Saturday, June 17, 2017

THE PINK PANTHER FILM COLLECTION: Blu-ray (UA 1963-1982) Shout! Factory

I have a great affinity for British actors; from Albert Finney to Peter O’Toole and Anthony Hopkins, Cary Grant, Basil Rathbone and Roger Moore, Margaret Rutherford to Emma Thompson: point blank – the Brits just know how to train their talent. That a good many of their formidable stars (plus a girth of others it would take an entire review simply to list) have migrated into American pop culture, trickling into our subconscious to achieve hallowed, even beloved stature, marketed apart from the oft’ thinly-veneered fame and ‘flash-in-the-pan’ public notoriety for which any boob aspiring simply to hit the target as a ‘one hit wonder’ can undoubtedly achieve and equally stake a claim, speaks rather bluntly to the cause and rather diametrically to the sad state of today’s ‘talent’ on tap in Hollywood. While increasingly America – with Simon Cowell’s aid no less – has had to tout its ‘got talent’, the unimpeachable fact is Britain has never lost sight of this fact or advertised itself abroad otherwise. Had WWII not intervened in the natural evolution of their homegrown ventures it is a fairly safe bet London’s West End and film industry would have given Broadway and Hollywood a genuine run for their money.   
One of the nation’s most indelible imports remains Peter Sellers; an extraordinary chameleon, and, despite questionable health that dogged the most prolific part of his career, an utterly urbane bon vivant, whose mesmerizing sense of comic genius knew no bounds. Asked by a reporter in 1979, “I understand you’ve had some heart attacks . . .” Sellers was quick to interject with typical self-effacing charm, “Yes, but I plan to give them up. I'm down to two a day!” From the time he first gained international notoriety, playing virtually the entire populace of a fabulously fanciful Grand Fenwick dukedom in The Mouse That Roared (1959) right until his final appearance in the ferociously flubbed, Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu (1980) Sellers’ yen for convincingly – and with seeming effortless aplomb to morph into character(s), proved astonishing and humbling in tandem. Sellers once suggested, “As far as I am aware, I have no personality of my own whatsoever. I have no character to offer the public. When I look at myself I just see a person who strangely lacks what I consider to be the ingredients for a personality. If you asked me to play myself, I wouldn't know what to do.”
With all due respect to the late Mr. Sellers, his modesty herein precariously teeters along the border between grotesque understatement and absurd inaccuracy.  Peter Sellers was an original – period! Born to a pair of Brit Vaudevillians in 1925, Sellers learned the trade from the ground up; by the age of thirteen, already a talent contest winner. After a stint in the Royal Air Force, he became a popular attraction on England’s radio ‘Goon Show’; his segue into films, again, lending to the illusion of ease that was, in fact, the payoff for his Herculean investments of time and energies, honing his craft.  Described as something of a hopeless romantic (with the emphasis on ‘hopeless’) Sellers easily fell in and out of love at the drop of a hat; unhappily wed four times while proposing grand amour to actresses, Sophia Loren and Liza Minnelli – who discretely turned him down. Arguably, Sellers took the ‘booby’ prize when, after only an 11-day courtship, he married Swedish star, Britt Ekland on the advice of his psychic (who told him he would meet someone with the initials B.E. that would change his life). He might have first considered those initials equally applied to Blake Edwards – the director/creator of his soon-to-be most celebrated screen incarnation: Inspector Clouseau. Shortly after his first marriage, Sellers suffered a harrowing heart attack. Doctors had to revive him repeatedly. He barely survived.
In retrospect, I find it a somewhat painful experience to watch Peter Sellers reincarnated as his most famous fop, Inspector Jacques Clouseau of the Sûreté nationale in the movies that followed his eleven year hiatus from the franchise. With each subsequent installment Sellers looks distractingly more delicate and ailing. One sincerely wonders if a little less of his breakneck schedule would have extended his stay on this earth; his untimely passing at only age 54 causing Blake Edwards to posthumously speculate, “One always lived with the realization Peter could go at any time. He was a very courageous man who refused to let his heart problems interfere with his personal life.” The Clouseauian incarnation of Peter Sellers was not immediate. Indeed, the French accent he sports in The Pink Panther (1963) is quite different – more refined and cultured – than in subsequent films; Seller’s reinvention of Clouseau spurred by a chance encounter with a French concierge at his hotel who spoke in precisely this fractured dialect; surfacing for the first time in 1964’s A Shot in the Dark and forever thereafter unraveling into a more inarticulate blend of broken English and downright gibberish. Considered something of a ‘sequel’ to The Pink Panther, A Shot in the Dark was actually a Broadway farce starring Walter Matthau. The Mirisch Brothers, having taken their gamble on the first movie – and reaped the richly deserved benefits when no one, not even Walter Mirisch had faith in the project – were aiming high for another successful collaboration between Sellers and director, Blake Edward. Yet neither felt A Shot in the Dark was worthy of their time or efforts. Eventually, the pair lit upon the idea to rework the property, as Edwards would later suggest, “…to do another Clouseau;” the results, arguably, as memorable as the original movie. The overwhelming box office success of both The Pink Panther and A Shot in the Dark ought to have marked the start of the ‘Panther’ franchise. Instead, Sellers’ poor health and his commitment to various other projects, where be basically appeared in little more than cameos, forced Inspector Clouseau off the screen for the next eleven years.
Today, it seems rather absurd to think of anyone but Peter Sellers inhabiting this role. And yet, Sellers was not Blake Edwards’ first choice. Meanwhile, Walter Mirisch was rather unimpressed with Edwards’ decision to make The Pink Panther in the first place; a movie he regarded as a light and frothy ‘little comedy/caper’. But Mirisch had faith in Edwards as a director; just come off two startlingly different box office smash hits: Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and The Days of Wine and Roses (1962) – each, a testament to Edwards’ versatility. Still, and at least in hindsight, Edwards’ desire to cast Peter Ustinov as Clouseau seemed ill-fated as what followed it: the project moving ahead with Ava Gardner slated to co-star as Clouseau’s wife, Simone. Mercifully, Ustinov’s shaky commitment for the lead had already begun to show. Ultimately, Gardner would be the first to withdraw from the project for undisclosed reasons; Edwards, almost immediately coming up with the exotic Capucine (then, carrying on with Edwards’ agent, Charles K. Feldman). Capucine, born Germaine Lefebvre in Saint-Raphaël, Var, France, adopted her more exotic trademark (French for the Nasturtium flower) during her early days as a runway model where she met and became a lifelong friend of fellow model, Audrey Hepburn. Arriving in New York out of a self-professed ‘case of boredom’, Capucine immediately caught the attentions of John Wayne and Feldman at Manhattan’s fashionable le Pavilion. Wayne was married. Feldman was willing.
