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Pink Panther Film Collection, The (Blu-ray Review)

20 Jul, 2017 By: John Latchem



Street 6/27/17

… Starring Peter Sellers

Shout! Factory
Comedy

$99.99 Blu-ray (6 Discs)
Rated 'G'-‘PG’
Stars Peter Sellers, David Niven, Robert Wagner, Capucine, Claudia Cardinale, Herbert Lom, Graham Stark, André Maranne, Burt Kwouk, Elke Sommer, Christopher Plummer, Lesley-Anne Down, Dyan Cannon, Robert Loggia, Joanna Lumley.

Inspector Clouseau

Kino Lorber
Comedy
$29.95 Blu-ray
Rated ‘G’
Stars Alan Arkin.

 

 

Curse of the Pink Panther

Kino Lorber
Comedy
$29.95 Blu-ray
Rated ‘PG’
Stars Ted Wass, Herbert Lom, David Niven, Robert Wagner, Capucine, Robert Loggia, Joanna Lumley, Burt Kwouk, Harvey Korman.

 

 

Son of the Pink Panther

Kino Lorber
Comedy
$29.95 Blu-ray
Rated ‘PG’
Stars Roberto Benigni, Robert Davi, Debrah Farentino, Herbert Lom, Claudia Cardinale, Burt Kwouk.

 

 

Film buffs in general and “Pink Panther” fans in particular should be tickled pink that the entire run of writer-director Blake Edwards’ “Pink Panther” films are now available on Blu-ray, albeit through their simultaneous release through a couple of different sources.

The films, with some exceptions, are best known as comedy vehicles for the legendary Peter Sellers, playing the bumbling French Inspector Jacques Clouseau, who manages to find new ways to fail upward with each new film. But for as much entertainment value the films provide, equally fascinating is their history as a franchise, which would make modern cinephiles whining about “franchise fatigue” blush. In many ways, the multiple continuations of the “Pink Panther” films are perfect precursors to many of the fads of the home video era, where low-budget and/or direct-to-video sequels often rule the day.

The original “Panther” film series ended up comprising nine films before being rebooted with Steve Martin in 2006. The six that credit Sellers as Clouseau are included in Shout! Factory’s excellent The Pink Panther Film Collection Starring Peter Sellers, featuring a handful of new bonus material mixed in with legacy extras from earlier DVD releases. These films are the original The Pink Panther, A Shot in the Dark, The Return of the Pink Panther, The Pink Panther Strikes Again, Revenge of the Pink Panther and Trail of the Pink Panther. The Shout! Factory set also has a booklet written by film historian Jerry Beck, who details much of the history of the Edwards-Sellers collaboration and why Sellers is so remembered in the role.

The remaining three films, each of which stand out in their own way, are available as standalone Blu-rays from Kino Lorber — Inspector Clouseau, Curse of the Pink Panther and Son of the Pink Panther.

The first two films are generally regarded as the best and set the tone and style for what was to follow. In fact, the original The Pink Panther from 1963 (which before this had been the only one of the nine previously released on Blu-ray in North America) is striking for how much more it relies on its ensemble — and in fact it could be argued that Clouseau is a supporting character behind David Niven’s jewel thief, The Phantom. Clouseau is still somewhat clumsy and aloof, but Sellers plays him much more straight than in later movies, as the film relies much more on a comedy of errors to carry the day. The title refers to a famous diamond The Phantom wants to steal from an exiled princess. Clouseau is after The Phantom, but is completely oblivious to the fact that his wife (Capucine) is The Phantom’s lover and accomplice. Robert Wagner plays The Phantom’s nephew, a criminal in his own right but unconnected to his uncle’s schemes. They all converge on a European ski chalet where everyone tries to stay one step ahead of everyone else.

The three enduring franchise elements that emerged were the opening credits’ animated Pink Panther character, which spawned a spinoff series of short films and TV cartoons; Henry Mancini’s iconic theme tune; and Clouseau himself, who would return to screens a year later in A Shot in the Dark. The second film is actually devoid of any references to the “Pink Panther.” It does have an animated opening sequence, though the focus is on a Clouseau caricature, and Mancini provides a new theme.

