A MADCAP FROLIC OF CRIME AND FUN.
Every once in a while you need to kick back and just have fun. After making the very earnest Days of Wine and Roses (1962), director Blake Edwards delivered a film that is the equivalent of spending a few hours in a lounge, sipping a drink, talking to a good friend and listening to music with velvety strings. It’s The Pink Panther, a lovely experience, but actually not the film in the series that became the most influential.
Princess Dala (Claudia Cardinale) arrives in the Italian ski resort Cortina d’Ampezzo and with her she brings the Pink Panther, a priceless diamond. A masterful thief called The Phantom has his eyes set on the gem; no one knows that he is in fact a British playboy, Sir Charles Lytton (David Niven), who also happens to be in Cortina d’Ampezzo along with his nephew George (Robert Wagner) who certainly shares more than a few traits with his uncle. As they try to charm the princess, French police inspector Jacques Clouseau (Peter Sellers) also arrives in the ski resort together with his wife, Simone (Capucine). Clouseau has been hunting The Phantom for quite some time and knows that the thief would like to lay his hands on the Pink Panther, but Clouseau still doesn’t know his real identity.
What is worse, he has no idea that Simone is actually Sir Charles’s secret lover and accomplice, constantly plotting to confuse her husband. A costume party becomes the ideal moment for Sir Charles and his aides to steal the diamond… and for Clouseau to finally catch his man.
Essentially a door-slamming farce
This is definitely an ensemble comedy. The iconic comic character of Clouseau did indeed appear for the first time, but this film belongs just as much to Niven, Cardinale and Capucine who all get to shine. Niven’s smooth, elegant persona is perfect for The Phantom and Cardinale in particular has a wonderful little scene with him where they get drunk and flirt with each other on a tiger fell. Anyone looking for Dreyfus, or Cato attacking out of nowhere, will be disappointed; most of the ingredients we’ve come to expect from a Pink Panther film didn’t show up until the second film of the series. Still, Sellers knows exactly what to do with Clouseau already in this film; his very first gag, involving a spinning earth globe, is a hilarious classic and he has several other spectacularly clumsy scenes throughout the film where the comic timing is impeccable. It is essentially a door-slamming farce where the romantic liaisons nicely accompany The Phantom’s scheme to steal the famous gem.
Henry Mancini’s music is jazzy and heart-warming; it certainly looks like the beautiful and sophisticated environs of Cortina d’Ampezzo inspired him. The film as a whole has its lulls, but there are flashes of brilliance, such as in the absurd chase sequence where people in masquerade costumes chase each other in very small cars.
Warner Brothers veterans David H. DePatie and Fritz Freleng created the animated pink panther that would show up in the title sequences of the Pink Panther films; this is his first appearance. He also shows up in the very last scene of the film, providing a link to the rest of the franchise even though Clouseau himself is headed for prison. Thankfully, they would both rise to excellence in the next film.
The Pink Panther 1964-U.S. 113 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Martin Jurow. Directed by Blake Edwards. Screenplay: Blake Edwards, Maurice Richlin. Cinematography: Philip Lathrop. Music: Henry Mancini. Song: “It Had Better Be Tonight” (Henry Mancini, Johnny Mercer). Cast: Peter Sellers (Jacques Clouseau), David Niven (Sir Charles Lytton), Capucine (Simone Clouseau), Robert Wagner, Claudia Cardinale, Brenda DeBanzie.
Trivia: Peter Ustinov was allegedly considered for the part of Clouseau; Ava Gardner and Janet Leigh as Mrs. Clouseau. Followed by eight sequels, starting with A Shot in the Dark (1964). Remade as The Pink Panther (2006).
Last word: “David Niven was a perfect gentleman every woman would want to be with, he would open doors, walk a step behind you and offer his arm at every opportunity to help you out. Peter Sellers was so much fun to work with, you couldn’t stop laughing, but off the set, he was gloomy, unhappy, he couldn’t enjoy the success he was having.” (Cardinale, Italy Magazine)