I could have talked about Peter Sellers’ death either for the previous movie or this one. There are several reasons why I chose the previous movie. 1, his declining health issues clearly affected his performance in Revenge of the Pink Panther. 2, I couldn’t find too much enough behind the scenes details on Revenge for my tastes. 3, I figured there’d be a lot more to talk about with this … movie. My hunch regarding Trail of the Pink Panther was right. That said, this entire blog post could be summed up with a single-worded question. Why?
Trail of the Pink Panther is fairly well known, and a bit notorious, but in case you’re not aware of the circumstances surrounding this movie, let’s look at its background. After Revenge of the Pink Panther released, Sellers started working on a script for what he hoped to be the final Pink Panther movie. He would have been happy to go forward with the movie without director Blake Edwards. It would be called Romance of the Pink Panther. In Romance, he’d end up falling in love with a jewel thief and leaving the police force. As dedicated of an officer as Inspector Clouseau is, that does sound like an interesting, and maybe even appropriate conclusion to the series. Sadly, he died before any kind of deal to make the movie even begun.
United Artists tried to get Dudley Moore to take over the role of Clouseau in the Romance sequel. Moore refused to do it without Edwards directing, and was only willing to portray Clouseau in one movie as a tribute to Sellers. UA and Edwards wanted the series to continue however, and Edwards refused to recast Clouseau. The failure of Inspector Clouseau (starring Alan Arkin as the bumbling detective) is likely a major factor in that refusal. It became a bit of a 3-way standoff. After 1981’s Arthur made Moore a huge star, he refused to even talk about committing to a series. Instead, UA pushed for a transition film so that Edwards could introduce a new star.
They ended up working on two movies at once, the first was to utilize outtakes and deleted scenes from Return of the Pink Panther, The Pink Panther Strikes Again, and Revenge of the Pink Panther. Edwards hoped to use those clips to construct a narrative similar to Citizen Kane, with Clouseau going missing at the start of the story, and he’d use connecting scenes with other characters from the series to bridge them. Complications arose when UA refused to pay ITC the fees they were asking for Returns’ outtakes, since they actually held the rights to Returns. They refused to pay those fees. Meanwhile, Edwards quickly fell behind on shooting both Trail and the next movie, Curse of the Pink Panther. UA ended up cutting both films’ budgets considerably.
Because of the smaller budget, even Henry Mancini, who composed the soundtrack for every entry that Edwards directed, only composed two new themes for Trail. Pieces from all of his earlier Pink Panther films made up the rest of Trail’s soundtrack.
Despite their rocky relationship, Edwards still dedicated the film to Sellers as “the one and only Inspector Clouseau.”
So to sum all that up, Trail of the Pink Panther is a glorified clip show, comprised of deleted scenes from the previous two Pink Panther movies, a handful of scenes that made it into all of the previous movies, except for Returns, and new footage of the other major actors in the series talking about Clouseau. If you’ve seen all of the other movies, you know exactly where all these scenes take place. Some of them are Clouseau heading home near the start of Strikes Again. There’s a silly airplane sequence where he’s in disguise as a seriously injured man … for some reason. There’s a deleted scene with Clouseau picking up the hunchback costume that he uses in Strikes Again, of course with different staff members than the ones you meet in Revenge.
As much as these scenes are entertaining, some of them go on for too long, so you fully understand why they were either cut down or removed. The fact that the costume store employees are different also gives the series continuity problems, as Clouseau refers to both sets of store runners as his favourite. This makes Trail of the Pink Panther even more of a mess, which again brings up that question. Why?
Once Clouseau disappears, Joanna Lumley pretty much takes over as the main character – a journalist named Marie Jouveat. She does her best with the material given to her, but besides some very light flirting with one of her interview subjects, and a fight with Cato that feels completely out of place, she doesn’t really get that much to do other than interview people. You’ve got a number of other actors appearing in small roles, like Herbert Lom as the newly re-appointed Chief Inspector Dreyfus. You’ve actually got David Niven, the original Sir Charles Litton/Phantom jewel thief from the first Pink Panther movie. Burt Kwouk returns as Cato Fong, Clouseau’s house servant/attacker, as in he’s supposed to attack Clouseau in order to keep the inspector alert and ready. Capucine returns as Clouseau’s ex-wife from the first movie, who was having an affair with Sir Charles. They’re now married. And of course, Graham Stark, who’s played a number of small roles in the series, returns to his Shot in the Dark character of Clouseau’s police assistant, now retired from the force.
