Archive for Peter Sellers

Helium Hunchback

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 22, 2020 by dcairns

STRIKES AGAIN is the PANTHER film I could never see as a kid — RETURN and REVENGE and SHOT IN THE DARK played on TV regularly, but not this one. No idea why.

When I did finally see it, I was underwhelmed. Again, not sure why. I do think the whole Octoberfest bit is lacking in good laughs and gags, and the mad mastercriminal plot is maybe not the right fit for the series? But on the other hand, they had done the heist film, the whodunnit, and the Hitchcockian wrong man story — so they needed a different branch of the crime genre, and the Fu Manchu angle was pretty low-hanging fruit…

Herbert Lom ascends to full Mabuseian supervillain status, and gets to play the organ maniacally, spoofing both his PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and MYSTERIOUS ISLAND characters. Along the way, the narrative allows us to take in a bit of country house mystery (“I expect you’re wondering…”) as Lom abducts a scientist and his daughter, a fairly straight riff on Christopher Lee’s Fu Manchu activities for Harry Allan Towers. The plunge into outright fantasy might be a sign that the series has jumped the shark, as might be the fact that the title now refers to… nothing at all. The Pink Panther diamond is nowhere to be seen. (They could have had Lom using it to focus his death ray, I suppose. And the ray could have omitted a Phildickian PINK LIGHT…)Going by Blake Edwards’ diagnosis, that Sellers was tractable when he needed a hit, and impossible when he was coming off one, this shoot must have been hell, I suppose. If the libraries were open (lockdown) I could borrow Roger Lewis’s Sellers bio and find out.

Some excellent work from Burt Kwouk. Sellers tries on his Quasimodo cossie and Cato declaims, theatrically, “What have you done to Inspector Clouseau?” It’s obvious he knows this is his boss in a rubbish disguise, but he loves him so much he humours him. They have a sweet relationship, really.

Like Cato, my cat Momo has been trained to attack me at random intervals, to keep me on my toes. But he’s too lazy to make a go of it.

Richard Williams and associates provide the title sequence, so it’s much, MUCH more beautiful than it really needs to be. As with RETURN OF, the joke is to make the Panther Clouseau’s playful tormentor, and to reference famous movies. But the silvery backgrounds! The special lighting effects! The art deco type! And it features the Panther as Mrs. Edwards. And, speaking of love and marriage, Clouseau’s investigations lead him to a gay bar in this one, where Julie Andrews dubs a drag queen. Edwards seems to be furiously signaling something to us here, but if you ask him about it he’d just look innocent. Just about the only real stab at continuity in this series — Lom’s Chief Inspector Dreyfus was confined to the booby hatch at the end of the previous film, and he’s just about to be released in this one. Then Clouseau shows up to wish him well, and everything goes wrong. We thus get to see a new dynamic between Dreyfus and Clouseau. Clouseau is genuinely solicitous of his deranged ex-boss, but still too cloddishly foolish to realise he ought to stay away. A lot of what goes wrong is random accidents, things that Clouseau can’t really be held responsible for (but Dreyfus doesn’t see it that way). The strange logic of the clouseauverse is that Clouseau’s accident-proneness is transmitted to Dreyfus, in a more painful manner, but only when Clouseau is around or when Dreyfus is obsessing over him.

I confess that as a little kid I was really freaked out by the mistreatment of Dreyfus — the thumb-chopping and nose-blowing went beyond what I was comfortable with in slapstick. But I loved the films so much I forced myself to toughen up (I was a crybaby). Clearly, Edwards is aiming for a live-action cartoon thing, where serious injuries just go away after. But I never liked bandages and plaster casts in comedy, either: they implied that the violence was real and had consequences, which made it unfunny. Everyone else would be laughing like it was TOM AND JERRY, and I’d be staring at the screen in horror like it was THE TENANT.The obligatory Cato fight, with Lom spying through a little periscope from downstairs, is really good — Edwards makes a rare foray into handheld cam, and for some reason this makes everything even funnier. Indefinably so. There’s probably less overt brutality in this movie than in SHOT or RETURN (Graham Stark’s fingers!), but an excruciating moment occurs when Lom, being a madman, climbs a tower of furniture and inserts a finger through the ceiling-floor hole he’s drilled, Clouseau steps on it, and Lom loses his balance so he’s hanging by the crushed digit. (Paul Schrader has theorised that writers obsess about damage to their hands because that’s what they write with, unless I suppose they’re Norman Mailer and they just dip their balls in an inkpot.)

