EMPIRE ESSAY: A Shot in the Dark Review

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As murder follows murder, beautiful Maria is the obvious suspect; bumbling Inspector Clouseau drives his boss mad by seeing her as plainly innocent.


It was never supposed to be about that cartoon panther. In the first movie, the Pink Panther was the name of the diamond that gentleman cat burglars Robert Wagner and David Niven were desperate to get their mitts on. It wasn't until director Blake Edwards commissioned noted animation team DePatie-Freling to come up with a title design that the cartoon hero (aided and abetted by Henry Mancini's classic sax-led theme) took centre stage. The success of a kids' TV cartoon series in 1966 led to all subsequent Clouseau movies being branded by the Pink Panther, a fact that never made sense outside of marketing circles. (Think about it—Roberto Benigni starred as Clouseau's offspring in 1993's Son Of The Pink Panther—son of a diamond?). But in 1964, both Edwards and his star Peter Sellers weren't too interested in the cartoon, here they were in love with the buffoon, providing Sellers with the best outing for what was to become the defining character of his erratic, yet brilliant, career.

But it didn't start off that way. L'Idiote was a French farce written by Marcel Archard, adapted into the equally farcical play A Shot In The Dark by American Harry Kurnitz. Sellers was due to move into the piece straight after filming The Pink Panther, playing the role of a foolish magistrate; the other lead role was taken by Walter Matthau. But Sellers, fresh from stealing the show in The Pink Panther, was unhappy with the way the project was developing, and was threatening to leave. MGM brought in Edwards to placate him; Edwards took one look at the material and thought this could be a perfect vehicle for another adventure of Inspector Jacques Clouseau. Matthau was out, as was the original play. Things progressed so rapidly on A Shot In The Dark, that Edwards hadn't even finished work on The Pink Panther when he started. And this second outing for the bumbling French detective hit cinema screens only three months after the first, making A Shot In The Dark possibly the fastest released sequel in movie history.

To help him re-tool the screenplay, Edwards drafted in writer William Peter Blatty. "We wrote the scripts very quickly, in just a few weeks," recalls Blatty, later the author of The Exorcist. "I not only wrote comedy then, I was a specialist in the wild farce off-the-wall kind of material."

With A Shot In The Dark Edwards and Blatty created the Clouseau template that would run throughout the numerous sequels. Unlike in The Pink Panther, Clouseau was the real star here. He was no longer married as in the first film, but a bachelor always falling — often literally — for his leading lady. Herbert Lom was drafted in for the first of many appearances as Chief Inspector Dreyfus, Clouseau's boss, who would eventually become his chief nemesis, something that begins here when his attempt to blow up Clouseau with a "beumb" results in the deaths of all those responsible for a series of murders. The final element the writers brought to the mix was Clouseau's manservant Kato (Burt Kwouk), always ready—as per Clouseau's instructions—to keep his employer on his toes by attacking him at the most inopportune moments.

The plot, as it is, is simple: beautiful maid Elke Sommer is accused of murder, Clouseau is the only one who thinks she is innocent and through his beautifully detailed incompetence he manages to prove this and end up with several bodies along the way. But plot was never the important thing in a Clouseau movie, what counts are the gags and this one has plenty. In particular it has more beautifully sustained and played sequences than any of the other films, especially the 70s sequels that often substituted fart gags for the humour and flair on display here. Fresh on the heels of his bravura turn(s) in Dr. Strangelove, Sellers knew he had found something special in Clouseau. In truth, he wouldn't find a part as good as this until his swansong Being There 15 years later (not counting his 1974 Parkinson appearance where he played a version of " himself.")

Check it out for the brilliantly sustained seduction scene in Clouseau's apartment (complete with "beumb" and Kato-interruptus); admire it for the wonderfully ridiculous watch synchronising sequence with Sellers and Graham Stark; and witness the wit and comic elegance of the drawing room finale where Clouseau attempts to flush the killer into the open only to completely lose the plot when he finds out they all did it. Oh, and don't forget to look twice at the nudist camp attendant, billed as one "Turk Thrust" (in actuality film director Bryan Forbes).

The original Pink Panther movie, and perhaps even the best. Sellars is, obviously, stellar.