Like all sane, rational people I adore the work of Peter Sellers and he’s been responsible for making me laugh an enormous amount over the decades. But shockingly as an adult I’ve never watched the Pink Panther films, meaning it’s been well over thirty years since I last saw his Inspector Clouseau lark about, and had no idea whether he’s clowning and general buffoonery would be something I still found hilarious or if it had aged badly and I’d struggle to be amused.
Though The Pink Panther is acclaimed I thought I’d jump to the film where Jacques Clouseau took on a starring role, and is most beloved, with 1964’s A Shot In The Dark, which was written by director Blake Edwards and The Exorcist’s William Peter Blatty. Blatty and Edwards would go on to work together on the World War One musical Darling Lili, a flawed work that I struggled with personally, and the comedy What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?, but this is the only time they collaborated on a Clouseau movie.
The opening twenty minutes are fairly muted as after a bit of farcical room swapping in the home of Benjamin Ballon (George Sanders) we witness a shot in the dark, a man called Miguel is dead and Clouseau is called in to investigate. After some minor pratfalling he interrogates Maria Gambrelli (Elke Sommer) the most obvious suspect, believing her to be innocent mainly as it’s she’s very attractive. He’s then replaced by Commissioner Dreyfus (Herbert Lom) who clearly has a very low opinion of the beloved detective, but soon Clouseau is back on the job after someone high up mysteriously demands Clouseau return What follows is essentially a comedic version of an Agatha Christie whodunnit as Clouseau interrogates various subjects and the body count not so slowly increases, often with Maria right next to the body. Clouseau still finds the time for a bit of romance with Maria, and someone keeps on trying to kill him presumably so that the murderer will never be found, though it’s more than possible that there’s another motive at play here.
Sellers is remarkable as Clouseau, if he can do or say the wrong thing you’re guaranteed that he will, and when it comes to physical comedy he truly is a master. An egotist and then some who believes he’ll have the case solved within a few seconds, Clouseau’s also petty, accident prone, and arrogant, but if the film has a fault it’s that it relies on him almost solely for the funny moments and nearly everyone else is a straight man / women. His manservant Cato (Burt Kwouk) and Herbert Lom’s Commissioner Dreyfus are the two exceptions, and the running gag that Cato attacks Clouseau at the worst possible moment is a fun one, while Dreyfus’s increasingly twitchy actions also amuse, but it feels a little bit of a shame that it is only Sellers who gets the majority of the humourous moments, and George Sanders and Elke Sommer are definitely wasted. The opening twenty minutes are quite flat too as the film establishes the mystery and the major characters, but thankfully after that it’s nearly always funny.
You can see a lot of the physical comedy coming but that doesn’t stop it from being laugh out loud material, and there’s a good few really amusing running gags, with the way Clouseau is constantly being arrested while in disguise being the best, but Dreyfus self-harming and Clouseau’s attempts at flirting never failed to make me laugh. The dialogue is mostly strong when it’s coming from Sellers mouth too, and the long suffering Hercule (Graham Stark) gets some strong moments as well.
It’s not a perfect film by any means, the aforementioned opening twenty minutes could have been funnier, a visit to a nudist camp is oddly laugh free, and the assassination attempts on Clouseau while he’s on a date with Maria are fairly humdrum. But the majority of the time it’s a film I found myself consistently entertained by, I wouldn’t say it’s the classic that many regard it to be but it certainly hasn’t aged badly, and is a very strong, very enjoyable work with an extremely memorable performance at the centre of it.