Then, some masterful finger acting — Clouseau shifts off the finger, which remains pressed to the floor for a moment, then springs erect, stays there, in defiance of all gravity, like Wile E. Coyote just before he realises he’s over a canyon with nothing holding him up — you actually sense the fingertip opening its eyes wide in alarm — and then it slips from view. CRASH.

I wonder if Lom did his own finger acting? Carol Reed doubles Orson Welles’ fingers through the grate at the end of THE THIRD MAN, and I would think Blake Edwards might well have done the same here, since in a sense he IS Chief Inspector Dreyfus.As the Clouseauverse breaks out onto the world stage, there’s a joke about the American president, a Gerald Fordalike, being clumsy. Is this the right time to recount my friend Mark Bender’s close encounter with Ford on a ski course? “Hey, that’s Gerald Ford! On skis. Coming right at me. Say, he really IS coming right at me, isn’t he? He – OOF!”

The Bondian climax is biggish and I guess it allowed Edwards to focus on things other than his difficult star. Stunts, special effects, supporting cast. There are, by the way, a couple of very good hide-in-plain-sight stuntman substitutions in this film. 

Earlyish, Edwards performs a simple match cut as Clouseau turns to the parallel bars, allowing him to replace Sellers with a Fake Clouseau, keeping the voice droning nasally on, and allowing “CLouseau” to do something the physically unsound Sellers never could.Likewise, when the Inspector attempts to pole-vault into Dreyfus’ schloss, he backs into the bushes as Sellers, and charges out, in a single, unbroken shot, as an anonymous stunt double. The end of the pole remains constantly in view, so if you were in those bushes you’d have seen Sellers handing it to his clone.

Bold!I don’t know if Dreyfus’s climactic disintegration means they were really planning to end the series, or they thought they’d gone as far as they could with this particular character — obviously, having him return in the next film would require a breathtaking dismissal of basic plot continuity. Most likely they weren’t worrying about it, and just needed a strong finish to the Dreyfus-as-Mabuse/Blofeld/Fu Manchu scenario. And clearly just bringing him back without explanation in the follow-up film was the right way to go.It’s a shame the film crams Leonard Rossiter, Colin Blakeley and Dudley Sutton into the British sequence and then finds nothing to do with them. Rossiter is positioned as a substitute Chief Inspector Dreyfus, but it doesn’t go very far. It feels more like Edwards is padding the film with characters he can shoot on Sellers’ days off, giving everyone a rest from the inevitable madness. (Remember, Sellers was bored of this character a film and a half ago.) But it’s nice to see the familiar faces. Dud has just finished Fellini’s CASANOVA. As he told me, “He cut out all my lines, but I’m still in there.”Obligatory Graham Stark routine. A joyous excuse for a crap joke. I don’t know if the policy of surrounding Sellers with mates from the UK comedy scene actually made him behave better, but anything’s worth a try, and you shouldn’t need an excuse to hire Stark. (One chilling anecdote I recall from the Roger Lewis bio is Sellers phoning David Lodge up one evening after shooting, and asking if his behaviour had been really terrible that day. As a straight-talking friend, Lodge said Yes, it had. And from the receiver there sounded a cold, blood-curdling chuckle…)
Very, VERY sexy work from Lesley-Anne Down. Not much of a role, acting-wise, but sexy. Her story plays like a spoof of THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, but was filmed first: she’s supposed to kill Clouseau, but his astonishing loveplay converts/enslaves her. Only it wasn’t Clouseau, because in the dark she’s mistakenly tumbled and uncredited Omar Sharif.

And a hilarious final sequence, the Clouseau striptease, which had Fiona genuinely can’t-breathe-hysterical, on the floor. “I’d FORGOTTEN!” she gasped. Clouseau, it turns out, can’t undress himself, which turns his sexy strip into a failed Houdini routine. Fantastic stuff like the necktie stuck round his cranium like his hippy hairband in ALICE B TOKLAS. Somehow my keen nudity-spotting eyes always missed the fact that L-AD’s bottom comes into view when the insanely huge Murphy bed folds up. That would have meant a lot to me when I was first seeing the film as a teenager. It still seems packed with significance. And the scene is the greatest example of Kwouk-blocking Edwards ever filmed.

