Archive for A Shot in the Dark

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.

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The Dreyfuss Affair

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , on October 16, 2012 by dcairns

Blake Edwards to Herbert Lom: “I’ve seen you in all these serious dramas. I think you’re very funny.”

THE PINK PANTHER was followed so quickly by sequel A SHOT IN THE DARK — before, one would have thought, the box office figures would be available — that it seems probable that Sellers and Blake Edwards knew they were onto something hot from the collaborative process alone. Of course, neither could have suspected that Edwards would rack up eight PANTHER movies, or that three of them would be made after Sellers’ death.

While the first film is the most rounded, Clouseau fans must in some ways prefer the films in which he dominates. Though I’ve come to really enjoy David Niven, Capucine, Claudia Cardinale and even Robert Wagner in the original, Clouseau only really comes into his own later. To scroll through the films Sellers was around for —

As noted by a correspondent earlier this week, A SHOT IN THE DARK introduces the supporting cast, notably Herbert Lom and Burt Kwouk. It’s the only film in the series without the words PINK and PANTHER in the title, and it follows that it’s a little less formulaic: we’re seeing stuff being invented rather than just variations on a theme.

RETURN is one I haven’t seen in years. I remember Christopher Plummer being an oddly unsympathetic Phantom (gratuitously breaking Graham Stark’s fingers — Edwards always did favour an unusual degree of viciousness in his slapstick) but some of the gags being very good. Never seen it in widescreen.

When I was a kid, STRIKES BACK never seemed to turn up on TV, to my endless frustration, whereas the other films were never off the screen. Finally catching it was a disappointment — it’s the one with the very elaborate and beautiful Richard Williams titles (animated by Tony White), but somehow turning Herbert Lom into a Bond villain seemed to loosen the series’ already palsied grip on reality.

I saw some of REVENGE not that long ago and was surprised at how much of it I enjoyed. More grotesque in the slapstick than ever, with Sellers’ disguises perhaps intended to provide variety, but in fact Clouseau is no Man of a Thousand Faces so the star is still stuck with his most famous and inflexible creation. But Edwards seemed to be enjoying the Euro-thriller stuff, making a film that looks a lot like late Melville, or at least Henri Decoin.

Anyway, I meant to say — I re-watched most of A SHOT IN THE DARK after Herbert Lom died. In the middle it does become a series of repetitive running jokes, with only the stuff involving Lom really standing out. The violence is startling — the thumb and the nose are nasty enough, but having the character stab himself in the side with a letter opener is pretty remarkable.

But the whole first act is terrific, with Clouseau used the way he should always have been used, interacting with other characters who don’t know they’re in a comedy. George Sanders is slightly wasted at this, but his gravitas does anchor things.

The moment I want to focus on is just a bit of really elegant filmmaking. The opening sequence is a long-take bedroom farce with a mournful chanson on top — an odd beginning, really. Then there’s the comedy titles, then we meet Lom as Dreyfuss, who gets the bad news that Clouseau, already obviously a thorn (or letter opener) in his side, has been inadvertently assigned to an important and politically sensitive case. Lom’s eyes close in pain as he hears the name pronounced —

This is a nice foreshadowing of the twitchy eye motif introduced later. But we cut to —

Sellers, being driven to his case, OPENING his eyes wider to stare ahead determinedly — the Grey-Eyed Man of Destiny. Of course the Marseillaise plays on the soundtrack.

This visual rhyme — two eyes close, two eyes open — is charming in itself as a purely formal device, but each shot contains a character point that’s funny in its own right — Dreyfuss’ pain, Clouseau’s self-conceit. Stuff like this could convince a person, perhaps, that Edwards was as good a filmmaker as the French claim.

John Zorn does Henry Mancini. Nice.

Stark reality

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 28, 2011 by dcairns

THE SPY IN BLACK (above), is notable not just for being the first screen collaboration of Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, nor for being a nifty wartime thriller with Conrad Veidt as a surprisingly sympathetic Nazi spy — it’s also the first known screen credit of one Graham Stark, seen at screen right — the larger bellboy.

Yes, that familiar soft, chewing-gum face, surmounted by a huge, angular cranium, like a baby snail peeping from under a cardboard box, is familiar to us from numerous Blake Edwards and Richard Lester films, the common link being Stark’s friend Peter Sellers.

Stark plays Inspector Clouseau’s sidekick, Hercule LaJoy in A SHOT IN THE DARK, for my money the funniest of the PINK PANTHER sequels, and he’s Auguste Balls, supplier of theatrical costumery and disguises in several later PP movies. He nearly bookmark’s Lester’s career, showing up in the early TV work and THE RUNNING JUMPING & STANDING STILL FILM, and again in the silent comedy credits sequence of SUPERMAN III, as a blind man with a runaway guide dog.

In TRJ&SSF, he’s recipient of the world’s greatest and most profound visual gag (starting 9 mins and 10 secs in) ~

He’s also directed a couple of nice silent comedy inspired shorts, and one feature film, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN DEADLY SINS, which is mainly, uh, not great, but has a nice Spike Milligan scripted chapter on the theme of sloth, a sepia-tinted silent which shows his true strengths — a shame Eric Sykes and Graham Stark didn’t get to make wordless feature films, their shorts were rather popular.

Graham Stark is still with us at 89 — a few years back, a student of mine tried to recruit him for a short film — he was up for it, but his wife wouldn’t let him come out and play. Still, he remains a grand old man of British comedy, part of a noble troupe who enlivened backgrounds or embodied inane stereotypes at the drop of a bowler hat, performing an essential service all through the fifties and sixties.

Addendum: RIP, Graham Stark.