Circumspect about the power of her own beauty, Capucine once commented, “…men look at me like I am a suspicious-looking trunk, and they are customs agents.”  Despite her formidable presence and charm, Capucine’s movie career was short-lived. As her patrician Nefertiti-esque looks faded, she became increasingly morose and reclusive. On March 1990, in a state of utter despair, she leapt to her death from her eighth-floor apartment window in Lausanne, Switzerland. Edwards has since gone on record – and on the defensive – to explain that casting Capucine was not influenced by her relationship with Feldman, who likely would have championed the notion. And yet it does appear as though the director came to this decision after his own chance meeting with the exotic flower; later, semi-regretted when the actress’ personal demons intruded upon, and infrequently delayed his shoot. “She was a pain in the ass,” Edwards admits with a queer empathy, adding, “…but a sweet pain in the ass.”  He was less conciliatory towards Peter Ustinov, who basically bowed out of The Pink Panther just weeks before shooting was to commence. Unusual for Ustinov, ever the professional, his last minute withdrawal prompted The Mirisch Company to file a lawsuit. However, when The Pink Panther proved a runaway smash hit, Walter Mirisch was encouraged by his attorney to drop the suit, as no ‘damages’ could be proven from Ustinov’s withdrawal.
Despite his success in Britain, Peter Sellers was then very much a dark horse in Hollywood. Edwards had only seen him in one movie: 1959’s I’m All Right Jack, in a role that left him singularly unimpressed.  Reluctantly agreeing to meet the actor, Edwards quickly discovered a kindred spirit in Sellers; the two bonding immediately over their mutual love and appreciation for the great comedians of the silent era. Concurring The Pink Panther could use more ‘sight gags’, Sellers and Edward endeavored to ‘find’ Clouseau together, and thus, began inserting moments of slapstick into the rather straight forward screenplay Edwards had co-authored with Maurice Richlin; Sellers seizing the proverbial brass ring of inspiration and running with it, adding even more bits with Edwards approval and admiration for his new star. In hindsight, The Pink Panther is perhaps the most delightfully obtuse sleuth/comedy caper ever conceived for the movies. Certainly, it is one of the most visually elegant, what with Philip H. Lathrop’s lush cinematography the veritable icing on an already well-frosted edifice of European sophistication, and, Henry Mancini’s sexy, sax-driven underscore, capped off by Fran Jeffries’ thoroughly feline rendition of ‘Meglio Strasera’. Asked to quantify his reasons for literally stopping the plot to feature Jeffries’ song, Edwards would later admit, “I don’t know…it just felt right.” And indeed, it is; the song adding flavor and finesse to the exotic Cortina backdrop with the hour-glass shaped Jeffries in her stylish stretch pants, hip-swiveling to an adoring crowd and Sellers’ infrequent missteps as she engages him in her conga line.
Apart from Sellers immense contributions, The Pink Panther is ably abetted by David Niven and Robert Wagner, as jewel thieves Sir Charles Lytton and his nephew, George respectively. When The Pink Panther was initially cast with Ustinov as Clouseau, it was Niven’s picture. But with Sellers in the driver’s seat this balance of power shifted – happily so, and, with Niven, ever the suave bon vivant, illustrating no malice for having been unexpectedly relegated to co-starring status. Indeed, Niven’s name remains the headliner in the credits. Contracting the fledgling DePatie-Freleng animation studios to create a cartoon ‘main title’ sequence for the picture would prove yet another windfall for all concerned when the stylishly pantomimed ‘pink panther’ became an iconic character all his own; launching a lucrative series of short-subjects and, eventually, a Saturday morning kiddie cartoon franchise. The panther would also resurface decades later as the spokesman for Owens Corning ‘pink’ insulation. The Edwards/Richlin screenplay is a bit episodic, but its juxtaposition of three separate narratives gradually melding together is bonded in the interim by the brilliant eclecticism of the cast. As example: there really is no good reason why Simone Clouseau (Capucine) ought to have married a police inspector when her heart is obviously invested in a life of crime, already wed, as it were, to the devices and seductions of Sir Charles (David Niven). Nevertheless, The Pink Panther is an elegant farce – period: its claptrap of calamity brought on by a very ribald tongue-in-cheek and increasingly frantic race to possess the most fabulous diamond in the world.
The plot is set into motion with a ‘Once Upon a Time’ prologue in some undisclosed Far East principality; the reigning Maharaja bequeathing a fabulous ‘pink’ gemstone to his young daughter, Princess Dahla (played by an undisclosed child actress in this sequence, immediately replaced by Claudia Cardinale as a sinfully attractive adult woman following the main titles). Aside: Cardinale, a major Italian star, was virtually unknown in America and spoke very little English, thus necessitating her imperceptible dubbing by Canadian actress, Gale Garnett. The cartoon main titles that follow this brief opener are a tour de force; the ‘pink panther’, mischievous and pursued by both the police and a jewel thief who continuously foil his frisky plans. We fast track some twenty years into the future: to Rome, where a mysterious cat burglar is carrying off his latest heist. Pursued by the police, an undisclosed figure nicknamed ‘the Phantom’, makes off with a safe-full of priceless jewels, destroying the rope he has used to lower himself from a third story window by turning it into a lit fuse. We cut to Hollywood, where con artist George Lytton (Robert Wagner) fakes a college graduation photo to present to the uncle who has paid for his formal education – such as it is or, in fact, isn’t. Very little of The Pink Panther was actually shot in America; Edwards taking advantage of various locations in France and Italy, also Euro-tax credits, and finally, Rome’s famed Cinecittà Studios to shoot virtually all of his interiors.