At any rate, Cato’s martial arts intervention has saved L-AD from what would presumably have been a highly disappointing sexual experience. Still, though, I can’t help but see the end of the opening titles, when Edwards’ credit appears, as symbolic of the whole enterprise at this stage: the PANTHER movies were the most successful comedy series in screen history, and the writer-director and star pretty much hated each other, but both of them felt the need to carry on working together despite the strain of collaboration and the difficulty of continuing to reinvigorate the character. The image of the cartoon Clouseau, having ascended into cinema like SHERLOCK, JR, trapped, hands pressed against the other side of the silver screen, staring bleakly at us…THE PINK PANTHER STRIKES AGAIN stars Fu Manchu; Captain Nemo; Georgina Worsley; Mr. Ming; Dr. Watson; Dr. Andrei Smyslov; Prof. Trousseau; Slartibartfast; Baron De Laubardemont: Dr. Ralph Halvorsen; Mrs. Emma Bulstrode; the Oompa Loompas; Catweazle; Dr. Auguste Balls; Hugh Abbott; Arab Swordsman; Charles Bovin; Sherif Ali (uncredited); and the voice of Mary Poppins.

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.

 

 

After the Phantom

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 29, 2020 by dcairns

Well, in a fit of madness I viewed and wrote about all three of Blake Edwards’ post-Sellers PINK PANTHER films — TRAIL, CURSE and SON — so it seems appropriate to write about the early, funny ones, too. Only took me five years to get around to it.

THE PINK PANTHER is the first one which disappointed me as a kid — because I saw them out of sequence on TV, it was a shock to find Sellers as Clouseau as only joint lead, arguably below David Niven in narrative importance and just above Claudia Cardinale, Robert Wagner and Capucine. Plus, no Herbert Lom and no Burt Kwouk.

Of course, watching through more mature, informed eyes — which might seem like the last things you want to cram into your eyesockets before attempting to view a Blake Edwards slapstick farce — these “flaws” are nothing of the kind, and the one and only truly original PINK PANTHER emerges as the most carefully put-together film of the series by a country mile.Sellers stepped into the role of Clouseau three days before the shoot began to replace a departing Peter Ustinov (his wife, Welles’s Desdemona Suzanne Clouthier talked him out of it). Whether Ustinov was foolish enough to regret missing out on the most successful comedy series of the 20th Century is questionable — surely he knew that Sellers brought an entirely different genius to the film, and a Ustinov Clouseau might have been terrific but could not have been guaranteed to hit the mark commercially in the same way. Besides, success drove Sellers round the bend, in part because he felt it was given to him for the wrong films (newsflash: it usually is). Edwards fully agreed that Sellers’ work with Kubrick was more deserving, but there wasn’t much he could do about that.

We begin with ONCE UPON A TIME, an invitation for us to check any expectations of social realism at the door, I guess. Maybe we can find some more fairytale resonances later. Well, here’s a king and a palace and a princess, and the titular MacGuffin. The IMDb doesn’t know who any of these surprisingly credible “Lugashians” are, except for James Lanphier, an Edwards regular who is the only one who looks blatantly wrong ethnically and so naturally is the only one who will appear in the rest of the film.

The theme tune: “Can you IMAGINE being in the audience in 1963 and hearing this for the first time?” asked Fiona. Animated credits by DePatie-Freleng. For the only time, the cartoon panther has a feline body, not just a lanky man’s body with a feline head and tail. Edwards demanded that the Panther be patterned on him. And by the time the credits were made up (and did fifties-sixties audiences ever tire of these Saul Bass type pastel boxes? I never do), it was evidently clear that the film belonged to Clouseau, because here he is as the only other character to get a cartoon. And an antipathy between Edwards/Panther and Sellers/Clouseau is already established.

“When the picture was finished, I got the first sense of these unpredictable
crazy kind of actions when Sellers – after we had this wonderful time and
the picture was run – went crazy and sent word to the Mirisches that it was
a disaster, which was very typical of him on the films be would do.”

I realise I’m guilty of ignoring Edwards’ co-writer, Maurice Richlin (PILLOW TALK). Well, everyone else has: he didn’t receive a co-creator credit on any of the sequels until the very last one, SON OF (a film one might well sue to AVOID being associated with). I assume this robbed him of a fortune in residuals… Oh, he’s named on INSPECTOR CLOUSEAU, it seems. Must have had some special dispensation that only allowed him to be credited for shit.