The fact that A Shot in the Dark doesn’t seem much connected to the previous film may owe to the fact that it wasn’t originally intended as a sequel. Sellers was attached to an adaptation of the comedic mystery play L’Idiote, but script problems prompted producers to bring in Edwards to direct, and the screenplay was re-written into a Clouseau vehicle. It’s a classic farce in which Clouseau falls in love with the prime suspect (Elke Sommer) in a series of murders and refuses to accept that all the evidence points to her. It’s here that Sellers begins his over-the-top performance for Clouseau that would be repeated (and get more exaggerated) through the rest of the films. We also get the introduction of several franchise stalwarts, most notably Dreyfus (Herbert Lom), Clouseau’s boss who is driven insane by Clouseau’s antics and stupidity to the point of trying to murder him; and Cato (Burt Kwouk), Clouseau’s live-in manservant who is always attacking Clouseau to keep him on his toes.

The film is a comedy classic marked by long, sustained takes of Sellers’ slapstick, and Edwards’ masterful use of widescreen to frame it, both of which became hallmarks of the series. In his commentary track, Jason Simos of The Peter Sellers Appreciation Society calls it a “wonderful tableau of chaos.” In many of the films in the series, some of the comedy scenes are so dependent on the widescreen set-up that they don’t work when reduced to pan-and-scan 4:3 for subsequent TV viewings.

Development of a third film hit a snag when both Sellers declined the opportunity to return and Edwards eventually left the project (some reports say they refused to work together again after A Shot in the Dark, though they did re-team for 1968’s The Party). In some worlds the loss of two key creative elements might doom a franchise. But that didn’t stop producers from pursuing the third Clouseau film, re-casting Alan Arkin in the role. That leads to the first of the three entries from Kino, 1968’s Inspector Clouseau.

Obviously, in retrospect, this film seems like the odd man out, as the later return of Edwards of Sellers to the franchise would render this film completely superfluous, as the only connections to the first two films are the Clouseau character and another animated opening sequence. And apparently in its time it was so obscure that several online sources don’t even cite any box office information.

With Clouseau’s identity so closely tied to Sellers’ performance, Arkin just seems like a bizarre casting choice, trying to imitate Sellers’ physicality in the role but mostly coming off as doing a pale imitation. Arkin is certainly a gifted comic actor and would later win an Oscar for his hilarious performance in Little Miss Sunshine. But viewers would hardly be blamed for skipping this one in a “Panther” marathon (though it was included with some earlier “Panther” DVD sets).

On the other hand, think of the film in the context of its release. At the time, it was just the third film in a Clouseau trilogy. And considering just the three, the concept of the “Pink Panther” was contained to just the first one. For all the filmmakers knew, Arkin would grow into the role, much like the James Bond producers must have thought about George Lazenby taking over for Sean Connery in 1969.

In his commentary for Inspector Clouseau, film historian William Patrick Maynard offers an interesting speculation that the Steve Martin interpretation of Clouseau is more based on this movie than the Sellers portrayal. He ends up calling both the Arkin and Martin performances noble attempts to re-create the magic but never achieving the success of Sellers (Arkin, he notes, never seems comfortable performing the physical humor). He also points out many of the scenes that would serve as blueprints for future “Panther” movies once Sellers returned to the role.

Directed by Bud Yorkin (who would later serve as a producer on Blade Runner), Inspector Clouseau transplants Clouseau from France to England, on assignment at the request of Scotland Yard to help track down a gang of thieves. The story is certainly not without its charms and it’s not hard to imagine that Sellers and Edwards could have made it work much better. Supposedly, Sellers had refused to reprise the role several times, but at the last minute went to franchise producer Walter Mirisch (who, aged 95, provides an informative new interview on the A Shot in the Dark disc) and insisted that only he could play Clouseau, and would agree to do so if he liked the script. Mirisch declined the offer and instead went with Arkin, whom he liked in 1966’s The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (a performance that Maynard notes, at the time, had critics referring to Arkin as the new Peter Sellers). Oh, what could have been had Sellers signed on at the beginning. How much would film history have changed?

That’s because, with Inspector Clouseau basically relegated to a near-forgotten entry in the canon, Edwards and Sellers were persuaded to work again in 1975’s The Return of the Pink Panther, which would combine elements from the first two films to provide cohesion to the franchise, while also starting the trend of using “Pink Panther” in every title, regardless of if the plot involved the eponymous diamond or not. By then, the DePatie-Freleng shorts featuring the animated Panther had taken on a life of their own, so tying the new films to their roots was a no brainer. (DePatie-Freleng also created shorts based on their cartoon Inspector, which led to further spinoffs with new characters in the same animation style, most of which are now on Blu-ray from Kino).

Simos, in his commentary for Return, doesn’t even mention Inspector Clouseau, instead crediting the cartoon series for keeping the spirit of the Panther alive in the 11 years between A Shot in the Dark and Return. Listening to his discussions of the franchise history across his commentaries, one might not even realize Inspector Clouseau was ever made. (Beck mentions it briefly in his liner notes, though not in a flattering way.)