The plot thickens as the action migrates to Cortina, where George’s uncle, Sir Charles is keeping tabs on Princess Dahla, ever shadowed by her loyal bodyguard, Saloud (James Lanphier). Edwards whets out appetites just enough for the plot to follow while performing a miraculous trot around the globe – next to Paris, where a mysterious woman is seen fleeing the police after exchanging a package with her ‘fence’ on the banks of the Seine. (Aside: the officer in hot pursuit is actually the movie’s cinematographer, Philip Lathrope; a last minute bit of casting when the actor hired for this bit part failed to show up on the day of shooting). The mystery woman manages an audacious escape, performing a quick change in an elevator and eventually revealing herself to be none other than Simone Clouseau (Capucine); the wife of Chief Inspector, Jacques Clouseau (Peter Sellers). Jacques ineptitude in practically all things makes him a delicious figure of fun, flanked by his marginally savvier cohort, Tucker (Colin Gordon), a particularly faithful sidekick. Unable to fathom his own wife as the ‘panther’s’ accomplice, Jacques focuses his quiet observations on Sir Charles Lytton (David Niven). Meanwhile, Princess Dahla attends several fashionable parties given in her honor by nattering socialite, Angela Dunning (Brenda De Banzie).
Sir Charles is in hot pursuit of the Princess, staging a broad daylight kidnapping of her beloved dog and even more elaborate chase for the man he has paid off to steal it, ending with a feigned sprained ankle to ingratiate himself into Dahla’s inner circle of friends. The ruse played out, Dahla briefly entertains Charles’ sly seduction. Alas, apart from a fleeting evening of inebriated romance that ends with Sir Charles putting the passed out Princess to bed, Dahla is hardly fooled by this aging boulevardier. Nevertheless, she is amused by Charles’ advances, up to a point and finds his company moderately enjoyable and diverting. Charles is reunited with George whom he quickly discovers is as big a scam artist as himself. George has his heart set on a playful flagrante delicto with Simone, whom Sir Charles has already seduced. George pursues Simone relentlessly and with hilarious consequences. Invited to a costume party at the Princess’ villa in Rome, Charles and George, unaware of each other’s intentions, separately set out to steal the ‘pink panther’ diamond, only to discover the fabulous jewel already missing from Dahla’s safe. Jacques discovers both men at the crime scene. Alas, they escape incarceration during the resultant confusion when the planned fireworks display is accidentally set off inside the villa. A frantic car chase through the streets of Rome ensues and after all the vehicles collide, Sir Charles and George are arrested.
Simone appeals to the Princess to drop the charges against Sir Charles. He endeavored to call off the heist rather than go through with it. Dahla reveals to Simone she staged the robbery at her villa herself to avoid surrendering the panther to the new government of her homeland after the World Court has ruled in their favor. Smitten with Charles’ nobility Dahla plots to spare him a prison sentence. At trial, the defense unexpectedly calls Clouseau to testify. The barrister (John Le Mesurier) lays out a series of loaded questions to cast aspersions on Clouseau reputation. Perhaps he is the jewel thief all along. Shaken by this absurd allegation, Clouseau attempts to blot his forehead with a handkerchief, startled to discover the thief’s gloved calling card and the pink panther neatly tucked inside his pocket. Fainting dead away, Clouseau awakens to discover he is being taken to prison, mobbed by a throng of enamored women. From a distance, Simone expresses regret for Jacques’ incarceration. But Charles, already plotting his next big heist with George in South Africa, reassures her Clouseau will be exonerated just as soon as the Phantom strikes again. As the police take Clouseau to jail, the Roman officers flanking him express their envy and admiration, begging to know how he committed these seemingly impossible and elaborate crimes single-handed. Dizzy with his newfound fame, Clouseau replies, "Well, you know…it wasn't easy."
The Pink Panther was a runaway hit almost immediately, audiences flocking to enjoy Blake Edwards’ erudite and glossy comedic gem. Together with the release of Dr. Strangelove, The Pink Panther launched Peter Sellers as an international star; a celebrity ranking catapulted into near mania with the release of A Shot in the Dark in 1964. Never intended as a sequel, A Shot in the Dark is really the beginning of the Clouseau persona as it would come to be known in all subsequent installments to this franchise: Sellers manic bumbling virtually unchanged, and even further embellished, but his accent, grotesquely mangled by idiosyncratic gibberish. The picture is also noteworthy for the first appearances of long-suffering co-stars, Herbert Lom and Burt Kwouk; both, yet to become main staples as Clouseau’s psychologically unstable boss, Commissioner Dreyfus and ever-devoted man servant, Cato respectively. Adapted from Harry Kurnitz’s stage play, itself an adaptation of the French stagecraft, L'Idiote by Marcel Achard, A Shot in the Dark was assembled with breakneck speed – if not ease – and put into theaters literally months after The Pink Panther.
Although Peter Sellers’ name was immediately attached to A Shot in the Dark, his verve was distilled by a genuine dislike for the Alec Coppel/Norman Krasna screenplay and the Mirisch Co.’s decision to hire Anatole Litvak to direct. Sellers asked for Blake Edwards instead. But Edward was as unimpressed, unless the plot could be heavily rewritten and embellished as ‘a Clouseau’. Ironic for the follow-up, the cartoon ‘main titles’ for A Shot in the Dark do not feature the iconic ‘panther’, but rather, ‘the inspector’ – a Sellers-esque Clouseauian incarnation in hot pursuit of a three-headed assailant that DePatie-Freleng would later transform into their own lucrative franchise of cartoon short subjects made between 1965 and 1969, also incorporating a few bars of Henry Mancini’s ‘theme’ from A Shot in the Dark.  Granted permission to rework, and in most cases, thoroughly rewrite the screenplay, Edward engaged Sellers to help him improvise A Shot in the Dark’s comic scenes. Alas, Sellers and Edwards did not see eye to eye on practically every detail. Where Edwards had relented – even, expressing gratitude for Sellers’ unique ability to ‘invent’ bits of business that endowed their first collaborative effort with sparks of commercially sound genius - herein he increasingly grew to resent Sellers’ inferences in his vision for the picture, knowing more about the character and the making of this movie than presumably Edwards. At the end of shooting, Sellers and Edwards were barely on speaking terms; each, vowing never again to work for the other. Four years later, however, they would iron out a détente of sorts, enough to collaborate on The Party (1968), and three more installments in The Pink Panther franchise.
