3:30 pm Aug. 31, 2012
It's usually Peter Sellers who gets credit for the great slapstick timing of the Pink Panther movies. But they also owe much to director Blake Edwards.
BAM will screen both A Shot in the Dark and The Return of the Pink Panther this weekend as part of their "American Gagsters" summer series. The films, including the latter, underrated sequel, serve as casual master's courses in comedy, with Edwards as the main subject.
If you look closely enough in Return of the Pink Panther, you can practically see Edwards setting up several of the film's most memorable jokes.
Take for example the gag with the ostensibly thief-proof blast doors. Having inadvertently cracked the case in The Pink Panther, Clouseau is flown into Lugash to investigate the latest theft of the Pink Panther diamond. He immediately dismisses museum personnel who try to explain the situation to him. Clouseau prefers to look at the crime scene independently.
When Clouseau heedlessly enters the Pink Panther's display room, Edwards has set up the camera squarely in front of the open doorway. Clouseau is shown with his arms crossed behind his back, while the personnel stay slightly behind him. The blast doors close behind him just as he passes through.
We can't see the mortified reaction of the men behind Clouseau. But after the resonant clang of the doors closing, we anticipate it. We anticipate it even more strongly when, seconds later, Clouseau triggers the doors again, but this time is on the opposite side, with the museum employees. The time between when the door slams shut and when we can see everyone again is agonizing.
Clouseau remains stoic because he's a moron masquerading as a detective genius, and everyone else in this scene is just acting polite because they were foolish enough to think that Clouseau was a genius. The scene is capped when one of the guards officiously commands someone at the other end of his walkie-talkie to "deactivate the door."
Edwards was a filmmaker whose features worked best when viewed as a series of sketches united by a narrative. Because Edwards was often inspired when it came to getting the micro-level details of his gags just right, he was not always so consistent on a macro level. There are brilliant scenes in Return of the Pink Panther and there are lesser ones, which make it feel padded and overlong.
A proponent of the "if it ain't broke" school of filmmaking, Edwards liked to repeat his best gags. This wasn't always a good thing. Hawk-eyed viewers will note that excised footage from some scenes in Return of the Pink Panther were later recycled in The Trial of the Pink Panther, a pointless project that was started just before Sellers died, and then was finished using unused film footage and a really tasteless and uninspired subplot about Clouseau's sudden death.
But sometimes Edwards's habit of recycling his own material paid off in a big way, as in the two slow-motion gags that bookend Return, in which he shows Sellers careening through the air and then crashing back down to earth in a hail of debris and human limbs. (This gag would be further recycled in Revenge of the Pink Panther, in which a Murphy bed smashes through a castle wall with Cato, Closeau and his love interest still in it.) But the two matching scenes of Clouseau missing his mark and suffering for it are fantastic: beautifully timed, providing symmetry to the film's events.
More than anything else, Edwards was a master of comic pacing and controlled space. This is perhaps most apparent in the scene in which Charles "The Phantom" Lytton (a virile and conspicuously bronzed Christopher Plummer, in a role originally performed by David Niven in The Pink Panther), a jewel thief who is falsely suspected of stealing the Pink Panther, is chased by gangsters.
In this scene, Plummer races around the second floor of an indoor courtyard. The scene is shot in one take, and demonstrates the remarkable extent to which Edwards's best routines relied on choreography. Plummer dispatches a lackey, races to his right, fights another baddy, races left, then swings to the groundfloor on a rope, mingles with the crowd below him, dispatches another villain, then escapes. It's a polished and highly deliberate sequence, proving that, unlike Clouseau, there was nothing accidental about Edwards' genius.