Written by Allan Mott
Out of all the different franchises that possess the unique ability to keep on going throughout the decades, few have provided as much fodder for a column dedicated to forgotten sequels than The Pink Panther. Over the course of 11 films (and a whole bunch of animated work inspired by the original’s title sequence) made over the course of 46 years (beginning with The Pink Panther in 1963 and—so far—ending with the sequel-to-the-remake, The Pink Panther II in 2009) there have been at least four different efforts deserving of “One Too Many” analysis.
At least three of these films can be blamed on the franchise’s chief architect—writer-director-producer Blake Edwards—and his unwillingness to concede that its reason for existing ended with the death of star Peter Sellers in 1980. In 1982, he released Trail of the Pink Panther, a bizarre effort strung together from outtakes, deleted scenes and clips from the previous films that feels just as insultingly exploitative as other patchwork efforts like the sequels to The Hills Have Eyes and Silent Night, Deadly Night.
A year later he tried to reboot the franchise with Soap sitcom star (and future Blossom dad) Ted Wass in Curse of the Pink Panther, which featured an equally inept American detective on the trail of the missing Clouseau. And after that seemingly killed the franchise for good, Edwards tried again a full decade later with Roberto Benigni in Son of the Pink Panther, where the Italian comedian (four years before the brief window after Life is Beautiful where anyone in North America gave a fuck) played the newly discovered son of the French inspector. It too flopped and disappeared without a cultural trace.
All three of these films seem to owe their existence to the lingering wounds left by Edwards and Sellers’ famously acrimonious working relationship. All three represent Edwards’ attempts to prove that it was his genius that was responsible for the franchise’s appeal and that Sellers was just an aggravating egomaniac he was forced to deal with along the way. With Trail, he made the onscreen argument that he didn’t even need Sellers to be alive to make a new Pink Panther film and—when that failed—he tried to prove it again by casting two other actors in ostensibly the same part.
In the end, all he accomplished was proving what the few people who remembered Inspector Clouseau—an otherwise forgotten film from 1968—had already figured out. Without Sellers the series simply doesn’t work. Unlike James Bond, Inspector Clouseau is a character whose iconic status is completely dependent on the unique gifts of the man who originally brought him to life.
By the time famed film producer Walter Mirisch decided he wanted to make a third Clouseau film (following the original The Pink Panther and 1964’s A Shot in the Dark), Edwards and Sellers were already working on The Party and had both vowed it would be the absolute last time they would ever work together. (They would break and repeat this vow repeatedly until Sellers’ death.)
Mirisch first approached Sellers and he turned him down, which made it safe for him to go to Edwards, who also turned him down. In Edwards place he turned to Bud Yorkin, a comedy director best known for his work with behind-the-scenes TV legend Norman Lear (All in the Family) and as the co-executive producer of Blade Runner, and for the role of Clouseau Mirsich turned to the star of his surprise 1965 hit, The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!
Unlike James Bond, Inspector Clouseau is a character whose iconic status is completely dependent on the unique gifts of the man who originally brought him to life.
Alan Arkin had received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his performance as a Russian sailor who is forced to deal with panicked New Englanders when his submarine is grounded off a small island in Massachusetts. Though it was his first major performance, he proved immediately he was an inspired comic talent (he was an early alumni of Chicago’s legendary Second City improv troop) and he also proved he could work with accents, which is likely why Mirisch thought of him for the part.
To write the film, Mirisch selected TV sitcom vets Tom & Frank Waldman, the brothers who had also written The Party. Together they devised a script where Scotland Yard imports the French inspector to England after it has been decided that they need an experienced outsider to stop a murderous gang of thieves aided by a unidentified mole in their midst.
Despite Scotland Yard not being the secret service, Clouseau is equipped with various Bondian-style weapons in a clear attempt by the filmmakers to latch onto the then recent vogue for comic spy capers. Per the series formula, he then proceeds to stumble and incompetently bumble his way to success.
As would become especially true for the later Panther films, plot here takes a major backseat to the comic set pieces, which in Yorkin’s hands lack the inspired technical flair of Edwards. The result is that Inspector Clouseau is one of those rare films that feels both rushed and meandering at the same time. Much time is spent on poorly executed and highly predictable gags, while the film quickly cuts to other scenes in ways that suggest important sequences were cut or never even filmed.
Instead of feeling like a continuation of the franchise, the film has much more stylistically in common with the Elvis Presley films of the period and could have fit comfortably on a double bill with 1967’s Double Trouble. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that (I personally adore the charming cheesiness of the Presley films), but watching Inspector Clouseau is like watching an Elvis Presley movie with Andy Kaufman playing Elvis.
Arkin does his best, but he lacks Sellers’ ability to lose himself in the part. Like Steve Martin after him, his performance highlights the accent and the character’s undeserved arrogance, but it doesn’t do anything interesting with them. In Sellers’ hands Clouseau’s absurd egomania made him seem naively innocent and even strangely relatable, but in Arkin’s it just makes him seem like an oblivious jerk.
Beyond Edwards’ own egocentric interests, there is something very appealing about an obviously incompetent character who manages to continuously succeed at their job as much because of their incompetence as in spite of it.
Inspector Clouseau flopped and it might have killed the series for good, were it not for the fact that following the success of The Party, Sellers appeared in a long run of even bigger flops (like The Blockhouse, Where Does It Hurt? and Soft Beds, Hard Battles) and was so desperately in need of a hit, he finally agreed to work again with Blake Edwards on 1975’s The Return of the Pink Panther, which they followed with The Pink Panther Strikes Again in 1976 and The Revenge of the Pink Panther in 1978.
Despite the fact that all non-Sellers Panther films have been either financial and/or creative disappointments, it’s not that hard to understand why filmmakers have kept trying to keep the character of Clouseau alive onscreen. Beyond Edwards’ own egocentric interests, there is something very appealing about an obviously incompetent character who manages to continuously succeed at their job as much because of their incompetence as in spite of it.
It feeds into the “Impostor Syndrome” that so many of us feel in our own lives—that fear that people will figure out we don’t really know what we’re doing most of the time and are really just guessing and hoping we’re right. We like Clouseau because he doesn’t share this lack of confidence—he truly believes he’s the best, even though all the evidence points to his being the worst. But in his case, this evidence doesn’t match up with the results or official record.
Watching a Pink Panther movie allows us to indulge in the comforting fantasy of failing upwards, which seems so much easier and achievable than succeeding because you’re the best. None of us are ever going to be as cool and invincible as James Bond, but all of us can be as lucky as Inspector Clouseau.
So that’s why I suspect we haven’t seen the last of him, even though all the evidence suggests it probably would have been better to let him go 34 years ago.
Images courtesy of Mirisch Films.