A Shot in the Dark begins in earnest with a pre-title sequence, Fran Jeffries (this time heard, rather than seen) warbling Mancini’s angst-ridden ‘Shadows of Paris’ (lyrics by Robert Wells) as we follow the mysterious comings and goings of various individuals skulking about the moonlit rooms of a chateau; illicit lovers locked in each other’s arms, and then, a fatal gunshot piercing the stillness of the night. After the titles, Clouseau is summoned to the estate by millionaire, Benjamin Ballon (George Sanders) to investigate the murder of his chauffeur, Miguel Ostos, having an affair with one of the house maids, Maria Gambrelli (Elke Sommer). It seems Maria broke off their affair. Ostos attacked her…and then…hmmm.  While Maria is discovered over her former lover’s body with a smoking pistol in her hand, she claims no first-hand knowledge of the murder, having been knocked unconscious. While there is little to suggest someone else as the killer, Clouseau is devoted to proving otherwise because of his own immediate infatuation with Maria.
At first unaware the bungler has been mistakenly assigned to this high-profile case, Commissioner Dreyfus has Clouseau reassigned and personally takes charge of the Ballon criminal investigation. Dreyfus has Maria arrested on suspicion of murder. Meanwhile, dejected, Clouseau retires to his flat, awakened in the wee hours by an apparent attempt on his life from a Chinese assassin. However, when the telephone rings, this mano a mano struggle suddenly ceases and we learn Clouseau’s assailant is actually his noble valet, Kato (Burt Kwouk). Miraculously, Clouseau is reinstated to the Ballon case. His first bit of business is to have Maria released from prison. Clouseau suspects Maria is shielding the real killer from prosecution and equally begins to formulate new evidence Ballon is the murderer; perhaps, also in love with his upstairs maid. From here, Clouseau becomes embroiled in a string of murders on the estate; the household staffs dropping like flies while he refuses to accept the evidence repeatedly pointing to Maria as the killer. Humiliated by Clouseau’s incompetence, Commissioner Dreyfus is nevertheless unable to have him removed from the case because of Ballon’s political influences. Frazzled by Clouseau’s ridiculousness, Dreyfus suffers a series of nervous breakdowns. Determined to put an end to Clouseau’s craziness by actually killing Clouseau, Dreyfus instead manages to accidentally murder several innocent bystanders, thus causing more notoriety to swirl around the case.
Now, Clouseau gathers his ‘unusual suspects’ in Ballon’s great hall in a ridiculous bid to flush out the killer. Miraculously, the wile works – even more spectacularly than planned when it is revealed to all Ballon, his wife, Dominique (Tracy Reed), and three additional members of their staff are equally guilty; each, having murdered at least one of the earlier victims to conceal their crimes of passion and subsequent blackmail efforts. As Clouseau initially suspected, only Maria is innocent. Exposed in their diabolical plotting the killers are afforded an escape when the room goes dark; Ballon and his entourage piling into Clouseau’s waiting car and driving off. Too late they realize a bomb on board, planted by Dreyfus to kill Clouseau. Instead, the device is detonated, killing the killers. Foiled in his madness, Dreyfus is carted off to prison utterly insane and Clouseau and Maria embrace: their moment together foiled by Kato launching into his latest ‘sneak attack’.
A Shot in the Dark may not be as globe-trotting glamorous as The Pink Panther (truly, its sets are intermittently and rather woefully transparent), but it is nevertheless enjoyably effervescent and farcical. Owing partly to the professional rift between Sellers and Edward, but also due to Sellers’ failing health, the two would not collaborate on another ‘Pink Panther movie for the next eleven years. Four years after A Shot in the Dark the Mirisch Company endeavored to relaunch the franchise with a reboot – Inspector Clouseau (1968), starring Alan Arkin as the infamous Inspector. Although Edwards refused to direct it, he did collaborate on the screenplay. For better or worse, it was not a success and, at least in hindsight, appeared to put a period to the franchise. But then, in 1975, Edwards and Sellers were ready to patch up their differences and embark upon another ‘panther’ movie together. Even as early as 1970, Edwards had drafted a 20 page outline for The Return of The Pink Panther (1975) that producer, Walter Mirisch absolutely loved. The problem was thus; first, that Peter Sellers had been out of circulation due to health issues for quite some time and second, Edwards’ cache as an ‘A’ list director had gone into steep decline. Henceforth, United Artists refused, either to fund the project or arrange for its distribution.  In an industry increasingly predicated on the art of the deal, Edwards found a kindred spirit in indie Brit producer, Lew Grade, who agreed to fund two movies in exchange for Edwards’ wife, Julie Andrews appearing in a TV special for him.
The first of this two picture deal, The Tamarind Seed turned a tidy profit, but soured for Grade when he claimed his share agreement with Edwards and Andrews deprived him of sufficient payback. Grade tried to buy Edwards out of his contractually obligated ‘second’ picture, defeating Edwards’s plans to shoot Rachel and the Stranger in Canada. Instead, Grade suggested ‘another Pink Panther’, provided Peter Sellers’ commitment could be arranged up front. The wheeling and dealing continued as UA relented to allow Grade to make The Return of the Pink Panther in exchange for world-wide distribution and a share of the profits. Although Grade offered UA full partnership on this deal it was refused in nervous anticipation the picture could – and would likely be a flop. Henceforth, Grade would retain full rights on ‘The Return’.  As DePatie-Freleng were overwhelmed with commitments to other cartoon projects for television, Richard Williams, who would later serve as animation director on Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) worked on the animated main titles and closing credits for both this picture and The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976), with an assist from Ken Harris and Art Babbitt.
