Friday, August 7, 2009

A Shot in the Dark (Mirisch Corporation/United Artists, 1964)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s feature was A Shot in the Dark — lists eight films of that title, including very early ones from 1912, 1913 and 1915 as well as talkies from 1933, 1935 and 1941 and a Hong Kong production from 1960 called Hei ye qiang sheng, which translates as “A shot in the dark,” but this is the most famous one: a 1964 comedy-mystery from director Blake Edwards that featured Peter Sellers in his second role as the bumbling French Surété Inspector Jacques Clouseau. The contributors seemed undecided as to just when this film was made; at least one commentator said it had actually been filmed before The Pink Panther, which introduced the character of Clouseau to movie audiences, but was held back from release until The Pink Panther came out and proved that Clouseau’s character would be popular.

I have a hard time believing that; it seems more likely that with The Pink Panther turning into a personal triumph for Peter Sellers even though he was billed second (to David Niven) and most of The Pink Panther was a not especially funny sex comedy with Niven essentially recycling his role of the suave jewel thief from Raffles a quarter-century before, United Artists and the Mirisch Corporation wanted a follow-up. They started with a French play by Marcel Achard that had been adapted for the U.S. stage by Harry Kurnitz, set Sellers and Walter Matthau for the roles of the bumbling detectives (plural) at the root of the action, then when the script for this didn’t seem to be going so well they hired Blake Edwards as script doctor and possible director — and Edwards simply threw out the existing story and started over.

Co-written by Edwards and William Peter Blatty — yes, the same guy who wrote The Exorcist — A Shot in the Dark opens with a long series of tracking shots around a castle in France (though actually filmed in England) that traces the goings-on of the personal staff of the Ballon family and looks for a while like “Young Frankenstein — the colorized version.” Eventually a dramatic design emerges as the family’s chauffeur is found murdered and, by mistake, police commissioner Charles Dreyfus (Herbert Lom) — and yes, if you have the right historical bent naming a figure of any authority in the French government “Dreyfus” is a mordantly funny joke in and of itself — assigns Clouseau to the case. What follows is a marvelous series of gags, a bit sluggishly paced between the comedy scenes but funny enough that’s not so much of a bother — when Sellers as Clouseau isn’t tearing his clothes in awkward ways he’s getting himself arrested when he tries to pose as a duck hunter or a balloon salesman and the uniformed French officers demand that he have a license for these activities.

He also ends up tracing a lead at the “Camp Sunshine” nudist colony, along with his girlfriend Elke Sommer (incidentally he’s married in The Pink Panther but he’s a bachelor here, so maybe this movie was made first after all), who plays Maria Gambrelli, the maid of the owner of the Ballon chateau, Benjamin Ballon (George Sanders, older and considerably world-wearier than he was in his prime but still a welcome sight) which gets raided by the uniformed police just as he’s on the point of cracking the case when he’s not also trying to stay afloat in the lake in the middle of the resort or getting his face slapped by a naked woman who thought he was getting too close in both senses of the term. This sequence also features a guitar player/singer who’s called in the movie — and credited — “Turk Thrust” (which sounds like a Gay porn star’s pseudonym!) but is really future director Bryan Forbes, possibly already looking forward to duplicating Blake Edwards’ successful career change from in front of to behind the camera.

The death toll mounts to eight people, four of them on Ballon’s payroll (including a gardener who’s killed just after trying to blackmail his boss) and four of them killed in a massive pub crawl by a mysterious assassin who’s out to get Clouseau and is picking off people in each bar Clouseau and Maria visit as a sort of collateral damage — and who turns out to be Commissioner Dreyfus, foreshadowing the later evolution of his character from a straight-man foil for Sellers to a Blofeldian super-villain driven so crazy by Clouseau’s antics that he’s out to conquer the world. One thing I hadn’t noticed before — and probably wouldn’t have this time if Edwards and Blatty hadn’t named Clouseau’s partner (Graham Stark) “Hercule” — is that Clouseau is quite obviously a parody of Agatha Christie’s famous detective Hercule Poirot (the scenes in which he starts rattling off the facts of the case, one by one, and comes up with an especially far-fetched conclusion about them, are the most obviously “Christie-an” parts of this film).

According to the commentators, a lot of the funniest parts of the film were ad-libs — when Clouseau says one of the murders was committed in “a rit of fealous jage” instead of “a fit of jealous rage,” apparently Peter Sellers had simply blown his line, but Edwards noticed the technicians on the set laughing at it and decided to keep it in the final cut — and it was also an accident when Clouseau got his finger caught in a globe and said, “I’ve got Africa all over my hand!” Supposedly the marvelous scene in which Clouseau and Hercule try to synchronize their watches was also improvised — though somehow it’s a bit hard to believe all these stories; the supposed mistakes and improvisations fit so neatly into the context, either they were actually planned or Edwards and Blatty did some quick on-the-fly rewriting to fit them in.

In any case, A Shot in the Dark was the movie that really put both Inspector Clouseau and Peter Sellers’ performance as him on the cinematic map — even though Sellers didn’t play the part again for 11 years (until the 1975 production The Return of the Pink Panther) and in the meantime there’d been another film with the character, Inspector Clouseau (1968), in which Alan Arkin played him and it was a box-office flop. Sellers would make two more in the series before his death in 1980, The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976) and Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978), and after Sellers’ death Blake Edwards assembled a mishmash of outtakes and new footage with three other actors (Lucca Mezzofanti, Daniel Peacock and Daniel Farrell) as Clouseau, released it as Trail of the Pink Panther (1982), and got hit with a lawsuit from Sellers’ widow, Lynne Frederick, whereupon another movie in the cycle, Curse of the Pink Panther, was released, also with Blake Edwards directing and Roger Moore playing Clouseau (with David Niven reprising his jewel-thief role from the original Pink Panther almost two decades later, but so weakened from illness that celebrity impersonator Rich Little dubbed his lines!), following which the series was laid to a welcome rest until Steve Martin, the King of Remakes, got to play Clouseau in The Pink Panther (2006) and The Pink Panther 2 (2009).

A Shot in the Dark and the subsequent Arkin film are the only ones in the cycle that don’t have the words “Pink Panther” in their titles or use the famous animated character of the Pink Panther in their title sequences — though the titles for A Shot in the Dark are also a cartoon, and quite a clever one that actually got an audience ovation at the film’s original preview screening.