The fact that Return even exists is the result of a complicated series of dealings that boils down to producer Lew Grade agreeing to finance the movie for Edwards after the studio turned it down (The film’s Wikipedia entry claims it was part of a deal to get Edwards’ wife, Julie Andrews, to do a TV special). They hit upon the idea of reviving the “Panther” films, and brought Sellers on board, as by then both Edwards’ and Sellers’ careers were in decline and the film seemed like a sure thing. Indeed, it was a huge success at the box office, prompting a healthy second run for the franchise.

However, the complicated deals to create Return also clouded its distribution rights for years to come. Whereas the rest of the films were owned by United Artists, passed on to MGM and subsequently released on DVD by MGM’s home video partners (most prominently 20th Century Fox), the home video rights to Return were controlled by Universal, so every prior DVD boxed set of the franchise could not include it. Universal released a few bare bones DVDs of it, most recently in 2006, and a European Blu-ray, but it was conspicuously absent from Fox’s 2008 mega-boxed set of the entire “Panther” franchise on DVD — a set that included all the cartoon shorts and the first Steve Martin movie (the second one still a few months from theaters), plus a coffee-table book of photos and information about the franchise that was forced to ignore Return due to lack of permissions.

So, being able to include Return with the rest of the Sellers films is a huge coup for Shout! Factory and a major point in the collection’s favor.

As previously noted, the film returns the franchise to its roots, with the theft of the famed Pink Panther diamond from the fictional country of Lugash, whose leaders insist that Clouseau take the case, having successfully recovered the diamond before. All signs point to another theft by The Phantom (played here by Christopher Plummer instead of Niven), who realizes he was framed and starts looking for the real thief. Again, a series of well-timed errors help Clouseau solve the case, while Dreyfus is driven even more insane in his efforts to clear Clouseau from his life. Simos amusingly notes how risqué Return is for a ‘G’-rated movie.

The next film, 1976’s The Pink Panther Strikes Again, picks up where Return leaves off, with Dreyfus in an insane asylum and Clouseau promoted to his old job as chief inspector as a reward for retrieving the diamond. Triggered by Clouseau’s continued, inexplicable success, Dreyfus escapes from the institution and forms a league of super-criminals and assassins he uses to steal a superweapon to blackmail the governments in the world to eliminate Clouseau in an inspired sequence (keep an eye out for Omar Sharif as the Egyptian agent). This may be the franchise at its zany best, as Sellers’ physical comedy is in top form, the plot is so far removed from reality it can’t help but be a lot of fun, and there’s even a great parody of President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (who aren’t named but it’s obvious who it’s supposed to be).

Amusingly, newer fans or those casually familiar with the franchise picking up the earlier DVD sets and just watching the films through may not have even realized there was a movie missing from them. A Shot in the Dark ends with Dreyfus apprehended for his attempts to kill Clouseau, so anyone watching Strikes Again next (and not knowing about Returns) could easily assume Dreyfus was institutionalized for his actions in that movie. The fact that he’s back as Clouseau’s boss in Return with nary a mention of consequences for his actions in Shot owes more to story continuity between the films not being strictly enforced.

That’s even more apparent in the next film, 1978’s Revenge of the Pink Panther, as Dreyfus is reinstated as Chief Inspector despite his actions in Strikes Again that would seem to preclude this as a possibility. He gets the job back when it appears Clouseau is killed by French gangsters looking to impress their Godfather. It turns out they killed the wrong person, and Clouseau is alive, but pretends to stay dead in order to solve the case, which takes him to Hong Kong.

Sellers would die in 1980, making Revenge the final “Panther” film on which he worked. Edwards had an idea for continuing the series with new characters, but the studio wanted a bridging film to transition from Sellers. Edwards had a ton of deleted footage from Strikes Again and decided to craft it into a new “Panther” story as a way to say goodbye. The result was 1982’s Trail of the Pink Panther, on oddly structured story that plays as even more bizarre knowing the details behind the production. The Sellers footage is great (as Beck points out in his essay, trying to find some silver lining to praise the film), and one can hardly blame Edwards for wanting to take advantage of it (he apparently wanted to use it to construct Revenge before Sellers nixed that idea in favor of original material). But the resulting film plays like a eulogy. The new material designed to splice the old clips together seems forced, and the previously unused footage doesn’t take up much of the film anyway. The famed diamond is stolen again, Clouseau is again requested to find it, and ends up disappearing halfway through the film. In the second half, a TV reporter (Joanna Lumley) interviews stalwart characters from the franchise (with Niven returning as The Phantom), providing an excuse to show clips of Clouseau’s adventures from the other films.

