Archive for Posthumous Pink Panthers

Posthumous Pink Panthers #1: The Talking Cure?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 9, 2015 by dcairns

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It’s not exactly Richard Williams, is it?

The beginning of a mini-series looking at the PINK PANTHER movies made by Blake Edwards after the death of star Peter Sellers, one of the more remarkable and misbegotten cycles in cinema history. It’s almost as if Jean-Pierre Leaud had fallen under a bus and Truffaut had resolved to carry on the Antoine Doinel series with a glove puppet; or as if Akira Kurosawa had decided to make a third YOJIMBO film after his catastrophic bust-up with Mifune, and deployed a photographic enlargement on a stick as leading man. Edwards’ various solutions are inventive, in a tortuous sort of way, but what’s really interesting is the psychopathological underpinnings of these ventures — if one discounts the perennial lure of shekels, how, exactly, can we account for such ventures?

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First shot of Clouseau: a horribly unconvincing stand-in. The macabre tone is set.

The necrology begins with TRAIL OF THE PINK PANTHER, which crept into empty theatres two years after Sellers’ death. I saw it with my big brother Sean at the Odeon, Clerk Street, I believe. We were almost the only ones there. The original series of films was the most profitable comedy series ever, but the public can, upon occasion, smell desperation the way dogs are said to smell fear. How do you make a PINK PANTHER film when Sellers is dead? Dismissing the idea of hiring Alan Arkin, who had played the role of Clouseau in 1968, Edwards announced that he had a stash of unseen Sellers outtakes which he was going launch upon us, cunningly edited into a wraparound story and with some highlights from earlier entries.

The vehicle that’s supposed to tie all this together is Joanna Lumley as a news reporter investigating Clouseau’s disappearance. But her “narrative” can only get underway once the movie has somehow packaged together all its leftover footage, which it does by way of a few phone calls from Herbert Lom to STRIKES AGAIN cast survivor Colin Blakely (who would shortly follow Sellers into eternity). This also drags in footage of the great Leonard Rossiter, who was wasted in STRIKES AGAIN and was about to perish prematurely in real life. It’s a death-haunted movie.

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It’s generally obvious why most of the deleted scenes were deleted in the first place — the main thought they inspire is “Oh, so REVENGE OF THE PINK PANTHER STRIKES BACK could have been even longer?” They’re not exactly terrible, but not exactly very funny. And of course they don’t connect to any real story, being bits painlessly excised from two or three different stories, so they create the vivid impression of a movie in a holding pattern. When the trunk items are exhausted, Edwards moves on to a series of interviews, where Lumley gathers the thoughts of various Clouseau associates. This is a transparent device to justify copious flashbacks: Clouseau fights Cato; Clouseau exchanges exposition with David Niven and Capucine. And of course, the barely-alive David Niven we meet is dubbed by Rich Little, since the actor had lost his voice to the cancer that would shortly carry him off. The dubbing is quite well done — better than the strange, helium voice that’s been dubbed over a Sellers stand-in in long shots. And the sight of Niven grinning and tugging his ear, as he always seemed to do, is poignant.

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But what’s actually interesting is what’s said in the interviews. “When you’ve been doing something for twenty years, sometimes you miss it, even if it’s painful,” muses Burt Kwouk’s Cato, a ventrilogist act for Edwards himself. And Herbert Lom as the long-suffering Chief Inspector Dreyfus is REALLY interesting, collapsing in hysterics while trying to give a tribute to his old colleague. It’s an Edwards self-portrait! Watch Edwards talking about Sellers, and you may see his eyelid tremble as he says stuff like, “Peter was a very complicated man. He believed he was in communication with his dead mother. Very complicated.” ANd you can see he’s trying to telepathically communicate to US: “By ‘complicated’ I mean ‘batshit crazy’, okay? But I’m not allowed to say so because of Hollywood’s Standard Operational Bullshit, which governs my every move, and because Sellers is dead and I’m alive, damnit.”

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Having churned through supporting players Lom, Kwouk, Robert Loggia and Graham Stark, Edwards then invents one more, Richard Mulligan as Clouseau’s father. In this way he can argue that the film contains original material with (a) Clouseau, I guess. And some of the material is… passable. At least it’s not totally filler, like the Loggia scenes — Edwards has a purpose in mind here, other than padding his running time — he actually wants to get some laughs. And, by more or less plagiarising the business with the old servant in “10”, he comes close. Though Mulligan is no Sellers, he does some decent physical stuff, using his lanky, limber frame to suggest extreme old age.

This interview frames flashbacks to original material showing Clouseau’s youth, so for once Edwards can cut loose and do some slapstick sequences without his dead actor being a problem. But replacing Sellers with a variety of kids and juveniles and stuntmen in no way makes up for the film’s missing centre, and the gags here are really pitiful. It’s looking like Sellers’ contribution to the series was bigger than just performing — when he was on form, he made this stuff funny.

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And then, eventually, it ends, with a shit joke about bird shit. A Sellers stand-in, indicating that Clouseau has survived the actor who played him, transforms into an animated Panther in Clouseau drag. Actor/Clouseau and creator/Panther have become one. And Edwards runs a montage of highlights from the series through the end titles, getting more laughs than any of the new footage seen thus far. I miss the way REVENGE ended with shots of Sellers and company corpsing at their own material, though. In the absence of any actual jokes, I think it would have been a bold move for Edwards to have played footage of his actors simply WAITING for their cues, looking puzzled, impatient, dyspeptic or sleepy. Or he could have filmed a script conference and included that, showing himself and fellow culprits Geoffrey Edwards (Executive Son) and Frank & Tom Waldman (Associate Brothers) frowning at sheets of paper.