Archive for A Shot in the Dark

Dumb and Plummer

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 11, 2020 by dcairns

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.

 

 

Picking Up Clouseau

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 5, 2020 by dcairns

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.

 

Posthumous Panthers #2: Curse of The Curse of the Pink Panther

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 16, 2015 by dcairns

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“Ladies and gentlemen, tonight the role of Inspector Clouseau will be played by an empty coat. Called Ted Wass.”

My purpose is not to claim that there is a curse on THE CURSE OF THE PINK PANTHER, as there is supposedly on SUPERMAN and THE EXORCIST and PETER’S FRIENDS – though quite a few of the principals involved have suffered mishaps and tragedies which come to mind dispiritingly as one watches. But no, my intention is to demonstrate that the film is itself the embodiment of a curse, visited upon its director and transmitted by him to all who have the misfortune to watch.

(The Curse Of PETER’S FRIENDS — the most dreaded of all showbiz curses — states that each principal actor in Kenneth Branagh’s 1992 country-house dramedy must direct a superhero movie derived from Norse mythology. It has only just begin to come true. The waiting is the worst part.)

The later PINK PANTHER films – and by “later” I have to mean pretty well anything after A SHOT IN THE DARK – are more compelling as psychopathology than as cinema, dark portraits of a talented filmmaker somehow compelled to revisit what was far from his favourite creation, working with a difficult, tormenting collaborator (Peter Sellers) again and again, and then repeating the experience after his star’s death as if attempting some inconceivable combination of exorcism and resurrection.

After THE TRAIL OF THE PINK PANTHER, in which Joanna Lumley, sporting a frankly unacceptable French accent, roved around the world dropping in on guest stars from previous episodes in order to “motivate” a series of flashbacks and outtakes from those same episodes, it seems unlikelythat the world was crying out for another instalment in the Clouseau necrology, but Blake Edwards goes to the well once more and duly fills his bucket with sand. Sand played by Ted Wass.

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It’s hard to assess Wass as a Sellers replacement, other than to say that he’s obviously no replacement. He has, it seems, a certain gift for physical comedy, and is a good bit more athletic than Sellers ever was, so that he requires less stunt doubling. He seems affable enough. But the gags are almost as weak as the plot (Wass, as Detective Clifton Sleigh, has to hunt the missing Clouseau, a blind alley of a comedy narrative idea unless the film’s going to end up at Sellers’ grave) so we get little sense as to his abilities. The script makes him a kind of bumbling Clark Kent nice guy, complete with glasses, which is a good deal less interesting as a concept than Clouseau’s mixture of arrogance, bigotry, intransigence, self-delusion and gnawing self-awareness – Sellers insisted that Clouseau deep down knows he’s an idiot, but must keep up this frantic pretence of competence, which is what makes him a grand figure. Sleigh is a nice guy and a failure and he knows all of this. If we feel a little sympathy for him and want him to make good, that’s fine, but there’s no exciting tension to our relationship.

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But back to the psych ward stuff. The cheaply executed, poorly designed and interminable opening titles provide a clue to the Edwards mindset, as the Panther gets chained at the ankle to a cartoon Ted Wass which gets spat out of a computer. The two hobble off together, chained for life like the Hilton sisters. Since Edwards had the original Panther character based on himself, the sense that he’s been forcibly partnered up with a synthetic ghost is inescapable, as is the synthetic ghost itself. (In the similarly nasty-looking titles in TRAIL, the screenplay credit is literally pissed onto a page by the cartoon Clouseau. A more pointed auto-critique could not be imagined.)

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Every sequence in the movie seems to revolve around mannequins, puppets, clones and travesties. Wass visits the Clouseau Museum, which features dummies of Clouseau in his various disguises. In the most outright uncanny moment in a film full of unwelcome chills, a dummy of “oriental assistant” Cato gets replaced by the real Burt Kwouk – but only its reflection in a mirror. The black-eyed masklike mannequin remains in position.

A visit to the boutique of Hubert Balls, manufacturer of disguises, now transformed into the personage of Harvey Korman, provides more masks and body parts, and Wass picks up both an inflatable dog on castors and an “instant companion”, basically a blow-up woman who can be produced upon the instant to serve as cover in tricky situations. Cue deflation gags in which the rubber “Shirley” sags into a likeness of the ageing Dietrich as the air escapes from her, and the film.

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To Valencia, where the streets are full of carnival floats, bobbing about rather horrifyingly. And so it goes…

David Niven, of course, is less than he was and somehow more, a dying man with his croak of a voice replaced by impersonator Rich Little (he sounds a little American). After an interminable hour, a romantic interest is procured in the perky form of Lesley Ash (who has suffered horrible mishaps since which can’t even be detailed in this piece less despair take over). Clouseau was always funniest with women, I think, since his attempts to put on a front were apt to collapse with the most embarrassing consequences. Wass barely gets a chance to fluff it, since Ash falls into his arms so readily.

Robert Wagner’s curse is that he’s Robert Wagner, I guess.  Not an actor I like to think of on a yacht, so here he is, on a yacht. Capucine, who showed such physical comedy flair in the original, and in WHAT’S NEW PUSSYCAT, is required to sit in a chair and mouth some exposition. A few years later she would be dead too.

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Also included: Herbert Lom repeatedly fracturing his skeleton. Graham Stark demoted to waiter. Michael Elphick (another tragic one: remember how good he was in THE ELEPHANT MAN?) as a Spanish police chief.

Astonishingly, the quest for Clouseau does actually pay off, in what I have to admit is a kind of demented coup de cinema. Spoiler alert, here, because I was actually kind of impressed by the temerity of Edwards solution. Clouseau has undergone plastic surgery so as to spend his latter days in peace with Joanna Lumley, as who among us would not like to do? This plastic surgery has transformed him into Roger Moore. The actual Roger Moore, doing a very terrible Peter Sellers impersonation. Ted Wass meets Roger Moore and you have a scene of two bumblers and one Lumley, which surprisingly doesn’t destroy the entire set. And then it trundles on for ten minutes with some guff about the diamond. You remember, the diamond.

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So, Peter Sellers becomes Roger Moore, Graham Stark has become Harvey Korman, David Niven became Christopher Plummer then back to David Niven but with Rich Little’s voice. Claudia Cardinale seems to have become Joanna Lumley, but will be Claudia again in SON OF THE PINK PANTHER.

And poor Ted Wass has become a footnote¹.

¹ This one, in fact.