The backstory behind this week’s review is almost as interesting as the movie itself. With the huge success of The Pink Panther, United Artists immediately approached Peter Sellers to star in an adaptation of the stage musical, L’idiote. The stage musical is a comedy mystery, first released in France. The English version released on Broadway in 1961 under the title A Shot in the Dark. That version was adapted by Harry Kurnitz. Also, William Shatner of Star Trek fame played the main character in the Broadway version – an incompetent Examining Magistrate.
Sellers didn’t like script written by Alec Coppel and Norman Krasna, so the studio approached director Blake Edwards to take over the film from Anatole Litvak. Edwards declined at first, but relented on the condition he could rewrite the script and substitute the lead character for his Pink Panther character, Inspector Clouseau. The two of them would also improvise most of the comedy scenes on the fly, as they did with The Pink Panther.
In addition to bringing back Clouseau, this film introduced a number of mainstays for the remainder of the series. Herbert Lom joined the cast as Commissioner Charles Dreyfus, Clouseau’s long-suffering boss. Burt Kwouk portrays Clouseau’s servant, Cato. Elke Sommer plays the main murder suspect, Maria Gambrelli. The character would return in 1993’s Son of the Pink Panther, but in that movie, she was portrayed by Claudia Cardinale, who played the princess in the first movie. Then there’s Graham Stark, portraying officer Hercule Lajoy. He reprised that role later in Trail of the Pink Panther (1982). Stark would also portray another character in Return of the Pink Panther – that time a criminal who suffers the wrath of Sir Charles Litton (the thief from the first movie). That makes his involvement with the franchise fascinating. He participated in three movies, portraying two characters, each of them made at least 7 years apart.
The main point of interest with this movie’s development is how it affected the relationship between Sellers and Edwards. By the end of the film, it deteriorated to the point where they vowed to never work together again. Part of the reasons behind their deteriorating friendship was Sellers’ substance abuse problems. The same year they filmed A Shot in the Dark, Sellers suffered a series of heart attacks – the first sign of his health problems, which have been attributed to said substance abuse problems. Sadly, he never took this as a warning sign and continued abusing alcohol and drugs. We’ll get to that in a later post. Another factor is that Edwards tended to prefer shooting his scenes loose with plenty of room for ad-libbing, which often frustrated Sellers.
Perhaps the main factor in their deteriorating friendship is that Sellers went AWOL for the full first week of filming, which left Edwards with little to film. That said, when Sellers did arrive on set, he spoke with a humorous French accent where he intentionally pronounced English words wrong. This intentionally terrible accent made its way into the film. They eventually reconciled and worked together on 1968’s The Party, and then returned to the Pink Panther series in the 70’s. They were never quite friends after this film, but they could at least work together professionally.
A Shot in the Dark released in June of 1964 across the globe, only 3 months after Pink Panther released in North America. I can’t find the budgeting numbers, but it earned $12.3 million worldwide, which no doubt made it a financial success considering the average comedy film budgets at the time. It received near universal critical praise. The New York Times stated, “It is mad, but the wonderful dexterity and the air of perpetually buttressed dignity with which Mr. Sellers plays his role make what could quickly be monotonous enjoyable to the end.” The New Yorker’s review said, “A Shot in the Dark as done on Broadway was a mediocre comedy, but Blake Edwards, who directed the film and collaborated on the script with William Peter Blatty, had the good sense to toss the foundation stock out the window and let Mr. Sellers run amok … All in all, extremely jolly.”
This is often considered the best movie in the Pink Panther series overall. It also happens to be one of only two movies to not include “Pink Panther” in the title, the other being the next film in this series, “Inspector Clouseau.”
As for myself, this is one of two movies in the Pink Panther series involving Sellers that I hadn’t seen before. I’m glad that I finally did. The first Pink Panther movie is a genuinely compelling mystery disguised as a comedy. This movie is a straight up comedy, yet the mystery behind it is still fairly compelling. Clouseau’s character is much clumsier than the first movie, and portrayed as dumber as well, yet his instincts are still good enough to help him properly solve the case. Even if he keeps insisting that Maria is innocent no matter how many times she’s found near a fresh dead body.
The new series regulars are welcome additions as well. Dreyfus is just as hilarious as Clouseau, as the bumbling inspector slowly drives him mad. He steals every scene he’s in. Cato is entertaining as Clouseau’s house servant, where part of his job is to attack the inspector at unsuspected times, in order to help Clouseau keep vigilant and alert. He always seems to pick the worst times, which only makes these random fight scenes funnier.
There are two particularly memorable scenes in the movie. One takes place in a nudist camp, in which everyone’s naughty bits are completely covered up by trees, statues, bushes, or the guitar Clouseau hangs around his shoulder, blocking his, uh … front. I won’t say anything further. The second memorable comedy scene is the film’s climax, in which Clouseau begins a long-winded speech about who the killer is, while he constantly trips over things and hurts the others in the room because of his clumsiness. Somehow, his bumbling antics brings out multiple confessions.
A Shot in the Dark is worthy of comedy legend. It’s all the more impressive when you realize how quickly the film came together, not to mention all the problems on-set between the director and the star. It’s here where Sellers cements Inspector Clouseau as his signature character. It’s a classic character that multiple actors have tried to imitate, but could never duplicate. I would highly recommend this as a standalone film, but it’s also a must-see for fans of the Pink Panther series who somehow missed this one like I did.
Next up is Inspector Clouseau, the first film in the series to not feature Peter Sellers, and the only movie in the original series not directed by Blake Edwards. Nobody in either of the previous films had any involvement with Inspector Clouseau. It bombed. Not exactly looking forward to seeing this one, but I’m a completionism, and this isn’t a big enough series to bother skipping anything.