After something of a wilderness period making box-office flops and worthy experimental films that stretched his versatility if not his career, Peter Sellers came back to the winning partnership he enjoyed with director Blake Edwards with a long-overdue third PINK PANTHER film. Though they antagonised each other off-screen, the two headstrong talents knew they wove movie gold together on-screen in the previous Clouseau films as well as the brilliant sight-gag classic THE PARTY. Their careers had mutually declined in the intervening years and Sellers’ opting not to do the INSPECTOR CLOUSEAU sequel for Edwards in 1968 meant they both needed a hit more than ever.
Edwards had struggled to get the funding for a proposed sequel in the meantime and managed to wangle the green light for this as the second of a two film deal with Lew Grade.
Happily, RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER showed that neither Sellers nor Edwards had lost their collaborative magic. Such is the director’s confidence that post-credits (designed by Richard WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, no less), he spends the first ten minutes of what is a laugh-out-loud comedy presenting a daring and engrossing theft of the infamous Pink Panther diamond as if it were a dramatic heist genre movie. Edwards then can’t resist capping it with a more characteristic neat repeated sight-gag where a guard is slammed into unconsciousness twice by the same closing door.
Clouseau himself belatedly appears, busted down to beat-cop status on the streets of Paris, where he confronts one of Sellers’ real-life pals again (the familiar John Bluthal) as a supposedly blind street entertainer, lacking “A ly-sonce” for his “mernkey”. Once again, Sellers shows off the comic genius idea of a Frenchman whose accent is so impenetrable even other French people can’t understand him. Clouseau’s superior stating of the rules gets the better of his self-celebrated powers of observation, failing to notice a bank robbery that the performer was serving as a look-out. This gets him carpeted by the welcome return of Herbert Lom’s sublimely apoplectic Dreyfus for yet another incompetency on the job.
As with THE PARTY, Edwards shares the visual comedy stylings amongst his cast, giving Dreyfus a recurring gag confusing a gun-shaped cigarette-lighter with the real thing. There’s also some amusingly surreal touches like the gentleman in the hotel foyer who offers to take Clouseau’s hat, coat and gloves and brazenly drives away wearing them to our hero’s bemused resignation. We also get two bursts of Kato (Burt Kwouk)’s amazing stunt set-piece sudden attacks to marvel at. These are all immaculately timed and edited, combined with the sensibility of a cartoon reality (the cannonball-shaped bomb, the frazzled smoky clothing post-explosion etc)
The lion’s share of the business of course goes to Sellers, who assumes a variety of disguises in pursuit of the beautiful people who are his prey: Sir Charles “Phantom, the notorious Lytton” and Lady Claudine, (the effortlessly elegant Christopher Plummer and Catherine Schell). Never mind the plot concerning the criminally charming couple and their covert thieving ways, when it comes to stealing the cat burglar Sellers takes everything that isn’t nailed down. Schell in particular has difficulty stopping herself ‘corpsing’ at least twice as she’s hit by wave after wave of gloriously absurd Clouseau creations washing over her. First, there is Emil Flornoy, his walking disaster-area telephone engineer who succeeds in submerging his van in the swimming pool just as his first vehicle is being fished out. He then becomes a moustached housekeeping attendant who sneaks into her room and struggles manfully with a popping light-bulb, a vacuum cleaner of frightening intensity and an intransigent parrot. I’ve always had a soft spot for his latter guise of Guy Gadbois, the preposterous lounge lizard sporting triangular sideburns, calling Lady Claudine “a beautiful chicken”, exuding a faux-casual swagger whilst causing mayhem with the soda syphon and trolley.
The devious manipulations of Lugash Secret Police agent Colonel Sharki (Peter Arne) are conveniently nullified by a bungled assassination attempt on Clouseau by his now homicidal boss, sending Dreyfus gibbering into the nut-hatch, acquitted “by reason of insanity” and Clouseau into his job, setting the scene for the wonderfully over-the-top THE PINK PANTHER STRIKES AGAIN, my favourite of all the sequels.
RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER is a fine way to close this 1967-75 retrospective on Peter Sellers, restoring he and Blake Edwards to their deserved place at the top of the screen comedy hierarchy…