Trail is certainly more interesting for the details of how it came to be and is perhaps a unique reflection of its place in film history than anything. Most films before the rise of home video didn’t have an abundance of deleted scenes, and usually didn’t save what was cut out of the movie. Having the foresight to save these scenes was a rare gift, as noted in a clip of Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews on “The Dick Cavett Show” included with the Shot in the Dark disc. When filming Strikes Again, Edwards imagined an epic three-hour “Panther” film in the vein of his 1965 film The Great Race, but the studio determined audiences would prefer a shorter film and spent months trimming it, leaving Edwards with the extra footage.

In the DVD era, directors can put deleted scenes on the disc or online to avoid it from going to waste. And a tribute to a fallen star would be handled as a featurette.

But in the early 1980s, Edwards didn’t have these options. The studio wanted post-Sellers “Panther,” so he hit on the idea of using the old footage to create one film that would lead into a second film that introduced a new cast to carry on the franchise.

The death of Sellers, of course, limited his options to create framing material, as he resorted to body doubles or having other characters tell each other what Clouseau was up to. The ensuing decades, of course, would see the rise of visual effects that would facilitate inserting dead actors into new footage, such as in The Crow, Gladiator, Furious 7 and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. But Edwards was left to do what he could. So did Sellers’ widow, who sued over the use of the deleted footage.

That’s where the films in the Shout! Factory set end, with Edwards’ final two “Panther” films coming from Kino. This includes 1983’s Curse of the Pink Panther, and truth be told, it’s kind of a shame this isn’t packaged with the rest of the Shout! Factory selections simply because of how closely tied it is with them, despite the absence of Sellers. With Clouseau and the diamond still missing from Trail, Dreyfus is tasked with locating the world’s greatest detective to track them down. But since he doesn’t want to ever see Clouseau again, he programs a computer to find the worst detective, digging up American police officer Clifton Sleigh (Ted Wass). The new footage for Trail was actually filmed as part of the production of Curse, the idea being to set up Sleigh as an American version of Clouseau, retire the old characters and move the franchise to New York. But the poor reception of Trail and Curse ended that plan. One need have only looked to the outcome of Inspector Clouseau 15 years earlier to gauge the potential for a “Pink Panther” movie without Sellers.

Though Sleigh’s slapstick antics get tiresome very quickly, the film does provide a nice wrap-up to story arcs that had been brewing since the original film. Niven, Capucine and Wagner all reprise their roles (though Niven, who died a couple of weeks before Curse hit theaters, was apparently so weak filming Trail and Curse that impressionist Rich Little had to dub his voice — and it’s plainly obvious as his dialogue stands apart from the rest of the soundtrack). There’s also a great cameo by Roger Moore, letting the film have some fun with his James Bond fame at the time (he was on a break from filming Octopussy when he filmed his scene for Curse).

As a result, any marathon of the movies in the Shout! Factory set is well served by concluding with Curse, although it’s the only film of the nine Blu-rays not to include an audio commentary track.

Following Curse, Edwards wasn’t quite done with the idea of reviving the franchise, and, after settling some lawsuits with MGM over contract disputes relating to the property, he returned 10 years later with 1993’s Son of the Pink Panther. The idea here is that Roberto Benigni is the long-lost son of Clouseau, the result of a fling with the Elke Sommer character in A Shot in the Dark (now played by Claudia Cardinale, who played the princess in the original film).

Coincidentally, in a new interview on the Curse Blu-ray, Wass says he liked the fact that his character wasn’t a relative of Clouseau, as to add that to the story would have been a cliché.

Anyway, Clouseau Jr. interacts with all of his father’s old associates, including Dreyfus and Cato, while trying to find the kidnapped princess of Lugash (Debrah Farentino). Benigni is an inspired choice to take on the Clouseau mantle as he’s cast from the same physical-comedy mold as Sellers. But the old formula of the earlier films just seems out of place in the 1990s. This would prove to be the last film for Mancini, who died the next year, and for Edwards, who retired from directing.

As with most profitable franchises that run their course creatively, “The Pink Panther” was eventually rebooted. The first film with Steve Martin as Clouseau landed in 2006 and was profitable enough to earn a sequel in 2009, though both films were critically panned and the second one did poorly enough at the box office put an end to that run.

Hollywood being what it is, however, the idea of another reboot is surely floating around somewhere, and it would be a shame to not get at least one movie with Sacha Baron Cohen as Inspector Clouseau.

 


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