*Standard Operational Posthumous Peter.
And so to SON OF THE PINK PANTHER, the third and perhaps final installment in our series looking at Blake Edwards’ attempts to artificially resuscitate a franchise after the death of its star. After CURSE OF THE PINK PANTHER this movie had to wait ten years to be born — it took that long for memories to fade. Hitching his wagon to the apparently rising star of Roberto Benigni, Edwards invents an illegitimate son for Inspector Clouseau, who is present here only as a photograph and a statue, which is a relief from the effigy-haunted CURSE. Herbert Lom, Graham Stark and Burt Kwouk are along for the ride, making this definitely officially a part of the series.
Mind you, Edwards’ compulsion to muck up his own continuity is still in evidence. My favourite example of this was way back in RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER when we were all so young, and somebody proposes that Clouseau is the perfect man to recover the stolen diamond since he found it last time it was stolen — ignoring the fact that in the original PINK PANTHER, Clouseau was actually convicted of STEALING the diamond. Here, we have Claudia Cardinale (always welcome), as Clouseau Jnr’s mother — her presence “explaining” Benigni’s Italian accent, through which he attempts to bellow in a French accent, superimposed exactly like glazing on ham. But in the first PINK PANTHER, Cardinale played a middle-eastern Princess. And the character she’s playing here was originated by Elke Sommer in A SHOT IN THE DARK. If we had any minds left after TRAIL and CURSE, they would boggle.
Now, there must be a plot, mustn’t there? Well, not after the previous two films — plot seems to have been ruled as redundant as the vermiform appendix. But, in fact, this film contains, if not a lucid narrative, at least — what? — footage… footage suggestive of narrative ends being dimly pursued. No diamond his been snatched this time, but a Princess of Lugash (the series’ vaguely Arabic Ruritania) is kidnapped by hard-working heavy Robert Davi. This scenario leads to a lot of what I have to term faint-hearted sexploitation, with poor Debrah Farentino continually punched, kicked, injected with dope, and dumped into a filthy oasis. Also, we get a belly-dancer threatened with having her nipple cut off. Forget the fact that none of this is remotely amusing, we have to ask, has Edwards ceded the reins to Jesus Franco? Actually, the cheap mock-Arab sets, and high-chroma lighting by Dick Bush (Ken Russell’s cameraman and a regular on these late PP films) do suggest the world of, say, 99 WOMEN (which Herbert Lom was IN, come to think of it).
Everything ultimately hinges on Benigni, doesn’t it? And what an unfunny spectacle he is. True, the material is mostly pitiful — Edwards has decided that the phrase “That felt good!” is a Clouseau catchphrase which everyone remembers and will laugh at whenever, apropos of nothing, a character says it — but Benigni murders any gag with a vestigial pulse. I haven’t seen LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL since it came out, but I thought he had talent then — bits of it made me laugh, especially the early stuff, and then the Holocaust stuff was exactly as awkward, dishonest and unsucessful as everyone had always assumed Jerry Lewis’ THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED would be. In Jim Jarmusch films, Benigni seemed not exactly hilarious, but a useful ingredient — someone whose mode of being/performing was so radically other than John Lurie and Tom Waits et al, that he made them seem even more like themselves.
But here… oh my. It certainly doesn’t help that the editing lingers agonizingly on the worst sequences of yelling and fumbling, while jumping away anxiously whenever anything remotely promising develops. But Benigni’s forced enthusiasm, muddled schtick and high volume are instantly wearying. Enough of the scenes are shot in Edwards’ long-take style (there’s even a bit of mock-DePalma steadicam in a hospital) to allow us to appreciate the actor, if we are able, and despite the tiredness of the plaster cast leg slapstick routines, this material HAS been kind of funny in the past, so Benigni’s failure to raise more than the occasional smirk, while frequently inducing wincing, grimaces and Chief Inspector Dreyfus eye-twitching, must count against him.
As usual, the chief interest of the film is psychological — what does it say about its auteur? I distinctly recall a loyal Shadowplayer commenting that it shows the aging Edwards becoming more resigned to his most famous creation, making a kind of piece with the moustached albatross around his creaking neck. This is shown by the way in which Dreyfus/Lom/Edwards comes to accept Clouseau Jnr, despite his tendency to wind up bleeding (how hilarious! An old man’s head is gashed!) whenever Clouseau is around. And in fact Lom ends up marrying Cardinale, becoming, in essence, Clouseau’s father, which Edwards always was.
The titles — the “high point” of the film, actually, depict Clouseau Jnr. tormenting the hapless Pink Panther, which is the first time it’s been played that way around. Since Edwards had Friz Freleng and Hawley Pratt base the animated Panther on his own suave persona, the Panther is one of the various Edwards surrogates in the series. Here, we open in a recording studio where the film’s score is set to be recorded. We have Henry Mancini handing his baton to Bobby McFerrin for an a cappella rendition of the theme tune. As sixties-style pastel squares slide about on a movie screen, revealing the credits, a cartoon Panther and Benigni go to battle, getting slung into and out of the screen like Buster Keaton in SHERLOCK JNR. It’s all vaguely encouraging, especially as the post-ROGER RABBIT combo of live action and cel animation is reasonably well done. The lack of a typical pre-credits sequence may sound a faint alarm bell (maybe someone isn’t trying too hard?) but that and the film’s reassuringly short runtime might equally signal a New Narrative Efficiency. (In fact it seems to indicate Carelessly Deleted Scenes. The film Sellers wanted to make without Edwards was to be called GHOST OF THE PINK PANTHER. The credits for SON list a character as “Clouseau’s Ghost” but no such figure appears. Make of that what you will.)
It is not to be so, of course, but the film’s attempts to cut poor Dreyfus some slack are kind of redemptive. A second Chief Inspector is concocted for Clouseau to mangle, sparing Lom some of the more undignified disasters (in a series swarming with doppelgangers, this is hardly noticed), and he’s handed a romantic interest (Mrs. Dreyfus, seen in TRAIL under a disfiguring facepack, and spoken of as early as A SHOT IN THE DARK, appears to be permanently out of the picture, perhaps retroactively erased by the vanishing ray from STRIKES BACK.) And so, swathed in bandages, twitching manically, and probably quite, quite insane, Dreyfus/Edwards hobbles off into the sunset. But we don’t actually see this happen — after a triumphal “That — felt — GEUID!” from Benigni, Edwards freezes on the gurning idiot face (looking more like one of Clouseau’s disguises), and a saw cuts through the image, neatly excising the offensive kisser. We cringe, expecting a jammy residue like Edith Scob’s in EYES WITHOUT A FACE, but instead we get a yawning abyss, through which the cartoon Clouseau Jnr. pokes his own ugly mug, as if posing at one of those seaside cut-out scenes. Benigni’s amputated features, a flat piece of chipboard, meanwhile fall and crush the Panther’s foot, and the enraged wildcat then leaps through the Benigni face-opening to pursue the cartoon incompetent off into the vanishing point, in a vast Outer Darkness which seems to represent many things — it’s the world of reality Behind the Screen, where Edwards will largely spend his declining years except for some stage and television work and an entertaining appearance at the Oscars to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award; it’s the emptiness inside Clouseau/Sellers, since (a) Sellers is dead and absent and (b) as Sellers said, “I have no personality. I used to have one, but I had it surgically removed,”; it’s The Future, into which Edwards imagines himself pursuing the phantasmal Panther for all Eternity; and it’s Death.