The Return of The Pink Panther is arguably the last truly great installment in the franchise, not the least for Geoffrey Unsworth’s moody and evocative cinematography; a ‘return’ not only of principle cast, but to form, content and the stylish accoutrements first established in the original movie. The tone of the piece is less flashy and more focused on sight gags. Despite Sellers looking considerably older and more fragile his performance suffers not one iota. The plot, co-authored by Frank Waldman and Edwards sets its premise in the fictional principality of Lugash where the fabled Pink Panther diamond is once more stolen by the mysterious ‘phantom’, having left his white-gloved calling card behind. Knowing of only one man who could possibly restore this fabulous gemstone to his archives, the Shah of Lugash requests Inspector Clouseau of the Sûreté. Temporarily demoted to beat cop by his boss, Chief Inspector Charles Dreyfus is forced to bend to the will of the French government and employ Clouseau to get the diamond back. Clouseau is overjoyed to be ‘back in service’, casually taking the phone call for his new assignment as he wards off yet another faux ‘attack’ from Kato. Examining the crime scene inside Lugash’s national museum, Clouseau manages to destroy several priceless antiquities before concluding the glove implicates Sir Charles Lytton (this time played by Christopher Plummer). After several catastrophic mishaps that nearly topple Lytton’s manor house in Nice, Clouseau begins to suspect another as yet unidentified assassin is plotting to murder him. Clouseau trails Sir Charles' wife, Lady Claudine (Catherine Schell) to a resort hotel in Gstaad and typically manages to wreck everything in sight, this time with the aid of an overly powerful vacuum cleaner.
The wrinkle? Sir Charles is innocent of the crime; retired and sincerely concerned someone is trying to implicate him in this new round of jewel robberies. Arriving in Lugash to clear his name, an attempt is made of Sir Charles’ life before being whisked away by the secret police with the complicity of his long-time associate, the ‘Fat Man’ (Eric Pohlmann). Managing a daring escape, Sir Charles returns to his hotel suite, only to discover Police Colonel Sharki (Peter Arne) waiting for him. Feigning cooperation, Sir Charles cannot conceal his reaction when museum surveillance tapes clearly identify Claudine in disguise stealing the diamond. Skirting around another insidious plot propped up by the Fat Man and his treacherous minion, Pepi (Graham Stark), Sir Charles departs Lugash. He is pursued by Sharki, who still believes Sir Charles is guilty. Still in Gstaad, Clouseau receives a cryptic phone call, presumably from Dreyfus, ordering him to arrest Claudine. But when Clouseau telephones back to clarify these instructions he is informed Dreyfus has been on vacation for some time. Now, Sir Charles confronts his wife. Claudine admits she committed the infamous heist to spice up their lives and Sharki barges in, plotting to murder them both and reclaim the diamond. Instead, Clouseau bursts into the room unannounced and Dreyfus – the mysterious assassin who has been trying to do away with Clouseau from the start, instead accidently murders Sharki. Having once more recovered the Pink Panther, Clouseau is promoted to Chief Inspector.  Sir Charles decides to resume his former career as a jewel thief with Claudine’s fate left open-ended. A change of scenery: to a Japanese restaurant where Kato unexpectedly attacks Clouseau, triggering a massive brawl. We learn of Dreyfus’ fate: gone completely mad, straitjacketed and committed to an asylum, vowing bloody revenge on Clouseau.
The Return of The Pink Panther may not be a ‘great’ installment in the franchise, but it remains an exceedingly pleasant one nonetheless. The absence of a decade illustrates that both Edwards and Sellers have lost none of their collaborative verve for slapstick comedy and, in fact, the picture proves most unaffectedly satisfying when it tickles our funny bone. The plot is ludicrous, but the characterizations are genuine; enough to sustain the impossible and add more than a drop of merriment to these proceedings. Unexpectedly, at least as far as executive logic inside UA was concerned, The Return of the Pink Panther was a hit, prompting an immediate sequel in the works. Alas, The Pink Panther Strikes Again is one of the least engaging and, in hindsight, fairly insincere ‘rush jobs’ to capitalize on the reputation of the franchise as well as its predecessor’s success. ‘Strikes Again’ picks up precisely where ‘Return’ left off. In the interim, Blake Edwards had intended to launch a Pink Panther TV series, the plot for ‘Strikes Again reworked from this concept. Ironically, the machinations of its plot, once again co-written by Edwards and Waldman, have absolutely nothing to do with the famed diamond. If ‘Return’s’ plot was superficial at best, ‘Strikes Again’s’ is practically nonexistent to a fault. Due to Sellers increasing fragility, stunt double Joe Dunne was hired to perform virtually all of the more strenuous ‘action sequences’. There are many and Dunne’s complicity – despite his uncanny resemblance to Sellers, both in deportment and mannerisms, is rather transparent on more than one occasion.
The Pink Panther Strikes Again is a real stylistic mash-up, jettison of glamour and, ironically, a good deal of laughter too. By now, director and star were barely on speaking terms; Edwards possessing a modicum of empathy for Peter Sellers whose mental and physical acuity had so horrendously deteriorated, Edwards would later surmise, “If you went to an asylum and you described the first inmate you saw, that's what Peter had become. He was certifiable.” To liven up the movie, Edwards employed Julie Andrews to dub for the female-impersonator Ainsley Jarvis (Michael Robbins). In retrospect, the nightclub sequences featuring Jarvis’ echo those Edwards and Andrews would later create magic together in the infinitely more successful, Victor Victoria (1982). Initially, the part of Russian assassin, Olga Bariosova was cast with Maud Adams. But Edwards was so displeased with her performance she was almost immediately replaced with Lesley-Anne Down; herself, a surrogate when Edwards’ second choice for the role – Nicola Pagett – proved unavailable. The picture also features Tom Jones warbling the Oscar-nominated, ‘Come to Me’ and Omar Sharif, uncredited as ‘the Egyptian assassin.
