Manchu/Bond master-criminal caper, and REVENGE is Eurothriller meets Mafia. I can’t remember anything about ROMANCE OF THE PINK PANTHER, the film Sellers planned just before his death, having wrested the character away from Edwards, but I’ve tracked down the script of this unmade monsterpiece, which I fantasise as akin to Norma Desmond’s SALOME, and if I can work up the courage I may read it and report back.

I’m not sure the post-Sellers films continue to neatly explore the byways of crime fiction — I think maybe they just fart about in the Clouseauverse.As a basis for the piece, Edwards and William Peter Blatty of THE EXORCIST fame, selected Harry Kurnitz’s adaptation of Marcel Achard’s play L’Idiot. In which the Clouseau-equivalent character was an examining magistrate played by William Shatner. Using only the bare bones of the story, Blatty and Edwards amused themselves with a convoluted series of murders all of which tend to implicate leading lady Elke Sommer, but which turn out to be (spoiler) the work of separate culprits with separate motives, a wrinkle even Agatha Christie never attempted.

The Mirisch Corporation had been developing the Kurntitz/Achard play for Anatole Litvak (yay!) to direct, but could never get a script they felt was filmable. Edwards accepted the job of fixing it in a hurry if he could have carte blanche, and he and Blatty grafted Clouseau into the piece on the boat over to England where filming was to take place (with a few second unit shots in Paris). So the idea of Clouseau having a boss who despises him comes from the play + the idea of putting Clouseau into it. And the boss in the play was Walter Matthau. I’d love to have seen Shatner as an idiot being yelled at by Matthau.Instead we get Sellers and Lom, who Edwards reportedly told (Lom’s version) “I’ve seen you in all these terribly serious films. I think you’re very funny.”

Another guy who should have used his real name, Herbert Charles Angelos Kuchacevich ze Schluderpacheru. I mean, if I were going to change anything it would be the Herbert. Dreyfus inherits the Charles bit, which was going spare.

Anyway, Edwards directs this one with panache — as an actor, he’d worked with “Ford, Wyler, Preminger – and learned a lot from them.” So his long, elegant sequence shots, so admired by the French, are much in evidence. Preminger, another widescreen specialist, seems like an apt model. And, as Vincent Price tartly observed, “Otto had the sense of humour of a guillotine.” Edwards also has Christopher Challis, who shot a bunch of films for Powell & Pressburger, coming along at just the wrong time (THE ELUSIVE PIMPERNEL and OH…ROSALINDA!!), and had more recently done some super-stylish work with Stanley Donen. You only really sense it’s Challis when we get to the round of themed nightclubs with specialty dancers…

Oh, and there’s Cato. Since Madame Clouseau has departed the picture, and to refer to her at all would just raise awkward questions about story continuity which the series would continue to ignore, brazenly, Clouseau should have someone else in his life. Bruce Lee had caused a sensation in The Green Hornet TV show (a reference lost on me as a kid). Burt Kwouk, a tireless supporting player in British films — he was a henchman in GOLDFINGER the same year — makes his first appearance here and it doesn’t matter at all that we probably all know the joke by now. The brevity and relative lack of spectacle in these early fight scenes isn’t a problem. As the joke of Cato attacking at inopportune moments, often “romantic” ones — what Fiona calls Kwouk-blocking — became more and more familiar, the films were forced to pump excess production values into it, but the joke is still pleasing enough to stand on its own. With Cato, Clouseau is pretty unsympathetic, and we also feel for the long-suffering Hercule Lajoy (Sellers chum Graham Stark) — anyone who’s ever suffered under an idiot boss can admire his infuriating placidity. Dreyfus is interesting because he’s the heavy, but he’s also absolutely right about Clouseau, a truly lethal buffoon. But then, in the scenes with Elke, Clouseau gets to be sweet. His puppyish fawning over Capucine in the previous film was already touching. Here, the joke of him being so hopelessly smitten with his leading lady that he literally can’t see her obvious guilt, is neatly topped by the joke of her being innocent. The universe somehow conspires to protect the holy fool, whereas he who sees the truth gets it in the neck. Elke Sommer represents a kind of decline from the elegant femmes of the first film — a bourgeoise fantasy of Yves St Laurent frocks and ski chalets with built-in musical numbers is replaced by a marginally grittier Parisian setting, and the leading lady is now of the modern, booby school of sixties cinema. The role is also a bit of a cipher, since the character is intentionally unknowable for virtually the whole film. Elke does very well with what she’s given. The anxiety-dream naked-in-public car scene actually allows her to do some real acting, which movies didn’t often do.“And introducing Turk Thrust.” The nudist camp scene (a huge and hugely unconvincing interior set) gives us this pseudonymous Bryan Forbes, with a butch queen joke name later taken up by Roger Moore for his guest spot in CURSE, and also the medium from NIGHT OF THE DEMON, essaying a bizarre garbled accent that veers between Wales and the West Indies.

Clouseau has begun to disguise himself, perhaps inspired by the very funny costume party stuff in the first film, and this would later lead to Edwards wondering where the disguises came from, and so Auguste Balls would eventually be born…For now, we have some distinguished actors quite underused — George Sanders is mainly a sounding board for Clouseau’s mistakes, with more than one “reaction shot” showing no reaction whatsoever. Douglas Wilmer, a celebrated TV Sherlock Holmes, butles about snootily. Apparently the hilarity on set was so disruptive, Sanders proposed a fine of £1 for each actor who corpsed, raising £250 by the time a usable take was achieved. Stark and David Lodge, who can’t do a French accent alas, were Sellers’ mates and were frequently brought on to his films in the hopes they’d keep him happy and stop him acting up. Some hope. The Roger Lewis bio has Sellers calling up Lodge after a particularly vicious day and asking, “Was I really awful today?” Before his friend could answer with some mild scolding words, an evil chuckle sounded from the receiver.

