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Should I Watch..? 'The Pink Panther' (1963)

Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.

Promotional poster

Promotional poster

What's the big deal?

The Pink Panther is a comedy crime film released in 1963 and was directed and co-written by Blake Edwards. The film follows a gentleman thief known as The Phantom who is eying up his latest target - a priceless diamond called the Pink Panther - while avoiding being caught by a persistent detective who is hot on his heels. The film stars David Niven, Peter Sellers, Robert Wagner, Capucine and Claudia Cardinale. The film saw the debut of character Inspector Jacques Clouseau played by Sellers who would become synonymous with the series going forward and arguably Sellers' most popular character. The film is also notable for the timeless soundtrack by Henry Mancini as well as the animated appearance of the Pink Panther cartoon character, who would go on to achieve fame by itself. The film was a hit with critics and audiences alike and was ultimately selected for preservation at the US National Film Registry in 2010 for its cultural, historic and aesthetic significance. The film would be followed by the first of many sequels the following year with A Shot In The Dark.

Enjoyable

What's it about?

Exiled princess Dala is the owner of the largest diamond in the world, known as the Pink Panther due to a slight imperfection resembling a panther. Holidaying at the exclusive Italian ski resort Cortina d'Ampezzo, Dala soon meets charming English playboy Sir Charles Lytton. Unbeknown to Dala, Sir Charles is also The Phantom - a notorious jewel thief who leaves a glove at the scene of the crime as a calling card. Sir Charles' appearance in Cortina d'Ampezzo is no accident as the Pink Panther is far too tempting a target for a professional thief such as himself. However, his plans are thrown into chaos after he literally bumps into his brash, American nephew George on the ski slopes.

While Sir Charles tries to keep his nephew unaware of his villainous intentions, his life is made even harder when the world's foremost expert on The Phantom - French Inspector Jacques Clouseau - arrives at the ski resort with his wife Simone. Clouseau, realising that the Phantom will make an attempt to steal the diamond, feels closer than ever to bringing the thief to justice. Luckily for Sir Charles, he and Simone have been having a long-standing affair under Clouseau's nose and together, they conspire to steal the diamond. But does someone else have plans for the priceless Panther?

Trailer

What's to like?

On the face of it, this could have been a straight-forward caper with Cary Grant in the lead - something like To Catch A Thief - but thanks to Sellers' unrestrained comic genius, the film becomes iconic. While Niven is perfectly cast as the urbane Sir Charles (and also gets his fair share of laughs), the film belongs to the former Goon Show star who creates a character of such endless comic potential that it's no surprise he returns so often. If you're only familiar with Inspector Clouseau through the later films like Revenge Of The Pink Panther then this film proves quite a shock. The film is far more focused on Niven's character and the various romantic entanglements between himself, Wagner's overly smiley Yank and the two leading ladies. It almost becomes a romantic bedroom farce with characters falling out of windows, disappearing behind doors and underneath beds and husbands distracted by their glamorous wives as lovers sneak to safety behind them.

But then Sellers steps us and changes thing immeasurably. It's an extraordinary performance, played for laughs but with a level of deadpan seriousness that Leslie Nielsen would be proud of. Employing the excessively French accent that would become the character's trademark, Clouseau is a more sympathetic character here than he is in later movies. Not only is his wife cheating on him with his nemesis but he is much more competent and more of a threat to the Phantom. He is less of a buffoon here and more than any other of his films, you do root for him. The film is less reliant on his slapstick antics than fans might think but actually, I think this improves it. It makes the film more intelligent and less childish than the later films, which descend into utter lunacy the longer the franchise went on.

Sellers (left) steals the show as the bumbling Clouseau, who is noticeably less stupid than in the sequels but somehow even funnier.

Sellers (left) steals the show as the bumbling Clouseau, who is noticeably less stupid than in the sequels but somehow even funnier.

Fun Facts

  • The animated opening credits introduce the cartoon Pink Panther to audiences and soon, the character becomes an integral part of the series. Created by Friz Freleng and Hawley Pratt, the character starred in a series of short theatrical films as well as a popular TV show. He often appears alongside a character known as Big Nose for resembles Clouseau but is actually based on Freleng himself as an in-joke.
  • Edwards wanted Audrey Hepburn to play the part of the princess but she declined. Instead, she suggested her friend Claudia Cardinale who was cast but couldn't speak English. Her lines were dubbed by an uncredited Gale Garnett.
  • Both Capucine and Cardinale were dressed in the film by none other than Yves Saint-Laurent, who was the hottest designer in Paris at the time. This was the first feature film he worked on but he only had thirteen credits for costume or wardrobe work on films throughout his esteemed career.
  • Niven later recalled one incident during the shoot when he caught frostbite in his private parts while shooting the skiing scene. Reasoning that alcohol made you feel warm, he then proceeded to dip his bits into a glass of whiskey - which remarkably worked but he described the pain as 'excruciating'.
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What's not to like?

