[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]
MGM whacks some of the most splendid moments out of The Wild Rovers, your lovely first Western ever, then has at The Carey Treatment so badly with the shears that you’d prefer your name weren’t on it; so you find other backers and make one of the best movies of the ’74 season, The Tamarind Seed, and the intelligent audience it deserves won’t go near it because your wife’s the star and her name’s a joke in all the cleverest households. There’s no blaming Blake Edwards for covering his bets by hieing back to proven ground with Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau and The Return of the Pink Panther. Return is a hit commercially and—to the extent that non–Woody Allen and non–Mel Brooks comedies are taken note of—critically, and that must feel good to Edwards. It feels good to me, too, as long as I don’t dwell on the lurking injustice of it all. (It’s hard not to graft an auteurist allegory onto the credit titles, wittily animated by the Richard Williams Studio. The cartoon Pink Panther returns to attend the gala première of the film version of his return, capers about in such serially secure guises as a Mickey Mouseketeer and the Frankenstein Monster, and ends the film by donning director’s garb and turning his crank camera on the audience, winking through a final iris-shot to leave a pink haze of elegantly blown cigarette smoke: an evanescent image appropriate to the assured whimsy both Edwards’s mise-en-scène and—another “return”—Henry Mancini’s Edwards scores effortlessly sustain.)
As comedy committed to nothing more argumentative and less indispensable than grace, professionalism, and good fun, the film is certainly welcome. If Sellers has regressed ten years, it’s to a period when he was breathlessly funny to behold; he has always needed a director, not only to set him off to cinematic advantage within scrupulously designed frames and the wittily rhythmed progression of shots, but also to save him from a self-destructive penchant for nastiness that has sometimes left him and his chosen projects looking quite hateful (v. esp. Tell Me Where It Hurts). The film is decadent enough to signpost some of Clouseau’s characteristic mannerisms rather than permitting them merely to occur as part of the texture of events. His utterly idiosyncratic mispronunciation of key words in the dialogue has escalated since the last Edwards-Sellers Clouseau pictures (there was a Bud Yorkin–Alan Arkin Clouseau effort later in the Sixties). It was enough to joke simultaneously on three levels at once: (1) to call attention to Sellers’s genius for accents (he’s so good he can come up with a French accent that is deliberately wrong), (2) to mock the convention of having everyone in a French setting speaking English (why should Clouseau speak English correctly?—he has no business speaking English at all!), (3) to produce sounds that are … well, funny sounds.
In the present movie these levels are subordinated to underscoring that this is, after all, a time-honored Sellers shtick: people go on at great lengths asking Clouseau to repeat himself , and throwing his incoherent mispronunciations back at him. But even here Edwards is canny enough to save the incomparable Victor Spinetti for the shtick’s final gambit, and then to transfer the affectation to Herbert Lom—back again as Clouseau’s tormented superior Dreyfuss—with unimpeachable comic logic. Indeed, Edwards is about the only active filmmaker who both remembers the running gag and remembers how to use it, build it, and orchestrate its confluence with a dozen other running gags as well. His touch is exquisite in its self-assurance, so much so that even the lightweight comedies for which he is best known can turn me unexpectedly and inexplicably shivery—a quality reminiscent, if I may make so bold, of Lubitsch. If the very survival of poise in Lubitsch was always involved with simultaneously fueling and controlling the fires of emotion, in Edwards the impeccable precariousness of comic order often finds expression in thriller elements, as in a masterly post-credits robbery sequence that is tense, fascinating, as beautifully machined as the fantastic caper itself—and funny too, in a thoroughly distinctive alliance of the giddiness inherent in breathbating suspense and the melodramatic effectiveness of slapstick violence.
Unhappily, the initially intriguing suspense subplot runs afoul of too many cross-purposes and, more crucially, Christopher Plummer’s and Catherine Schell’s failure to be convincing about their droll self-possession. Edwards errs, too, in permitting Schell to laugh helplessly too much when in Sellers’s comic vicinity. That she keeps recalling Felicia Farr to mind only makes me expect Jack Lemmon to replace Sellers in the central role. People can laugh openly at a Lemmon schnook without derailing him or the comedy, but Sellers thrives best in the midst of deadpan elegance on the part of his fellow players as well as the pristine set waiting to be demolished.
THE RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER
Direction: Blake Edwards. Screenplay: Frank Waldman, Blake Edwards. Cinematography: Geoffrey Unsworth. Production design: Peter Mullins. Editing: Tom Priestley. Music: Henry Mancini. Production: Edwards.
The players: Peter Sellers, Christopher Plummer, Catherine Schell, Herbert Lom, Peter Arne.
Copyright © 1975 by Richard T. Jameson