There is a fine line of distinction between ‘homage’ and ‘rip-off’ and The Pink Panther Strikes Again crosses it more than once, with shameless spoofs of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Batman, King Kong, The Sound of Music, Dracula AD 1972, Singin' in the Rain, Steamboat Bill Jr. and Sweet Charity. There is even an unapologetic cheat of the Novocain/tooth-pulling sequence in Bob Hope’s memorable comedy, The Paleface (1948). While one may argue the case for imitation being the cheapest form of flattery, this did not impress French comic book writer, René Goscinny, who felt compelled to sue Edwards for plagiarism, citing an unusual amount of similarities between the film’s screenplay and ‘Le Maître du Monde’; a script he had submitted to Sellers in 1975. With Goscinny’s untimely passing in 1977 this suit was quietly dismissed. After assembling a 124 min. rough cut, Edwards elected to pare down the final edit to 103 min. incurring Peter Sellers extreme displeasure; enough for him to openly chastise his director for ‘misusing’ his talents; an impasse marginally remedied by creating a co-creative credit for their subsequent – and final – collaboration, Revenge Of The Pink Panther (1978).
The plot begins at a psychiatric hospital where Dreyfus is almost entirely rehabilitated of his obsession to murder Jacques Clouseau. Alas, on the day of his planned release, Clouseau arrives to speak on Dreyfus’ behalf, driving him insane once more. Carted off to his cell, Dreyfus promptly escapes and makes another attempt on Clouseau’s life by planting a bomb in his apartment. While Cato is injured and the domicile virtually destroyed, Clouseau is unharmed.  Now, Dreyfus enlists the dregs of London’s seedy underworld in his latest fiendish plot to do away with his nemesis. He kidnaps nuclear physicist, Professor Hugo Fassbender (Richard Vernon) and his daughter, Margo (Briony McRoberts), forcing the professor to build the ultimate ‘doomsday weapon’ in exchange for his daughter’s safety. Clouseau’s investigation of Fassbender’s disappearance leads to the total destruction of virtually anything he touches.  Ineptly, he interrogates Jarvis, the professor’s cross-dressing butler, resulting in Jarvis’ murder by the real kidnappers to keep him silent. Acting on a hunch, Clouseau resurfaces at Oktoberfest in Munich. Meanwhile, Dreyfus employs Fassbender's diabolical weapon to literally dissolve the U.N. in New York, holding the world leaders hostage under threat of total annihilation, including the President of the United States and his Secretary of State, hoping to take out a world-wide contract on Clouseau. Instead, many of these nations secretly instruct their operatives to kill all the other assassins while biding their time to gain Dreyfus’ favor. As a result, Clouseau manages to escape liquidation; the assassins, picking off one another except for the Egyptian and Russian operatives.
The Egyptian assassin (Omar Sharif) inadvertently kills one of Dreyfus' henchmen, mistaking him for Clouseau, but is then seduced by Russia’s Olga Bariosova who makes the same mistake. When the real Clouseau turns up he is perplexed by Olga's affections, unearthing Dreyfus’ secret location in Bavaria. Dreyfus is elated at Clouseau's apparent demise, but suffers from a toothache allowing Clouseau, disguised as a dentist, to sneaks into his hidden fortress unrecognized. Now, Clouseau proceeds to intoxicate Dreyfus with nitrous oxide. Alas, realizing this deception Dreyfus plots to destroy England with Fassbender’s doomsday device. Instead, Clouseau foils these plans by employing a medieval catapult to launch him atop the device. Malfunctioning in the extreme, the doomsday weapon destroys both the castle and Dreyfus who, in a state of absolute despair, plays a fractured rendition of ‘Tiptoe Through the Tulips’ on a pipe organ before being wiped out by his own wicked plans. Back in Paris, Clouseau is reunited with Olga. But their tryst is twice foiled: first, by Clouseau’s idiotic inability to slip out of his own clothes, and then, by Cato, plotting another faux attack to test Clouseau’s agility. Clouseau, Olga and Cato are forcibly ejected from Clouseau’s reclining bed and into the Seine. The movie ends with Clouseau resurfacing and swimming for shore as a cartoon caricature of the pink panther, morphed into Jaws, is seen pursuing him.  
Revenge of The Pink Panther is frankly, an embarrassment to both Sellers’ and Edwards’ collaborative verve and such a sour note to conclude their alliance as master and mate of the same double-edged caricature. Clouseau is so grotesquely distilled into rank caricature herein there is virtually nothing left of the lovably bumbling bon vivant we first encountered in the original movie. The farcical elements that so elegantly tapered into refined comedy, kept in tandem with the plot, herein has completely taken over and to the point where nothing is delightful or funny but instead, inordinately idiotic and overdone with a twinge of sadism. Edwards and Sellers could not have more completely wrecked the memory of their illustrious creation had they chosen to blindly spill turpentine on the original camera negative and set it afire. As if to rub salt into an already festering wound, UA and Blake Edwards would make yet another trip to the well, ironically a full eighteen months after Peter Seller’s untimely passing. Trail of The Pink Panther (1982) has to be one of the most insidious and absurd cases of grave-robbing on record; the picture cobbled together from outtakes of Peter Sellers’ other Clouseauian performances and ‘hosted’ by David Niven who, suffering from ALS, had to be dubbed by impressionist, Rich Little in post-production.
Despite having been killed in ‘Revenge’, Herbert Lom resurfaced too, accompanied by a host of cameos, including Graham Stark, Burt Kwouk and Capucine. From archival footage it was also possible to glean snippets and sound bites from Robert Wagner, Julie Andrews, and, Claudia Cardinale. The thimble of a plot involves an overzealous reporter, Marie Jouvet (Joanna Lumley) in a search for Clouseau; gone missing at the start of the picture. Upon its release, critics savaged Trail of The Pink Panther and for good reason. Despite Edwards dedication to Sellers as ‘the one and only Clouseau', the actor’s fourth wife, Lynne Frederick sued UA for $3 million and actually won $1 million in damages; citing Sellers’ own veto power against using outtakes of any kind – a contractual obligation she argued was meant to extend beyond his death. Indeed, much of the footage included in ‘Trail’ comes from Edwards’ 3 hr. rough cut of his grand experiment to make ‘Strikes Again’ a road show picture en par with his own The Great Race (1965). When UA forced Edwards to pare down ‘Strikes Again’ to 124, and finally 103 minutes, all of this shelved footage was scheduled for re-insertion into ‘Revenge’; a decision vetoed by Sellers who began the process of crafting another Clouseau anew from scratch.   