As a fan of some of the later films (I recall watching The Return Of The Pink Panther as a child and finding it one of the funniest films I'd ever seen), it's a little disappointing to find the film utilising more of the supporting cast than it does of Sellers. It also takes its time to get going, spending about a third of its running time setting everything up explaining the characters and their relationships. This wouldn't be such a problem ordinarily but the film's complicated set-up does sadly necessitate such intricate detailing. It's also easy to overlook some of the other cast members in the enormous shadow of Sellers but the likes of Wagner, Capucine and Cardinale simply aren't as entertaining on screen. However, this is like saying that turkey twizzlers aren't as tasty as an expensive fillet mignon.

It might lack a little of the all-out comedy of the goofier sequels but The Pink Panther is a solid and enjoyable romp that not only reflects the time but also demonstrates Edwards' talent as a comedy director when he is more restrained than usual. His career saw huge highs as well as horrifying lows but this is arguably towards the top end of his resume. Like many of Edwards' films, this is simple and honest fun - nothing deep or overly profound but just entertaining and let's be honest, isn't that what audiences want when they go to the movies?

Niven (right) is perfectly cast as gentleman thief The Phantom in a role that only he could possibly play.

Niven (right) is perfectly cast as gentleman thief The Phantom in a role that only he could possibly play.

Should I watch it?

While it's maybe not quite as good as some of Blake Edwards' other work, The Pink Panther more than justifies a viewing for viewers today. Sublimely silly and effortlessly funny thanks to the wonderful Peter Sellers, it's a timeless blend of romantic comedy, bedroom farce and heist flick. It also looks and sounds every bit as cool as its famous soundtrack and is a wonderful introduction to one of cinema's all-time great comic creations.

Great For: Peter Sellers' film career, fans of slapstick comedy, creating a movie franchise, viewers of all ages

Not So Great For: fans who prefer the sillier later movies, French detectives,

What else should I watch?

For such a long-running media franchise, the Pink Panther films have enjoyed both critical acclaim and revile over the years. The first sequel, A Shot In The Dark, was the first to focus on Clouseau as the central character and introduced several aspects of the role that would become firmly established such as his antagonistic relationship with Herbert Lom's Commissioner Dreyfus and Burt Kwouk's violent Chinese man-servant Cato. Released within a year of The Pink Panther, the film manages to avoid excessive exposure thanks to Sellers' expert comic timing. After a break of several years and the failure of a Clouseau film made without either Edwards or Sellers, the pair reunited for 1975's The Return Of The Pink Panther which revived both of their careers. Once again focusing on the titular diamond as well as reintroducing the notorious Phantom (this time played by Christopher Plummer), the film is a wonderful mix of tense mystery and comic bumbling and personally, would be the last great film with Sellers as Clouseau. Further sequels The Pink Panther Strikes Again and Revenge Of The Pink Panther were simply variations on a theme and became increasingly silly and childish.

When Sellers died in 1980, many thought that the series would finish but Edwards had other ideas. Using outtake footage from earlier movies, Trail Of The Pink Panther was a critical and commercial disaster that resulted in a successful lawsuit by Sellers' widow. Nevertheless, Edwards tried again with a new character in much the same vein as Clouseau in the equally dire Curse Of The Pink Panther before finally giving it up with 1993's Son Of The Pink Panther. The series was then considered done and dusted until 2006's reboot The Pink Panther starring Steve Martin as a new Inspector Clouseau, followed by The Pink Panther 2 a few years later. Neither of these film won over critics - how can anyone but Sellers play the role of Clouseau, let's be honest - but this hasn't stopped a proposed CG animation crossover focusing on the character of the Pink Panther himself from being developed. Hopefully, co-producer Julie Andrews (Blake Edwards' widow) has enough sway to stop any future film from tanking the same way.

Main Cast

ActorRole

David Niven

Sir Charles Lytton

Peter Sellers

Inspector Jacques Clouseau

Robert Wagner

George Lytton

Capucine

Simone Clouseau

Claudia Cardinale

Princess Dala

Brenda de Banzie

Angela Dunning

Colin Gordon

Tucker

Technical Info

DirectorBlake Edwards

Screenplay

Maurice Richlin & Blake Edwards

Running Time

115 minutes

Release Date (UK)

9th January, 1964

Rating

PG

Genre

Comedy, Crime, Romance

Academy Award Nominations

Best Original Score

© 2022 Benjamin Cox

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