* * * * (out of four)
Seen 27 November 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Being Peter Sellers)
In my review of The Pink Panther, I mention that the first film in the series is somewhat atypical; it is in A Shot In The Dark that Clouseau truly emerges as a lucky dimwit who thinks himself brilliant, surrounded by classic supporting characters. In a way, The Pink Panther and A Shot In The Dark are like parents to the franchise that would later emerge; the later films appear to have features from both.
Which makes sense; though they share a star, co-writer/director, and main character, the movies do not have the normal hit/sequel life-cycle. They were shot back-to-back, but A Shot in the Dark was actually filmed first. The character of Clouseau, however, was created for The Pink Panther, and inserted into Shot when director Blake Edwards decided to mostly scrap the original play that the movie was based on. Then, when Panther was a hit, this film was rushed into release by United Artists mere months later, after sitting in the studio's vaults.
In retrospect, it's amazing that a studio would have sat on a movie as flat-out funny as this; how many awful and now forgotten films did UA release in 1963 instead? Still, comedy coming from violent death is perennially something that make studio executives nervous, and I imagine that being able to tie it to a hit was able to ease their minds.
The plot, here, serves as little more than a delivery device for gags. In a wealthy Paris home, the driver has been stabbed, and all evidence points to the maid, Maria (Elke Sommer). Inspector Jacques Clouseau (Sellers) is dispatched to investigate the murder, however, and is immediately smitten with her, and continues to free her with hopes that she will lead him to the real killer, despite all logic and a mounting body count. Clouseau's investigation makes his superior, Dreyfus (Herbert Lom) a nervous wreck.
There is no build-up from relatively normal to absurd, as there was in Panther; Clouseau is pratfalling and being a fool from minute one, without the pathos of his being cuckolded. The slapstick character of Kato (Burt Kwouk) literally jumps out of nowhere early on, testing Clouseau's reflexes. Recurring jokes are set up early and hit almost every time, especially as Edwards re-uses almost the exact same location, camera angle, and composition for scenes in which an undercover Clouseau is taken away in a paddy wagon.
With Sellers's Clouseau solidly in the center of the movie, all of the other characters fit in their orbits around him. Lom's twitching is brought on by Clouseau, Graham Stark engages in repartée as his partner Hercule Lajoy, George Sanders is alternate delighted and frustrated by the detective's idiocy (when you need an investigator to be a bumbling fool), it is perhaps best to observe it from a distance. And Ms. Sommer's Maria is a perfect match for Clouseau; she's perhaps a little bit dim herself, but not so much so as to be unattractive despite her beauty. There is a sort of childlike innocence to both her and Clouseau that makes them quite likable despite how dangerous it seems to be to be around them.
Though it is a far more absurd film than The Pink Panther, A Shot in the Dark is also more focused; it sees its job as extracting comedy from a specific silly character, and performs that duty constantly and consistently for its entire run-time. I'm almost loath to see the other Clouseau films, now, for how can they improve on this?