Archive for Return of the Pink Panther

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.

 

 

Party Down

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 26, 2019 by dcairns

Why didn’t I find THE PARTY funny as a kid? It’s weird, as I was a big Peter Sellers fan, a big PINK PANTHER movie fan. I laughed once — the flying shoe caught me by surprise.

Of course, I was watching the film on TV, pan-and-scanned. But I was used to that. In fact, an early occasion when I became aware of film style was when I noted the strange mechanical movements in RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER — faced with Edwards’ audacious use of the widescreen, the hapless clod charged with having the film “adapted to fit your screen” was forced to pan, with grinding slowness, from one side of the 1:2.35 frame to the other, creating the exact effect of HAL’s lip-reading in 2001. As a tiny tot, I didn’t know what was behind this, but I thought it an interesting directorial choice.

Since a lot of THE PARTY is about social embarrassment, maybe that just didn’t speak to me as a kid. In fact, a lot of it’s about feeling lost at a party, something I’ve experienced a lot more in the interim. God, it’s agonizing, and that’s where the funniness comes from, as usual with Edwards. Sellers’ character, Indian actor Hrundi V. Bakshi, is cinema’s great lonely man. I mean, he has it way worse than Travis Bickle, who at least was a native English speaker. Bakshi wanders the big crazy LA house, humiliating himself in every imaginable way, clumsy, unlucky, unable to read social cues, not knowing anyone… it’s just terrible. I laughed quite a lot, and I was always on his side.

And yes, it’s slightly racist. The idea of a white man impersonating an Indian for comic effect is uncomfortable today, but if we accept that this was not abnormal at the time, we can admire the sympathy and skill of Sellers’ performance. As David Wingrove pointed out in a recent conversation, he’s not Mickey Rooney in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S — who I found myself shamefacedly guffawing at when they screened the first reel on 35mm in Bologna last year. The sheer energy of the burlesque, you know. But BAT treats Mr. Yunioshi as a clown because of his race — he’s unworthy of being taken seriously. Whereas THE PARTY, I think, takes Bakshi VERY seriously. That strange, sad little coda…

The most troublesome bit is the opening. The plot requires Bakshi to make Hollywood enemies — the prologue explains how he came to be brought out to Tinseltown to appear in some kind of Raj epic. And the joke seems to more or less explicitly be, “If an Indian actor were brought to Hollywood, it would be a disaster because he would be an idiot.” Bakshi takes an outrageous amount of time to die (so he’s a bad actor), he wears a waterproof wristwatch in a Victorian period movie (actually it’s someone else’s job to prevent that) and he steps on a detonator and blows up a whole building before the cameras are rolling (could happen to any of us).

Each of these gags is moderately amusing, but they don’t add up to a coherent character sketch, and although the sequence is necessary to the plot, it still feels like the movie really starts as Bakshi arrives at the party, at which it becomes funnier and more sympathetic.

One day after admiring Peter Cook’s red socks in BEDAZZLED (a fashion choice also favoured by Michael Powell) I was charmed by Bakshi’s footwear. He wears white shoes, so that when he steps in mud it’s as bad as it could possibly be. And red socks, so that when he loses is a shoe, it’s as bad as THAT could possibly be.

Comedy, it seems, needs to be both cruel and kind.

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.