Dumb and Plummer

So. For Blake Edwards’ third Clouseau film with Peter Sellers, he steals the premise of TO CATCH A THIEF, and brings in Christopher Plummer as “Sir Charles Phantom the notorious Lytton” (Clouseau getting his words in the wrong order is never actually funny, but they kept trying it), and he also steals the party-strangling joke from STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (I think of it as a joke, though it’s also alarming — curiously, it’s funnier in the original. THE PINK PANTHER already owed a huge debt to the Hitchcock, down to the party with police presence at the end (Clouseau saying to a pair of gendarmes dressed as a zebra, “I’ll have your stripes for this,” is both deeply, unforgivably stupid and quite, quite brilliant) so even the idea of stealing from that movie isn’t original to this one…

Edwards, in his PINK PATHER audio commentary, does credit one other idea to Hitchcock — the schtick of the old man trying to cross the road and the car chase continually interrupting him — that was done with James Finlayson in FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT. Edwards restaged it with his grandfather’s property master, and did it a lot better. Now I have to see J. Gordon Edwards’ THE SILENT COMMAND, one of his few surviving films, with Bela Lugosi.

Edwards now knew how horribly crazy Sellers could be, having experienced his paranoid tantrums and no-shows on A SHOT IN THE DARK. The eleven-year gap between Clouseaus can be attributed to that experience, though we do have THE PARTY in there in ’68, and INSPECTOR CLOUSEAU, made without Edwards or Sellers or any artistic value.

RETURN plays like two different movies. Plummer is engaged in an almost straight thriller in “Lugash” (played by Morocco) while Clouseau is shadowing his girlfriend in Gstadt. They meet at the end for a “climax” played in a hotel room. It’s amazingly slight, but somewhat overblown at the same time.

Plummer in theory ought to be a good light comedy replacement for David Niven, but the film has him mainly break Graham Stark’s fingers, which is persistently appallingly not funny. Just horrid. It’s true that Edwards had a sense of humour that embraced physical pain more than is strictly normal. But it’s odd to find those moments where there seems to be no comedy aspect at all, it’s JUST torture, a strong guy abusing a little weak guy, and we’re still meant to laugh.

Clouseau does have some great moments. He’s first seen on patrol, busted down to gendarme, and he salutes a passing girl with his baton and hits himself in the eye. It’s always impressive to me how Edwards and his star can get a big laugh within seconds of introducing their hero.

Describing his addiction to cruelty, Edwards spoke of his chronic back pain as an influence, but also mentioned an incident where he was in a restaurant and Curt Jurgens came in and recognized him and waved, “Hiya, Blake!” and inadvertently stuck his thumb in his own eye. That seems like the direct influence here. The movie’s version is more inherently comic, whereas the brutal real life one is only funny because it’s Curt Jurgens.Another Sellers associate, John Bluthal, as the blind man, with some terrific staging of the background action — Clouseau misses a bank heist while quibbling with the phony blind man about his “minky,” then cudgels the bank manager who’s trying to stop it.

Inexplicably-still-Chief Inspector Dreyfus now has an ill-advised trick cigarette lighter that looks exactly like his service revolver. Hilarity and disfigurement ensue. This sequence features one of my favourite exchanges: “I Swear to God, Clouseau, if you’re not out of my office in ten seconds -” “Ten seconds is nothing, I can easily be out in three…” Clouseau not only gloriously misses the whole point, but in the most infuriating possible way.

The slapstick is fine, and the staging of it extremely skilled, but there are also completely gratuitous silly jokes, like “Follow that car!” stuff, where the cab driver jumps from his seat to pursue the target on foot, a dogged look in his eye. That kind of thing (introduced in SHOT with Clouseau giving instructions to his driver then watching helplessly as the car tears off without him) seems to presuppose a whole universe of idiots and maniacs, which isn’t a good context for Clouseau to stand out in. The best stuff I think involves Herbert Lom and Burt Kwouk. The Cato ambushes are now huge spectacles full of spectacular destruction. And Chief Inspector’s Dreyfus’s clouseaumania now starts to make him talk like Clouseau. A clue to the weird layers of transference going on. Because, in a way, Sellers is Dreyfus, driven crazy by not being able to get away from Clouseau. In a way, Edwards is Clouseau, trying to maintain the illusion of being in control.