The first frame after the titles is also the last frame of the film, further indicating how well worked-out it all is. A series of MEANWHILES take us around Europe and America, establishing a globetrotting scheme which isn’t really kept up in the movie itself, which plays mainly in Cortina d’Ampezzo, with a climax in Rome and a coda back in Paris.This might be Robert Wagner’s best thing. He’s quite deft. Of course, it’s a strain to even notice him with Sellers and the others doing so well, but my point is, he’s not boring in this. Capucine is very funny. Niven is fine, and I like that he has his good-luck charm, Michael Trubshaw, along for the ride. In later films, Sellers is the one who has an entourage of chums in minor roles. Claudia Cardinale is, as Fiona remarked, adorable. She seems to be dubbed — except for her lovely drunk scene, where suddenly her Italian accent emerges and her already husky, smoky voice suddenly gets even throatier. Well, who’s to say that Lugashians don’t have Italian accents?The fact is, probably Clouseau does make more sense as a supporting figure who adds slapstick to a sophisticated, or mock-sophisticated farce-caper, than as a hero. He’s incapable of real change, it seems, so you can’t give him a character arc. But on the other hand, it’s all but impossible to surround Sellers with subplots as entertaining and brilliant as him. All you can hope for, which Edwards achieves very well here, is that the surroundings will be charming so you don’t mind the genius being diluted. Although the supporting cast of the Clouseauverse are not in place yet, the man himself is fully formed. The appearance came from a matchbook image of channel-swimmer Matthew Webb. Sellers liked the moustache: “Very masculine.” He and/or Edwards conceived the character as an idiot who, unlike Laurel & Hardy, KNOWS he’s an idiot. But he’s determined not to let anyone else find out. He’s also too dense to realise the jig is up. So he’s under tremendous strain, maintaining this pretense of being a brilliant detective. You can feel for him. The Dunning-Kruger effect has collapsed under him.

And we understand this instinctively in his FIRST SCENE. Everything else Sellers will do across five films will be basically mining this one idea. A man whose idiocy is perfectly, agonizingly balanced between awareness of his own inadequacy and lack of awareness that it’s obvious to pretty well everyone around him.

Very good musical number, by Mancini of course. Italian lyrics by Franco Migliacci & English lyrics by Johnny Mercer. Mancini is other key figure of the series, and perhaps the only one who wasn’t horribly tortured by it. I certainly hope he wasn’t, and I can’t see why he should have been… he would be protected from Sellers and evidently didn’t mind Edwards.(Typing those names over and over again, it seems just perfect that both men contain multitudes: you couldn’t have a Blake Edward and a Peter Seller.)

Very good costume party gags. Edwards is OBSESSED with parties, of course. Two separate gorillas — I beg your pardon, two separate thieves DRESSED as gorillas — attempt to rob the same safe.  I remember watching this as a kid with my sister and she was overwhelmed with sympathy when he inserts his sexy strangler gloves into two perfect baby bear bowls of prison porridge, just as he’s attempting to gloat at the felons he’s captured. “It was his big moment!” she cry-laughed. Sellers can do that, even when his character is kind of a monster. Fred Kite can break your heart. And he does it even when, as here and in I’M ALRIGHT, JACK (the only Sellers film Edwards had seen), the film doesn’t need or even want him to.

So this is a really well-tooled entertainment. Sellers is again pathetic in the witness box — the only moment in the series when everyone laughs at him, which is what he’s spent his life and enormous energy trying to avoid. When he says that his wife has bought a mink coat with money saved from the housekeeping, it’s like a thing out of your nightmares — something you’ve always taken on faith is revealed to be ridiculous to everyone else.Fortunately the film gives Clouseau a happy ending, since being a Raffles-type jewel thief apparently makes you irresistible to women. And then the sequel is along, in less than a year, and it turns out Clouseau was never convicted of diamond-robbery at all, and is still an inspector… The clouseauverse is terribly forgiving of its policemen, which will be one bit of good news for Chief Inspector Dreyfus…

THE PINK PANTHER stars Sir James Bond; Evelyn Tremble; Number Two; Princess Carolyne Wittgenstein; Jill McBain; Maggie Hobson; Sgt. Arthur Wilson; Lord Dowdy; Poldi – Blackie’s Flunky; Leonora Clyde; and Dr. Rosen.