Most of the mainstay actors are just as entertaining on their own as they usually are. As with Returns and Strikes Again, Lom might actually be the true highlight. He clearly wants to be a professional, but any time he even thinks about Clouseau, he’s holding back his insane laughter, which is sometimes interpreted as crying. Cato is also given a bigger role in this movie than in any of the movies before Revenge, in that he actually gets to explain some things, while also expressing how he really felt about his relationship with Clouseau. This movie gives him some genuine character depth, one of the few truly good aspects of this movie.
Niven on the other hand was also declining in health quickly, as was Sellers in the previous movie. It was to the point where he couldn’t even make it through all of his dialogue, so most of it was dubbed over by Rich Little, a well-known and respected Canadian/American impressionist who is often nicknamed “The Man of a Thousand Voices”.
The movie also brings back some of the gang bosses from Revenge, in a scene that brings forth the first of two aspects of this movie that feel very out of place. None of the previous movies feature any swearing whatsoever, yet this scene shows people repeatedly talking about “asses”. As much as there were some sexual themes in previous movies, they were always subtle. Even if there was nudity, it was always completely covered up, often comedically like in the nudist colony scene of A Shot in the Dark. Otherwise you’d only see from the backside, or in such darkness that you couldn’t make anything out, or it would be off-screen entirely. With this movie, in a scene featuring Richard Mulligan as Clouseau’s father, there is straight up nudity that lingers on-screen for over a minute. I’m no prude, and it’s true that in the early 80’s, you could get away with that in a PG film (which this movie is), but by this point the Pink Panther series was known for being kid-friendly. This movie suddenly adds language and boobs. I just … why?
Perhaps the biggest blunder with this movie is the fact that it was even made. Sellers’ widow, Lynne Frederick, filed a $3 million lawsuit against Edwards and UA, claiming the movie diminished Sellers’ reputation. She ended up winning $1 million in damages. Her main reason was that Sellers previously vetoed using outtakes from Strikes Again in Revenge, and that his estate should be allowed to control those outtakes for those same reasons. There is a question as to whether she deserved that money, considering their marriage was crumbling, and Sellers was in the process of cutting her out of the will entirely, but that doesn’t change the fact that UA really should have approached her first before making this movie. Which of course brings up the question again. Why?
Trail of the Pink Panther only earned $9.1 million on an $8 million budget. Generally, movies need to earn at least double their budget in order to be financially successful. This movie wasn’t close to that, and that’s even ignoring the lawsuit to Sellers’ widow. The movie was almost universally distained by critics and fans alike.
Personally, I found the deleted footage funny, but both disconnected and not as funny as what made it into the previous two movies. While most of the returning cast members put in some interesting side notes, everything felt completely disconnected. It feels more like a poor attempt at a documentary about a fictional character than a movie. Which begs the question once again, why?
Even in the context of the early 80s, there were better ways to release all of that deleted footage. You could have instead done a biopic or a TV special about Sellers himself. Both of them would be much cheaper to produce. Both of them would probably have made more money. It wouldn’t feel like a mess. Best of all, you could actually give Sellers a respectful sendoff instead of what feels like a cheap cash grab. Why not?
I don’t understand how anyone thought this movie was a good idea. This sort of clip-show’s been done before this, mostly with zero budget schlock, and it never works. A TV special would have been a much better choice for all of that unused footage, even in the 80s. Instead, you get a movie that should not have existed, which throws in swearing and nudity when this series is known to be kid friendly. Even beyond the choice of making this movie, some of the decisions they made are baffling. If Revenge wasn’t a sign of Edwards’ declining skills as a director, then this is certainly a sign of his declining sanity as a filmmaker.
Next up is the first of Edwards’ two attempts to revive the series without Clouseau, with Curse of the Pink Panther. Then we’ll look at Son of the Pink Panther, which is generally considered the worst in the series. Then it’s the two reboot movies. I’ve only seen the first of the two.