Of course there’s no coherent illusion of continuity: we’re meant to remember the character of Dreyfus but conveniently forget that he, in his previous appearance, had a total breakdown and accidentally killed a dozen people while trying to off Clouseau. Everyone else has. Let bygones be bygones. We’ve all had days like that. In fact, even on his first appearance, Lom somehow felt like an established part of the franchise with a pre-existing relationship with Clouseau (pathological hatred). Not only can you watch the films out of sequence, as I did as a kid, it actually helps to do so. The only film that suffers from displacement is the first, ironically the most resolved and movie-like of the series. You miss the supporting characters and want more Sellers.

A very glossy heist scene at the start: some of this must surely just be Edwards trying to pad out the non-Clouseau parts so he has to deal with the maniac Sellers as little as possible, though apparently PS, coming off a number of flops including three films that didn’t even get a release, was pretty well-behaved here.I think I’ve been to this palace. During Marrakech Int. Film Fest. Emmanuelle Beart was there. Which was nice.

Catherine Schell mainly has to laugh at Clouseau’s disguises (Gustave Flournoy, telephone repairman, and Guy Gadbois, disco Lothario) and pratfalls, and her best stuff is where it really feels like they surprised her to make her laugh.Lots of jokes about electricity and wiring, Why? What’s going on with Edwards? I think it might be a psychiatric metaphor.

Herb Tanney, Edwards’ doctor, has by now started doing a cameo in every Edwards film, usually under a false name beginning with S. Why this was happening I can’t say. Maybe Edwards just really liked his doctor and wanted to have him around, pay him a little something extra. Maybe he spotted Tanney’s talent and wanted to bring it out. Maybe he had an opioid addiction. (He definitely DID have an opioid addiction…) Tanney’s most memorable roles are in S.O.B. as the dead jogger on the beach, and VICTOR VICTORIA as… an incompetent French detective.The climax is weirdly miniscule, just a chat in a hotel room, probably the least spectacular thing that happens, with the protagonists failing to take the story seriously except for Clouseau, who doesn’t know what’s happening, and Dreyfus, who’s mad. I was trying to figure out what Plummer and Schell’s playful attitude to the threat reminded me of. There seemed to be some exact correspondence. Then I got it: Grant & Russell teasing the blustering sheriff in HIS GIRL FRIDAY. It’s so close it MUST have been the influence. Though come to think of it, Niven and Wagner have a similar cocky scene in the original PANTHER.After the small-scale big finish, there’s a huge slomo smashup with Cato in a Japanese restaurant, and then a deeply strange, upsetting, but kind of brilliant end credits sequence with Dreyfus straitjacketed and scrawling KILL CLOUSEAU on the padded walls with a pen between his toes. And then Panther comes in, animated by Richard Williams, and Dreyfuss, being mad, can SEE him. And then the credits start to rise, and he can see THOSE, too. It’s not the only movie where a character can see the titles: you have comedies like THE COURT JESTER where Danny Kaye can even feel them, and THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT where Tom Ewell has power over them, but the unique element here is that Dreyfuss’s madness gives him a metacinematic ability to see those elements of the film which are hidden to his co-stars. He could probably feel a reel change. It would make his eye twitch.

RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER stars President Merkin Muffley; Captain Von Trapp; Maya; The Phantom; John Niles; Inspector Trout; King Brob; Jelly Knight; Hercule LaJoi; Prof Trousseau; Mr. Ming; Foot; Bhuta; Charles Bovin; Zoot/Dingo; the voice of the Book; and the voice of Ernst Stavro Blofeld.



10 Responses to “Dumb and Plummer”

  1. Grant Skene Says:

    Coincidentally, I have been revisiting the Pink Panther films. Enjoying your insights. Struck by how much Herbert Lom’s madness at the end is reminiscent of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. Mabuse is the great psychic mastermind who can exert power beyond the grave. Dreyfuss is driven mad by his inability to control Clouseau.

  2. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Christopher Plummer has had one of the most spectacular careers in the history of cinema. At an age when most actors are pushin up the daisies he’s more in demand than ever. I had a chance to chat with him at some length when “Beginners” came out. Sellers didn’t come up but he had tons to say about Nick Ray and “Wind Across the Everglades” and he adored Natalie Wood with whom he co-starred in “Inside Daisy Clover.” Plummer is fast becoming the acting equivalent of Manoel de Oliviera.

  3. Well, Lom in Strikes Back becomes a Mabuseian criminal mastermind with his own death ray (see the later post-Langian German sequels)…

    Plummer’s great, and his career has so many little nooks of interest (Royal Hunt of the Sun!). He barely interacts with Sellers in this, but his thoughts on Edwards would be of interest.

