The Return of the Pink Panther and The Pink Panther Strikes Again

Thought I'd check them out again prior to viewing the Steve Martin remake, and while I enjoy Martin as a comic (he does have his wild and crazy ways), I'm not sure he did the right thing, setting himself up for direct comparison with Seller's most popular (if not most respected) creation.

Return opens with a classic jewel heist, about as excitingly staged, shot, edited and scored (by Mancini) as any ever made--and that's just the first ten or so minutes. Something that isn't appreciated about Edwards I think is that being a good comic director--he prefers long takes and simple setups, the better to showcase a pratfall or bit of business--makes him a good action director as well (substitute 'action sequence' or 'fight scene' or even 'dance number' for 'pratfall' and it amounts to the same thing).

And watching Sellers partly improvise, partly perform his way through some pretty intricate comic sequences you realize that what made Sellers so especially funny was that he--or his character--didn't think he was. He totally believed he was a great detective, and if the world didn't share his view, it hasn't come to his notice yet. It's a believable character, one that speaks to us, to our hidden fear that we're more pompous or we take ourselves more seriously or think more of ourselves than others do, or than we actually deserve. Sellers sticks pins into this particular sacred monster, this particular taboo subject, and we love him for it.

Mind you, it's not a totally adorable character Sellers is creating: Clouseau is an insensitive dolt, and that's funny; less funny are his racism ("Cato, my little yellow friend") and his bourgeoisie hypocrisies (he threatens to arrest a street musician for working without a license). Sellers makes no apologies for him; possibly he's a repository of much of Sellers' self-disgust, is why this performance has teeth.

By way of contrast, most comic Steve Martin performances I know have quotation marks at either end; they're self-conscious parodies of classic cliches and stereotypes, stood on their heads. Occasionally, he musters some conviction (in Roxanne, in All of Me, in Leap of Faith, and in the totally uncharacteristic Pennies from Heaven), but most of the time he seems to say: "look at me, I'm about to do a moron!" and does an expert performance of a moron without asking you believe he is one. That sense of conviction, of belief in the reality of the character could be the difference between Martins and Sellers--that, and Martin's tendency to soften his characters (something he didn't do in Pennies) where Sellers obsessively seeks out their darker side.

The Pink Panther I enjoyed as a jewel-heist movie where the thief was constantly being upstaged by a bumbling detective; that dichotomy is even sharper in Return, where other than the excitingly staged heist, every time the movie returned to Christopher Plummer (even if it's Plummer and the lovely Catherine Schell* we're coming back to), things went splat (at least in the first film Niven gets to crash in his skis, or wear a gorilla suit). Seller's setpieces have taken over more of the movie, the same time they've gotten longer, more involved, funnier. By the second Panther sequel (or fifth Clouseau picture) Clouseau has taken over, and it's his pratfalls that drive the picture along--they're what motivates the antagonist (he feels he has to put a stop to them once in for all), and keeps us watching the picture, even when the pretense of a plot has been partly if not totally forgotten.

(* Plummer's character may seem dull but Schell seems to be having the time of her life trying to keep from laughing at Sellers' shenanigans; there seems to be more chemistry between Schell and Sellers than between Schell and Plummer, giving the scenes between the stumblebum Clouseau and the disdainful Lady Litton a double irony.)
Maybe what I like so much about Strikes Again is that it brings Clouseau to his ultimate conclusion: if he's such a monumental bumbler, he can only threaten the world, and only another threat on the same world-shaking scale can bring him down. Clouseau's pratfalls take international and global dimensions here, and what keeps the whole thing from collapsing under its own weight completely (it does sag in several places, though less I think than Return does) is Edwards inventive sense of parody.

We see Clouseau in a movie theater, watching the panther evoke different classic films, from King Kong to The Sound of Music to Dracula. That's our cue to see the film itself as a series of parodies pushed to their limits--Clouseau and Cato making hash of Bruce Lee films; Clouseau lurching about as Quasimodo ("the bells! the bells!" he moans as the phone rings); Clouseau at Fassbender's house (interesting that two of the characters--the bank robber Tournier and the elderly scientist--have names resembling famous directors) rolling up the whole of A Shot in the Dark and all Agatha Christie pictures and trash-compacting them into ten paralyzingly funny minutes; Clouseau visiting a gay nightclub and giving us a strange premonition of what Victor-Victoria was all about (an even odder, more chilling image is of the United Nations building melting away, leaving a gap in the Manhattan skyline**); there's even what I like to call the Killers' Olympics, where James Bond's indestructibility is sent up by way of Harry Langdon's blissful cluelessness; by film's end, Edwards even evokes Dr. Strangelove, with Sellers speaking in a Teutonic accent and playing dentist, and later straddling a phallic Doomsday Machine that boasts of three huge, glowing balls.

(**Herbert Lom as a supervillain terrorist is less funny now, or at least less comfortably cartoonish now than he was then, unless you think of him as man harboring a hatred for another man so great he'd bend a dozen nations to his will; then his caricature seems more relevant.)

Edwards borrows heavily from the silent greats--(the scene of Sellers and Down turning off and turning on lights in the hotel room is a sketch of Keaton missing the girl in The Navigator), but what comic director since is completely free of their influence? I do think Edwards comes up with a somewhat different flavor, thanks to a somewhat different mix of movie influences, and if there is a way that he can call the comedy in the Panther movies his own, I suppose it's in his creation of a veneer of wordly sophistication--men and women in clubs and European hotels and exotic locales, drinking cocktails and listening to jazz and smoking and otherwise having a fine time, while this bumbler of a detective stumbles through the scenery, demolishing complacency in his wake.

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