- The Washington Times - Friday, February 10, 2006

The appearance of a 2006 remake of “The Pink Panther,” the classic caper comedy of 1964 in which director Blake Edwards first showcased Peter Sellers as the maladroit French sleuth Jacques Clouseau, could sow confusion. Before this restart, which finds Steve Martin in the Clouseau role, nine features were made in what is known familiarly as the “Pink Panther” series.

The original film was followed promptly in 1964 by “A Shot in the Dark,” also directed by Mr. Edwards and starring Mr. Sellers. Four years later (1968) Alan Arkin appeared in a flop sequel titled “Inspector Clouseau,” directed by Bud Yorkin. No one regards it as a neglected gem.

In the middle 1970s, the Edwards-Sellers team reunited for a pair of very successful sequels, “The Return of the Pink Panther” (1975) and “The Pink Panther Strikes Again” (1976). Before the decade ended, they also had time for “Revenge of the Pink Panther” in 1978.

Mr. Sellers died in 1980, but Mr. Edwards persisted in making a pair of foolish patchwork sequels, “Trail of the Pink Panther” (1982) and “Curse of the Pink Panther” (1983), in which the late star was a ghostly presence in outtakes or old scenes.

Finally, Mr. Edwards directed Roberto Benigni in a 1993 reprise titled “Son of the Pink Panther.” A dozen years later, Shawn Levy has directed Steve Martin in the new “Pink Panther.”

So now we have 10 pictures, including the latest. Five starred the late Mr. Sellers and represent the series at its most popular and characteristic. Two purported to star him despite his demise and are best disregarded. One dud with Mr. Arkin. One whimsical update with Mr. Benigni. Enter Mr. Martin.

The Edwards-Sellers oeuvre

Now an eminent Hollywood retiree of 83, Blake Edwards originated the character of Inspector Clouseau in 1963 with a co-writer named Maurice Richlin. At the time, Mr. Edwards had a shiny new production deal with the Mirisch Corp., one of the suppliers for United Artists. They hoped to contrive a sophisticated romantic comedy about jewel thieves.

Clouseau (the name was an impish pun on the filmmaking oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau) was intended as a role for Peter Ustinov, logical enough as a comic adversary for David Niven, always top-billed as a suave master thief named Sir Charles Litton, who covets a precious diamond known as the Pink Panther.

In a commentary track appended to a new DVD release of the original movie, a resounding hit in the spring of 1964, Mr. Edwards doesn’t recall why Mr. Ustinov bowed out but does remember hitting it off with Mr. Ustinov’s replacement, Mr. Sellers.

“We discovered we were soul mates where silent comedy was concerned,” he says, also venturing to guess that they might have pioneered a novel kind of stooge in their bumbling detective. Clouseau also was conceived with a saving grace: He exemplified Mr. Edwards’ apocryphal 11th Commandment, “Thou shalt never give up.”

Whether inspired by fond recollections of Laurel and Hardy or Buster Keaton and Ernst Lubitsch or a proven formula for success — “Greed kept bringing us together,” Mr. Edwards quips at one point — the association produced back-to-back triumphs in 1964 and then again in 1975-76.

Their initial, serendipitous Clouseau sequel, “A Shot in the Dark,” was released just four months after the prototype. Talk about striking while the iron was hot. When the team revived Clouseau in the 1970s, “The Return of the Pink Panther” and “The Pink Panther Strikes Again” demonstrated that sequels could be not only happy afterthoughts but the source of professional comebacks.

Mr. Edwards recalls that “A Shot in the Dark” was contrived on short notice to save a Sellers project that was languishing: a movie version of a French theatrical whodunit that had been transposed to Broadway. The newly minted Clouseau was borrowed to rescue the source material of “Shot.” In the sequel, the inspector was promoted to principal character, and his oddly distinctive traits, behavioral and verbal, began to be engraved systematically on the screen.

The supporting cast also was fortified with some long-lasting sidekicks: Herbert Lom as the slow-burning superior, Chief Inspector Dreyfus, repeatedly thwarted in attempts to rid himself of an incompetent, maddening subordinate, and Burt Kwouk as the valet Cato, whose instructions to engage his employer in martial-arts contests reached a summit of domestic vandalism and slow-motion levitation fantasy in “Strikes Again.”

Mr. Edwards’ commentary seems to unfold in ruminative slow motion, perhaps reflecting a spontaneous melancholy because the speaker is confronted repeatedly with performers and colleagues who have died.

Nevertheless, some of the most rewarding elements of the track are wistful postmortem reflections. The subjects include composer Henry Mancini, leading lady Capucine, stunt coordinator Dick Crockett and cinematographer Philip Lathrop. One experience of this kind evidently was enough for Mr. Edwards; no commentary tracks are appended to the other movies.

The commentary is available individually with “The Pink Panther” or within a six-DVD set that also includes four of the sequels, though not “Return,” which has been reissued separately.

Both the director and the comedian were on rolls when their paths crossed in the early 1960s. Every confirmed moviegoer looked forward to “The Pink Panther” as a deluxe entertainment. The only quibble — Clouseau vanished for one longish stretch — was promptly corrected in “A Shot in the Dark.”

Henry Mancini’s scores and the animated title sequences (“Return” welcomed the series back with the most spectacular and hilarious example) established a jaunty, expectantly funny mood that Mr. Edwards usually was able to sustain. He had a remarkable aptitude for reproducing the effects of cartoon slapstick in live-action surroundings and felt comfortable with an expansive, widescreen frame and methodical, mock-leisurely buildups — giving plenty of set piece to behold and ample time to relish it.

A similar flair could be found two years ago in the Rowan Atkinson comedy “Johnny English,” directed by Peter Howitt. Mr. Atkinson’s character, a blundering spy, was a clever Clouseau variant — the first since Leslie Nielsen’s Frank Drebin in the “Naked Gun” farces.

If Clouseau was an original, he spawned some amusing counterparts. Unfortunately, neither imitation nor premeditated slapstick are strong points of the new “Pink Panther.”

Inspector Clouseau wasn’t necessarily Mr. Sellers’ best movie role. I like him as much or more in several other films: “I’m All Right Jack,” “The Naked Truth,” “Only Two Can Play,” “Lolita,” “What’s New Pussycat,” “After the Fox,” “The Party” and “I Love You, Alice B. Toklas.”

Nevertheless, there’s no denying that Clouseau was his most popular role, the one that invited him to become an archetype — the uptight, oblivious functionary whose dignity and vanity are sabotaged repeatedly by his ineptitude. Ultimately, everything he put his hands on malfunctioned, from doorknobs to billy clubs, water faucets to disguises.

The endearing aspect of this walking, talking jinx was his acute embarrassment. Clouseau’s initial gaffes were often trumped by his follow-up gaffes, the panicky reactions undertaken to conceal a conspicuous blunder. He was impossible to discourage, so in an absurd way, his persistence became an apologetic virtue.

Maybe he is not deserving of an 11th Commandment, but certainly he is a telling reminder of the plodder, stooge and klutz in all of us.

A“Pink Panther” filmography:

“The Pink Panther” (1964)

“A Shot in the Dark” (1964)

“Inspector Clouseau” (1968)

“The Return of the Pink Panther” (1975)

“The Pink Panther Strikes Again” (1976)

“Revenge of the Pink Panther” (1978)

“Trail of the Pink Panther” (1982)

“Curse of the Pink Panther” (1983)

“Son of the Pink Panther” (1993)

“The Pink Panther” (2006)

All titles directed by Blake Edwards with the exception of “Inspector Clouseau” (Bud Yorkin) and the 2006 remake of “The Pink Panther” (Shawn Levy)

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