  4. bensondonald Says:

    Recalling that Laurel and Hardy always played the same characters, but never bothered with “continuity” beyond “Tit for Tat”, a sequel to an earlier short. “Blockheads” asserted that they hadn’t seen each other since WWI. This is simply carrying over the general practice of comedy shorts, where many comedians used their own names and started with a clean slate every time, discarding nearly all of what went before. Much like animated characters in theatrical shorts.

    Tempting to offer Edwards’s known affection for the boys as evidence the lack of continuity is a conscious thing, but film series were often casual about continuity. It was almost a given that a series hero (or even heroine) would end in a serious clinch yet start the next film unattached. Monsters and their makers would rise from the dead, sometimes lying about how the previous film ended but more often just ignoring it.

    Yes, there were sequels that emphatically continued what went before. Frankenstein and Tarzan started out that way with big-budget sequels before descending into straight-out series. Even Tammy’s two sequels noted that each previous Prince Charming fizzled out. But my impression is that even on A pictures, there’s a strong impulse to misplace inconvenient baggage. Was there much character continuity, much less ongoing story arcs, before the 70s?

    “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” tries to have it both ways. The opening titles include images from previous films, Moneypenny is on duty, and when Bond packs a suitcase we get clips of music recalling earlier adventures. The message is clear: This is the same character Connery played, with the same history. Yet Blofeld is somehow back as a respectable businessman, and Bond can infiltrate his lair with only an alias to disguise him.

    The Clouseauverse might be compared to the Thin Man films: a handful of big comedies made when big stars aligned. Nothing was carried over from film to film aside from Nick, Nora and Asta; Nick Jr. was packed off to school once he was old enough to be a character. The only character development was a product of the times: the stars went from tough, alcoholic gumshoe and hot little thrillseeker in precode years to suave social drinker and wittily sensible helpmate. The last film, “The Thin Man Comes Home”, basically says Nick Charles had an Andy Hardy youth and was never the disreputable hired gun we met in the first film.

    They don’t visibly reboot the way Clouseau does, but they don’t have to, They were fair-play whodunits, which usually require new settings and new casts of suspects. Only “Shot in the Dark” properly fits that mode (although the interlocking killings in the chateau are convoluted enough to be unfair). Most of the time, we’re watching Clouseau fumbling after data we already have, or outwitting bad guys largely in spite of himself.

  5. bensondonald Says:

    Final unnecessary note: Caught an “Inspector Morse” episode titled “Settling of the Sun”, screenplay by Charles Wood. Noticing the name I listened for unusual dialog. That came mostly in exchanges between Morse and a lady he once pursued; it played as utterly natural discomfort. Mostly it was solid whodunit writing, weaving necessary exposition and dark WWII-based racism.

    The line that jumped out at me was Morse and Lewis arguing about something. When Lewis mentions Morse’s dietary habits, Morse loudly declares “Beer is food!”

  6. Ha! I have a number of Wood-scripted episodes for various John Thaw shows (Thaw loved his writing) which I intend to get around to one day. Some jobs definitely inspired him more than others, but I think the admiration was mutual and he liked how his words sounded in Thaw’s mouth.

    I remember when the big news was that there would be a Star Wars II, and then it eventually acquired a title, but meanwhile the idea of sequels not bothering with titles of their own had been established, and so we got Superman II and then the clumsy idea of the added sub-title came in with Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan.

    I imagine home video had an impact on filmmakers’ perception how much sequels needed to respect continuity.

    By the time we get to Trail and Curse, shot back-to-back but with Joanna Lumley playing different characters in each, I do get the sense that Edwards sees discontinuity as a positive virtue — or at least, continuity that is illogical, puzzling (in Son of the Pink Panther, Claudia Cardinale plays Elke Sommer’s character).

  7. David Ehrenstein Says:

    The Major Marketing Problem with the recent EXCELLENT All-Girl “Ghostbusters” was that it was simply called “Ghostbusters” so everyone thought it was a remake — which it wasn’t. In smaller letters they put the words “Answer The Call.” Had that been part of the title t would have helped. a lot. “Ghostbusters Answer The Call” sounds pretty good to me.

  8. The other major marketing problem was the loud voice of misogyny (and racism) and white male anxiety… The assholes who were offended by men being replaced by women would still have been outraged even if it were more obviously a reboot.

  9. John Seal Says:

    Your second paragraph reminded me that it’s well past time that I check out the series’ forgotten set-in-India entry, PINK PATHER PANCHALI.

  10. It would be remarkable if Bollywood hadn’t attempted a Panther knock-off, since the movies already combine just about every genre (thriller/slapstick/musical/romance) in a way that seems quite Indian… yet I’ve never heard of an IPS Clouseau.

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