Monday, June 23, 2014

Firing a Shot in the Dark

Clouseau (Peter Sellers): Facts, Hercule, facts! Nothing matters but the facts. Without them the science of criminal investigation is nothing more than a guessing game.

Some of my fondest memories from my childhood are of my family watching Blake Edwards' timeless "Pink Panther" movies. There was another family with whom we liked to watch those movies — but we got a kick out of the Pink Panther even if our friends weren't there.

We were positively obsessive on the subject. There's no telling how many times we watched those movies on TV and laughed uproariously at the same things each time (as if we had never heard or seen them before). Some of Clouseau's lines became running jokes in my family.

(Interestingly, after Sellers died in 1980, film critic Roger Ebert wrote that Sellers' trademark accent was developed in "A Shot in the Dark," not in the original "The Pink Panther."

("It came from this brilliant concierge in a hotel I used to stay at in Paris," Sellers told Ebert. "He was a master of dealing with American tourists. He'd talk to them in a strange accent that wasn't French but sounded French to an English speaker.")

The only movie in the series that did not have "Pink Panther" in the title was "A Shot in the Dark," which premiered on this day in 1964. That was before my time. Mom and Dad may well have gone to see it at the theater, but I only saw it on TV until once, when I was in high school, an area theater held a Pink Panther movie marathon. I remember taking my girlfriend to see it.

"A Shot in the Dark" was also the only movie in that series that starred Peter Sellers and did not have an animated sequence in the opening credits with the pink panther cartoon character that became so popular on Saturday mornings ("Inspector Clouseau," which starred Alan Arkin in Sellers' role, also had no animation).

Here is the gist of the story. A murder was committed at a palatial French estate, and the prime suspect was the maid (Elke Sommer). The chief inspector (Herbert Lom) was ready to make an arrest, but the incredibly inept Inspector Clouseau stepped in to conduct his own investigation.

Clouseau, you see, had fallen in love with Sommer. There was a series of murders, the evidence in each pointing to Sommer, and every time Sommer was picked up by the police — but Sellers managed to free her each time.

Sellers always seemed to have beautiful women co–starring with him, but Sommer may have been his most beautiful "Pink Panther" co–star. It isn't difficult to understand why Sellers' character was so smitten, but in the end, even his detractors had to admit that he was spot–on in his judgments that Sommer was not guilty.

Although Sommer was innocent, "A Shot in the Dark" still managed to find ways to use her physical attributes in not–so–innocent ways.

The funniest example probably came when Sellers and Sommer were arrested for public nudity after escaping a nudist colony.

It was actually a funny escalation of an ongoing joke in which Sellers, in his bungling Clouseau way, always managed to be in the wrong place at the right time and was arrested for, in succession, selling balloons, selling paintings and hunting, each time without a license.

Those first three times, viewers could see, after Clouseau had been arrested, a paddywagon on its way to the police station, presumably with Clouseau inside, and the security officers standing on the vehicle's running boards looking bored and disinterested.

But when the paddywagon presumably contained Sellers and Sommer, both nude, the officers could be seen with their faces pressed against the paddywagon's tiny windows.

As I say, this was the second of the "Pink Panther" movies, but it was the one that really established the Clouseau character — as well as Dreyfuss' frantic eye twitching and Kato's judo ambushes.

Mom loved it all — the fractured French accent, Clouseau's clumsiness, everything. She would speak in his accent, sometimes using lines from the movies, sometimes using lines she made up but delivered in that accent. When she wanted to confer with a member of the family about something, she would say, "I must have speaks with you." (I don't remember offhand which movie that line was from. I don't think it was "A Shot in the Dark.")

I can only imagine the kind of conversation she might have had with Sellers' concierge. They might have needed an army of translators.

I am very fond of the "Pink Panther" movies and always try to watch when one is on TV because, well, they are funny but also because of Mom. Of course, I know, when I sit down to watch one, that I will be reminded of her, but that is OK.

They bring back happy memories for me.