One of the first movie-going memories from my childhood was my parents taking me to see “A Shot in the Dark,” probably at our small town drive-in, because in that corner of Virginia, the downtown cinema never stayed open for more than a year or three at a time.
All I can be certain of recalling was my father’s endless amusement at the wonky sound a French paddy wagon made every time it arrested and hauled off the film’s bumbling hero, Inspector Jacques Clouseau of the Paris Sûreté. But there is zero doubt about its impact on me.
My first movie star obsession spun out of the film — no, not of bombshell starlet Elke Sommer, but of comic genius Peter Sellers. Years of Sellers movies led to decades of British comedy mania, from the former Goon to Monty Python, Douglas Adams, Rowan Atkinson and Ben Curtis and ever onward.
It was the first movie Blake Edwards made about the character, as he and future “Exorcist” author William Peter Blatty adapted Hollywood screenwriter/playwright Harry Kurnitz’s play and turned it into a Sellers/Clouseau vehicle.
Sellers and his mustachioed bungler were supporting players in Edwards’ “The Pink Panther,” which was filmed second but released first — in 1963 — and that’s how the “franchise” that came out of all this lunacy was titled and is remembered to this day.
If you love Peak Sellers and the string of classic comedies, dark and light, that spun out of his “Doctor Strangelove/The Millionairess/Lolita/The Magic Christian” 1960s, it’s essential viewing, even if comedy ages rather less well than other genres for a variety of reasons.
I’ve seen it often enough to figure I have it memorized, but memory always rearranges the order of scenes. I seem to remember the nudity colony highlight of the film as its climax, but of course there’s an evening of nightclubbing assassination attempts and that Agatha Christie-ish gathering of murder suspects that must wrap it all up.
Much of the genius of Sellers, his ability to invent based on what was on the set in front of him, was laid out beautifully in the cable TV film “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers,” which starred Geoffrey Rush and recalled the ways Blake Edwards saw the man making funny out of whatever prop was at hand on the set.
A globe in Clouseau’s office becomes a finger trap, a pool cue rack a fitting nemesis, a blown line something worth repeating — if Sellers could avoid cracking himself up during the take.
Sellers was notoriously difficult to work with, “only good for one take” many filmmakers and acting collaborators would say, from Kubrick onward. Edwards would work with him time and time again — “The Party” and “Pink Panther” sequels aplenty. Blake Edwards knew funny.
The running gags of the “Panther” series were established in “A Shot in the Dark” — the trench coat, the manservant/martial arts trainer Kato (Burt Kwouk, hilarious and a very good sport, too), the long-suffering sidekick Hercule, the eye-twitching boss and nemesis whom Herbert Lom turned into a comic icon all his own.
“Give me ten men like Clouseau and I could destroy the world.”
The plot is very proto-“Clue,” a daft murder mystery/low farce that could never have been one of the inspirations for Rian Johnson’s “Knives Out” movies.
Staff members at an estate outside the city start dying off. The shapely maid, Maria Gambrelli (Sommer) is the dead-to-rights suspect, as she always is caught with the murder weapon in her hand.
But a smitten Clouseau won’t hear of it, and keeps finding reasons to let her go so that she can be followed and he or his aide Hercule (Graham Stark) can find out who she’s covering for.
“Facts, Hercule, facts! Nothing matters but the facts. Without them the science of criminal investigation is nothing more than a guessing game.”
But it’s “do as I do, not as I say,” in this case. The facts pile up against her. Clouseau can’t tear his eyes off her, or her décolletage.
Meanwhile, we viewers suspect her oily employer, Monsieur Ballon (the ever-droll George Sanders), and others.
Clouseau’s boss Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Lom) is exasperated, but as the rich and powerful Ballon prefers to be investigated by the “idiot,” there’s nothing for it but to channel his outrage into tics, twitches and a cascading series of accidents which Dreyfuss can only share with his analyst, the audience and eventually his worst detective.
“What you’ve said, Clouseau, qualifies you as the greatest prophet since Custer said he was going to surround all those Indians!”
Watching the film anew I was struck by utterly soundstage-bound it is, with only second unit footage of Paris (those wailing police vans) and a snippet of a British estate meant to be the Ballon mansion glimpsed.
Parlors or parks and Paris offices with a view, a greenhouse, a nudist colony with a lake — all of it faked on MGM’s London soundstages. A Jaguar peels out, a Radford Mini deVille roars into a scene, all of it soundstaged.
I paid much more attention to Sanders this time around, watching him keep his composure no matter what Sellers got up to in the hunt for laughs in a take. Did Sellers annoy the hell out of him? I have read every Sellers bio I could get my hand on, but I can’t recall.
And that’s the way it looks, a nearly-unflappable suspect played by an actor hiding his fury at whatever take they were on as Sellers finds a new way to destroy a billiards room.
The nudist colony sequence was a lot naughtier then than it comes off now, but there is still fun in all the efforts to hide the stars’ bits and pieces. Mike Myers has named Sellers as a big influence, and the “Austin Powers” movies riff on Sellers’ turn as James Bond (“Casino Royale”) and his appearances as Inspector Clouseau.
For all its faux French setting and “Continental” attitudes towards sex, marriage and nudity, and its American production team, it plays as quintessentially British and of its time — class-conscious Clouseau and Dreyfus, a winking attitude towards “those French” and their sex and Citroens and Renaults and chic Paris clubs where one can travel from Spain (flamenco) to Russia and beyond, all in a single night of pub-hopping.
The folk guitarist/bouncer “Turk” who blocks a fully-clothed Clouseau from entering the grounds of Camp Sunshine was played by Bryan Forbes, an actor, screenwriter and director who gave the world the first cinematic “Stepford Wives,” the loopy satire “The Wrong Box,” “International Velvet” and “The Madwoman of Chaillot.”
And while that comical espionage music that Henry Mancini cooked up for this cat-and-mouse detective comedy would live on in other films of the series and the TV cartoon based on this character titled “The Inspector,” and still never be as famous as his saxophone-heavy “Pink Panther Theme,” there is an Easter egg in this movie that you won’t read about anywhere else.
Mancini famously handed off his baton to the animated Pink Panther in the credits to one of the later films in the series. But watch as Clouseau enters Camp Sunshine and tries to “fit in” with the happy, naked naturists. We hear that theme being played by the buck-naked house band as Clouseau strides past them.
Say, over there on the left side of the frame. Who IS that tall, balding and shirtless Italian-American sax player jamming with the band?
No, “A Shot in the Dark” is not as hilarious as it was when it was fresh and new. But it still lands laughs even as it ages into a sort of comic mayhem-in-a-murder-mystery Ur text, its star one of the most mercurial ever to step in front of the camera and turn a blown take into a gem that still tickles through time.
“And I submit, Inspector (sic) Ballon, that you arrived home, found MIG-well (Miguel) with Maria Gambrelli, and killed him in a rit of fealous jage!”
Rating: PG, violence, nudist colony nonsense
Cast: Peter Sellers, Elke Sommer, George Sanders, Burt Kwouk and Herbert Lom
Credits: Directed by Blake Edwards, scripted by Blake Edwards and William Peter Blatty, based on the play by Harry Kurnitz.