Sunday, November 28, 2004

The Pink Panther

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 November 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Being Peter Sellers)

Most of us have some large gaps in our movie-watching experience that stun our friends. At Thanksgiving this weekend, while playing the "Scene It" movie-trivia game, my brothers would routinely veto several questions before deciding on one, just to keep the field level; they'd likely be surprised to learn that prior to Saturday, the only Pink Panther movie I'd seen was the godawful Son of the Pink Panther.

These gaps are, in a way, nice to have. They mean that I can go into a screening of The Pink Panther at the age of 31 and enjoy a certain rush of discovery: Hey, this is the first time that Friz Freling character appeared; the first time that particular Henry Mancini theme played; etc. There is the risk of a film not living up to expectations, but (a) that is not the case here, and (b) one shouldn't judge a film (or any creative work) based on external pressures, but simply on what it is.

This is particularly useful during The Pink Panther, since I had absorbed a certain amount of knowledge of Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau and the series just by paying attention to pop culture over the course of my life. As with many popular characters, Clouseau's first appearance is somewhat different from how he's remembered; where the later movies would show Clouseau as basically a bumbling fool, here he is simply a fool in love. He has a beautiful wife whom he adores (Capucine), and is blind to her at-times obvious deceptions and infidelities. The familiar supporting cast is also absent; indeed, Sellers gets second billing in what is very much an ensemble cast.

The movie itself is structured as a classic farce; while the title refers to a beautiful jewel targeted by gentleman thief Sir Charles Lytton (David Niven), the diamond itself does not come into play until close to the end. Before then, the action mostly surrounds hiding one's lover from one's spouse, jealousies, and the like.

Co-writer/director Blake Edwards was in fine form here; though his reputation would diminish in later years (in part due to too many Panther sequels), this film is a reminder that he was, at his peak, easily one of Hollywood's greatest directors. Panther features one of cinema's greatest slow builds; the opening sequences could come out of straight caper films, and it's not until we see that the master thief's accomplice introduced as the wife of the inspector on the case that the playfulness of the film's credit sequence truly starts to assert itself. After that, the film does the opposite of what many less successful cop-and-robber comedies do, making each comic sequence more elaborate and funny. Far too often, the crime and plot push the jokes out of the way. This movie is happily back-loaded, though, with the last act featuring the sort of goofiness that the audience wasn't quite ready for at the start (gorilla suits, for crying out loud!).

Edwards has a nice cast to work with, although it is easy to see why Sellers's character became a franchise for United Artists. Claudia Cardinale as the owner of the jewel, for instance, isn't nearly as funny as she is beautiful. David Niven and a young Robert Wagner as father-and-son ne'er-do-wells initially unaware that the other ne'er does well, do their bits with aplomb and competence, respectively. It's only Capucine who is any match for Sellers, displaying a charisma to match her beauty that makes her charming despite how she misuses her poor husband.

I'm a latecomer to the films of Peter Sellers in general and the Panther films in particular. I don't regret it, though - if I had seen this while in my teens (or younger; plenty of folks brought their kids to the Brattle double-feature), I might not have recognized Edwards's craftmanship as I do now.

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