The movie does over-rely on running gags, but I finally figured out why — Clouseau is incapable of learning from his mistakes, so he keeps trying the same thing, and he’s also too inept to make progress as an investigator, so the only way to advance the mystery is to keep piling up corpses. This seeming inadequacy of the character as an active protagonist will continue to trouble the series, with various solutions being attempted.In Sam Wasson’s Edwards study, Splurch in the Kisser, the director recalled, “Things were fine for the first half of filming, but then the shit hit the fan. Sellers became a monster. He just got bored with the part and became angry, sullen, and unprofessional. He wouldn’t show up for work and began looking for anyone and everyone to blame.”

Edwards called this relationship the enigma of his life. And that mystery, as much as the money and clout to be made from the franchise, may account for his obsessive worrying at the character and the relationship.Despite the genre-hopping, the next three films in the series do not show the invention of this one — having created Clouseau, Dreyfus and Cato, Edwards didn’t see any need to come up with many new elements. There might be some bad guys, and some leading ladies, but with Lom and Kwouk, there was a limited amount of room for new stuff, with only Balls and his hunchbacked assistant, Cunny, expanding the Clouseauverse in any lasting way. A format has been established.

A SHOT IN THE DARK stars Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake; Lisa Reiner; Addison DeWitt; Captain Nemo; Miss Scott; Professor Auguste Balls; Mrs. Leverlilly; Mr. Ling; Prof. Trousseau; Father Spiletto; Mr. Meek; Sherlock Holmes; Jimmy Winslow; and the Fiddler on the Roof.

 

4 Responses to “Picking Up Clouseau”

  1. dbenson Says:

    The “Shot in the Dark” theme was used for one Pink Panther cartoon involving the panther with a burglar trying to steal a safe. Thereafter it was the theme for the “Inspector” cartoons.

    Cato was written a bit shakily. Most of the time he takes Clouseau absolutely seriously, unquestioningly following orders and even joining ill-advised missions. He seems to believe his employer IS a genius detective. But in at least one film, Clouseau is showing off his latest outfit from Balls and Cato addresses him as a parent humoring a very small and gullible child. And when Clouseau is presumed dead, Cato promptly turns the apartment into a “Chinese nookie factory”.

    As noted, the surprise attack thing no longer has any basis in reality — It’s Cato’s obsession, and Clouseau, sometimes uneasily, accepts it. On one level, servant and master gleefully stalking each around the flat plays like little kids; Cato popping out of a refrigerator covered with frost was one of the biggest laughs I heard in a theater. All is forgotten (almost) when domesticity requires. On another, they’re often trying to inflict genuine injury on each other — an interloper can (and does?) get killed. A movie of Clouseau and Cato’s relationship might be grim and troubling.

  2. Yeah, it’s not totally consistent, but nothing in the clouseaverse is. I think the gradual hints that Cato realises his boss is an idiot start coming in around Strikes Back (with the disguise pretense) and develop in Revenge. After Clouseau is gone, Cato is kind of adrift and they don’t know what to do with him in the posthumous films, whereas Dreyfus just carries on as if his enemy was still there.

  3. dbenson Says:

    Once upon a time I thought of attempting to script a post-Sellers Panther. My thought was that Cato would open a martial arts school capitalizing on Clouseau’s legend. His pupils would include Clouseau’s illegitimate daughter, a would-be Emma Peel who gets peevish if she doesn’t have the intended effect on the people around her. Her worldview is that other people just don’t get it, and/or cause all the trouble. Her approach to combat is a few flashy but counterproductive moves, followed by a to-hell-with-it knee to the groin.

    Meanwhile, Dreyfus takes charge of a murder case with hints of something bigger. Trusting no one else, he confides in his son, a thoroughly green patrolman. The son somehow teams up with Miss Clouseau, who wants to keep her involvement secret lest her famous name scatter the fish. Despite his parentage, he believes the legends of Clouseau. Besides which, he is smitten. He buys that whatever she does is skillful and purposeful.

    As the investigation proceeds, Dreyfus keeps finding signs that a Clouseau-type intelligence is meddling in the case — a body-shaped hole in a stained-glass window, witnesses who collapse into confusion induced by a previous visitor, other residue of Miss Clouseau’s efforts. He begins to fear for his sanity once again.

    The truth comes out. Nightmare vision of miniature Clouseaus climbing all over Dreyfus and calling him Grandpapa. He orders his son to stay away from her, and contrives to get he locked up.

    In the end she does help solve the case. During the inevitable climax in the villain’s lair her progress is marked by a trail of henchmen bent over and cursing. The one miscalculation is a knee to the groin of a suit of armor.

    The epilogue: After near-disgrace Dreyfus is a national hero. At a banquet he discovers he is to receive a newly created honor: The Clouseau medal, eagerly presented by — surprise! — the great detective’s daughter, confident she has won him over. Slapstick involving microphone cords, tables, pies …

    Okay. That’s out of my system.

  4. Well, it sounds a LOT more fun than Son of the Pink Panther.

    I think what Alan Arkin and Steve Martin and Blake Edwards have all shown is that Sellers was the essential working unit in the series, the planet around which everything orbited. With him gone, you tend to get a bunch of moons crashing chaotically into one another. You also lose a central joke, present since A Shot in the Dark, and increasingly important: Clouseau is indestructible.

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