Artistic haranguing aside, ‘Trail’s’ real problem stemmed from Sellers’ death and UA’s badly bungled quest to woo Dudley Moore into assuming the role of Clouseau in the never-to-be realized sequel, written by Sellers beforehand: Romance of the Pink Panther. Perhaps recalling how 1968’s first effort without Sellers, Inspector Clouseau, had miserably failed at the box office, Moore refused to commit to any homage unless Blake Edwards was onboard, and, only as a tribute to Sellers to officially cap off the franchise as Sellers had intended to retire from the role after ‘Romance’. Too bad UA’s premise for the new movie was to relaunch the series with Moore as its continuing star. After Arthur (1980) catapulted Dudley Moore to super stardom he absolutely refused to entertain any commitment to the Pink Panther franchise. Meanwhile, Edwards came up with the idea of formulating an almost Citizen Kane-like narrative, flagged together from outtakes from not one, but three of their previous collaborative efforts, citing an unusual amount of comedic material left on the cutting room floor from ‘Return’, ‘Strikes Again’ and ‘Revenge’. In what can only be described as a case of extreme short-sightedness, the newly amalgamated MGM/UA absolutely refused to pay ITC – the rights holder of indie-produced ‘Return’ – for the bulk of this ‘wasted’ footage, forcing Edwards to rethink his narrative and confining his use of outtakes mostly to snippets excised from ‘Strikes Again. The studio also slashed into Edwards’ original budget, hampering his ability to concoct another all-star glossy entertainment. In the end, Trail of the Pink Panther regrettably failed to live up to its potential as a fitting epitaph to Sellers’ legacy.  
Its plot once again focuses on yet another jewel heist of the infamous gemstone; Chief Inspector Clouseau called in to investigate the crime despite strenuous objections from Chief Inspector Dreyfus. Complicating matters this time is the Mafia, trailing Clouseau to London where he intends to interrogate Sir Charles (David Niven) and the ex-Mrs. Clouseau, Simone/now Mrs. Lytton (Capucine). Rather idiotically, even for Clouseau, he blows up his own car while endeavoring to fix a pop-out lighter. To throw off suspicion, Clouseau disguises himself in heavy bandages for the flight. This too creates ‘issues’; Clouseau finally arriving at Scotland Yard where he learns Libyan terrorists have marked him for death. What?!?! At his hotel, Clouseau has multiple run-ins with the front desk clerk (Harold Berens) while trying to retrieve a message from Dreyfus. On route to Lugash, Clouseau’s plane mysteriously disappears over the ocean, leaving TV reporter, Marie Jouvet in search of ‘the story’ from those who knew Clouseau best. The rest of ‘Trail’ is basically a badly mended series of flashbacks as Jouvet interviews familiar faces from better days in the Clouseauian adventures: Dreyfus, Hercule Lajoy, Cato Fong, Sir Charles and Simone.
These ‘interviews’ segue into extended outtakes from The Pink Panther, A Shot in the Dark, Return of the Pink Panther, The Pink Panther Strikes Again, and Revenge of the Pink Panther). The film also introduces Richard Mulligan as Clouseau’s father, who provides Jouvet with some insight into Clouseau’s childhood (the prepubescent Clouseau played by Lucca Mezzofanti, the adolescent, rather ineffectually by Daniel Peacock). Casting Peacock allows Edwards some leeway to indulge in a more involved ‘flashback’; the trail illustrating Clouseau’s young failed romance and near suicide; also, involving him in a botched detonation of a bridge as part of the French Résistance during WWII. Now, the intrepid Jouvet questions Mafia don, Bruno Langlois (Robert Loggia), all but implying Clouseau’s disappearance is his fault.  Unsatisfactorily, ‘Trail’ ends with Jouvet’s blind conjecture and televised speculations Clouseau has somehow survived the plane crash and made his way to the United States. We cut to a seaside cliff, presumably in California with Clouseau (shot from the back and played by John Taylor) staring blankly at the horizon as a seagull overhead defecates on his sleeve. The animated ‘panther’, wearing similar attire is revealed in place of Clouseau, opening his trench coat to showcase a montage of clips from the other movies in this franchise as this movie’s end credits roll.
There is no denying that over time, and definitely when ‘binge-watched’ chronologically The Pink Panther franchise is embarrassingly formulaic. What a joy it would have been to have Sellers’ Clouseau invested in some more original content along the way. Arguably, after A Shot in the Dark it’s all downhill for this infamous bumbler, his comic genius kept alive – just barely - in fits and sparks; the subsequent plots, hokey and rudimentary at best. The real problem with the franchise is that it never endeavored to expand or expound upon its initial premise; Blake Edwards and his collaborating screenwriter, Frank Waldman merely content to have Sellers don idiotic costumes and indulge in some truly absurd natural catastrophes along the way. Tragically, what was good – even great – in 1964 increasingly begins to appear threadbare and careworn, as regurgitation by the time of Revenge of the Pink Panther; excluding ‘Trail’, the absolute least entertaining of the lot. What the series might have become had Sellers been in better health and spirits, and, continued with it immediately after A Shot in the Dark (rather than disappearing for an eleven year hiatus, only to be reborn less funny, animated and/or inspired) we will never know.  I realize a lot of Peter Sellers fans, among whom I count myself, will think it sacrilege to suggest Sellers’ genius was on the wane – overtaken by his idiosyncratic and erratic behavior and self-inflated ego during these latter Clouseauian adventures. But one simply cannot help but notice the artistic strain between Sellers and Edwards as the franchise wears on and, more regrettably, gets stretched very thin.
It’s taken long enough to get The Pink Panther franchise in hi-def. The original movie was remastered for Blu-ray back in 2008 when MGM/Fox Home Video actually had a passion for such things. But then, like virtually all formats gone before it, the studio seemed to lose immediate interest in releasing any title not made prior to 2009! So, deep catalog was first, virtually ignored; then, unceremoniously farmed out to third party distribution with narrowly a care for remastering of any kind. A lot of mid-grade plunk from MGM/Fox with decade’s old transfers dumped on the market; a trend, since evolved as a way for the majors to ‘legitimize’ their own short-sighted attitude towards deep catalog classics they have neither the inclination nor interest to preserve.  Yoo-hoo, boys. Your reputations and your profits were not built on yesterday’s blockbuster. Were those the likes of a Louis B. Mayer or Darryl F. Zanuck were still alive to see this day. They would have mined their riches with style. But I digress.
The original Pink Panther looks fine. It’s still the same 2008 transfer we get herein from Shout! Factory, for the most part, meticulously preserved and remastered with a splashy color palette. Contrast is bang on perfect and grain is capably represented, albeit, with a hint of DNR applied to homogenize it. One caveat to consider: The Pink Panther was shot in Technirama – Technicolor’s utterly gorgeous 8-perf wide gauge film format. This Blu-ray has not been remastered from this element but a 35mm reduction print, presumably because the state of the original Technirama elements was not for salvaging…at least, not without a Herculean investment of time, effort and money. Nevertheless, what’s here is impressive if not ideal. Short-sightedness has prevailed for the audio. Despite sporting a memorable score by Henry Mancini, The Pink Panther was originally released in mono in theaters. We should have had the stereo stems to remix this movie to 5.1. Alas, no. Not all of the score – most regrettably, Fran Jeffries’ sultry rendition of Meglio Strasera – has survived. So, what we do get is a re-channeled 5.1 DTS revealing more readily the lack of spatial separation in SFX, dialogue and score.  
As this Pink Panther Film Collection represents the first time all of the UA titles considered ‘legitimate Clouseau’s’ are under one banner, Shout! Factory, the present custodians, has elected to add one new extra to this disc: An Italian Indian: a new interview with Claudia Cardinale. It’s rather short and not terribly prepossessing but otherwise good to have as an addendum to the other extras included on this disc; all of them carry-overs from the 2003 and 2008 reissues on DVD and Blu-ray from MGM/Fox Home Video: including Blake Edwards’ somewhat meandering and dull audio commentary, The Pink Panther Story, Behind the Feline: The Cartoon Phenomenon, A Conversation with Robert Wagner: Coolest Cat in Cortina, Diamonds: Beyond the Sparkle, and finally, Tip-Toe Life of a Cat Burglar: A Conversation with Former Jewel Thief Bill Mason. We also get a theatrical trailer and stills gallery.
Better news ahead: A Shot in the Dark derives from a brand new 4K scan of the original interpositive. It looks marvelous; richly saturated colors, velvety blacks, a modicum of film grain properly preserved and virtually no age-related artifacts. Many will recall Shout! Factory had announced this anthology for release back in March, but then pulled it from their schedule to acquire better elements and add new extra features. We have them to thank for due diligence here and a very fine presentation of this much beloved follow-up to the original movie. It looks almost as good as The Pink Panther with one or two brief instances where color seems a tad faded. Shout! has stocked this disc with two new extras: the featurette: Back to the Start - The Origin of the Pink Panther – an interview with Walter Mirisch, and an audio commentary from Jason Simos of the Peter Sellers Appreciation Society. Simos commentary is infinitely more pleasing and comprehensive than Edwards’ on the original movie and one sincerely wishes he had been allowed to contribute fresher thoughts to augment that disc too. Herein, we also get a vintage Dick Cavett Show with Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews and trailers and more photo galleries.
The Return of The Pink Panther appears to have been sourced from a surviving print. Colors are not as refined and fine detail gets lost under an unhealthily soft patina. But contrast is still fairly solid, even if film grain tends to look slightly exaggerated or, shall we say, far less refined than on the previous two discs. We get two new featurettes: Bit of Passion and Lots of Laughs: an interview with actress, Catherine Schell, and an interview with production designer, Peter Mullins, plus another superb commentary from Simos and a vintage 1975 featurette, more trailers, TV and radio spots and stills.  Image quality is better resolved on The Pink Panther Strikes Again; advertised as a new 4K scan of the interpositive and looking very good indeed: rich colors, gorgeous grain, solid contrast and superb textures throughout. Again, another Simos’ commentary, and again, two new featurettes: Panther Musings: with actress, Lesley-Anne Down, and, A Cut Above: Editing the Pink Panther Films with editor, Alan Jones; plus another vintage 1976 featurette and ‘rare’ teaser trailers, TV and radio spots and another stills gallery.
The last two installments: Revenge of The Pink Panther, and, Trail of The Pink Panther look about the roughest of the lot – especially ‘Trail whose original camera negative was cobbled together from B-negatives, trims and outtakes along with ‘newer’ footage.  In both cases, colors are dull to pallid and image quality teeters between passably sharp to downright fuzzy soft. Both movies get an audio commentary from William Patrick Maynard. Each is actually very good at contextualizing the folly and back story of the making of these final installments in the franchise. We also get trailers, TV and radio spots. As all of these movies were originally released in mono, what we get here is a 2.0 DTS effort that doesn’t strain the mix as originally intended. Nothing to write home or complain about. No harm/no fowl, I supposed. Parting thoughts and bottom line: The Pink Panther and all of its sequels is a very uneven and mixed bag – artistically speaking. The Blu-rays too offer these vintage flicks in alternating impressive and just middle-of-the-road visual/aural presentations. Shout! has gone the extra mile to add comprehensive extras. I have to sincerely admit, it is the extras that sold me on this release. Aside: I would have hoped for Shout! or Kino Lorber to release the original DePatie/Freleng classic Pink Panther cartoons in tandem with this anthology. Those great cartoons are sorely missed herein. Given Kino did a real bang-up job on releasing virtually every other franchise in the DePatie/Freleng archive, the absence of the slinky Pink Panther thus far remains a genuine mystery and a sincere disappointment yet to be remedied by this Blu-ray anthology. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
The Pink Panther – 5+
A Shot in the Dark – 5+
The Return of the Pink Panther – 4
The Pink Panther Strikes Again – 3
Revenge of the Pink Panther – 2.5
Trail of the Pink Panther – 2

VIDEO/AUDIO

The Pink Panther – 4.5
A Shot in the Dark – 4.5
The Return of the Pink Panther – 3.5
The Pink Panther Strikes Again – 3
Revenge of the Pink Panther – 3
Trail of the Pink Panther – 2.5

EXTRAS
5+

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