The movie that launched the popular and enduring but all-too-frequently excruciating and unfunny film series, The Pink Panther (1963) is almost quaintly innocent today, though it was conceived and perceived as a somewhat racy, sexy farce (albeit heavy on slapstick) when it was new. Second-billed Peter Sellers introduced the character of bumbling Inspector Jacques Clouseau with this film, and director/co-writer Blake Edwards pretty much allows the Sellers to run off with the film. Intended as a light comic vehicle for David Niven, reportedly the first of an intended series to have starred him, Sellers' overwhelming presence and a badly-structured script result in a grievously overlong, claustrophobic and only fitfully funny picture, though the actors are enjoyable and some of the scenery is pleasant.
The Pink Panther was filmed in Technirama, a large-negative process that was basically VistaVision with CinemaScope-like anamorphic prints. Because of this MGM/Fox's Blu-ray disc should look exceptionally sharp - and generally speaking it does, though it's not as eye-poppingly splendiferous as Sleeping Beauty or Zulu, two other Technirama titles recently released to Blu-ray.*
Various characters converge in the ski resort town of Cortina d'Ampezzo in northwestern Italy. British playboy Sir Charles Lytton (Niven) is in fact the notorious jewel thief "The Phantom," plotting to steal the largest diamond in the world, The Pink Panther. The diamond is presently in the possession of vaguely Middle Eastern Princess Dala (Claudia Cardinale, though dubbed by Gale Garnett, who does a good impression of the actress), who as a little girl (in the film's prologue) was given the gem by her father, the late Shah of Lugash.
Sir Charles's co-conspirator is his mistress, the beautiful Simone (Capucine), wife of the very man determined to capture The Phantom, inept French police inspector Jacques Clouseau (Sellers) of the Sūreté. Yet another character turns up, fifth wheel George (Robert Wagner), Sir Charles's rascally American nephew.
The French farce-like screenplay by Edwards and Maurice Richlin (Pillow Talk, Operation Petticoat) bounces - or rather, more like galumphs - between long scenes of Clouseau vainly trying to have sex with his wife (they share the same bed, sexy stuff in 1963) while Sir Charles romances Princess Dala and George becomes attracted to both the princess and Simone.
Though handsomely produced and occasionally funny, The Pink Panther is one horribly disjointed movie. Peter Ustinov was originally set to play Clouseau but he dropped out and Sellers was a last-minute replacement. It's hard to imagine Ustinov playing anything like the character Sellers plays in the finished film. It appears Edwards gave Sellers enormous latitude in creating the character, and that a lot of the physical slapstick was worked out on the set.
Though still really a supporting role, Clouseau dominates The Pink Panther at the expense of David Niven and Claudia Cardinale's characters. Though he's charming and she's sexy there's nothing special about their footage and Sir Charles's entire plot to steal the diamond gets utterly obscured, probably to make room for more Clouseau footage. Other than trying to woo the princess so she'll reveal the location of the Pink Panther Diamond, the audience never is let in on Sir Charles's plans, nor do we see him doing much thieving except in a brief early scene. The vaguely similar To Catch a Thief (1955) is far from Hitchcock's best, but at least we see Cary Grant engaged in some decent cat burgling; David Niven mostly sits around, being David Niven. (Of course, Wagner would star in the It Takes a Thief TV series a few years after this.)
Why is Robert Wagner even in this film? The character is utterly superfluous, except maybe to toss in another body, adding to the confusion during the admittedly very funny climatic chase. (Another question the film doesn't answer: What kind of legal authority would a French police inspector have in Italy, anyway? Clouseau orders people around as if he was in France, not Italy, and even Sellers' inconsistent accent seems to slip into an Italian one at various times.)
The film is overly claustrophobic; too much time is spent in Clouseau's cramped hotel room in long continuous takes in wide angles, probably an emulation of the photographic style of Laurel & Hardy's short subjects, which both Sellers and Edwards adored. There's not enough of Cortina d'Ampezzo, which looks fantastic. Indeed, all the exterior footage is very impressive in high-def. (There are also two great shots of Hollywood, one of the Broadway Department Store building at Hollywood & Vine where this reviewer once worked.)
As for Sellers, he's more human and less the cartoon he'd become in the '70s Pink Panther movies, a characterization closer to his late-'50s/early-'60s British comedies. Watching the film again I was equally impressed by Capucine's comic timing; she's shares almost every scene with Sellers and takes nearly as many pratfalls.
Except for the party scene/big chase at the end, which is inventive and lively, The Pink Panther generally moves at a snail's pace; it seems much longer than its 115-minute running time. Part of the problem is that while Sellers' slapstick is superbly executed, the context is all wrong; there's no momentum, the set-up to a gag is often muddled, and much of the comedy merely seems aimless. (Though much broader overall, The Pink Panther Strikes Again is the only fully-successful film of the entire series, at least as far as this reviewer is concerned.)
And yet it's hard to entirely dislike a movie with so many appealing components: the cast, the locations, to say nothing of Henry Mancini's iconic score. Everyone, but everyone knows the "Pink Panther Theme" but many forget its other great hit, "It Had Better Be Tonight" ("Meglio Stasera"), with lyrics by Franco Migliacci and Johnny Mercer, and performed in the film by Fran Jeffries. It's a great little song.
Video & Audio
Filmed in Technirama (see above), a Technicolor-developed widescreen process, The Pink Panther looks quite nice, with exceptional and subtle detail lacking in earlier home video incarnations. Though there are a few horizontal negative scratches here and there (quite noticeable at the 8:26 mark) and the opticals have some glaring dirt, the picture is startling good much of the time.
Some things that really impressed me: The blue of David Niven's eyes are striking, and one really appreciates the film's attractive art direction. The texture of the stone and wood around the various fireplaces stand out. I was also impressed how much better the subtle colors, reflections, and textures of metals appear in this transfer; all the European automobiles and their paint jobs look really great, and the early-'60s hipness of the film generally (in the costumes, the cars, and the locations) are all vividly colorful. Though hardly on the level of Disney's Sleeping Beauty, the animated titles (which introduced the Pink Panther cartoon character) are nice to see in high-def
The 1080p transfer is on a 50GB, dual-layered disc. The film's original audio history is murky. One assumes the film had at least a limited 4-track magnetic stereo release but probably was mostly released monophonic. In any case, a 1.0 Dolby Digital mono track is included along with a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio remix that sounds okay - it brings out Mancini's music better - but it's modest. 5.1 DTS tracks in Spanish, French, and Portuguese are also included, along with subtitles in Spanish, Portuguese, Korean, Cantonese, Mandarin, and Thai. English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing also are included.
The supplements are impressive. Three new featurettes are in high-def: The Coolest Cat in Cortina: Robert Wagner, The Tip-Toe Life of a Cat Burglar: A Conversation with Former Jewel Thief Bill Mason, and Diamonds: Beyond the Sparkle. For film buffs, the Wagner piece is most welcome and his comments interesting and entertaining, though the latter shows are of dubious interest, though more general Blu-ray buyers might enjoy them.
Happily, the film's original trailer, which features original animation of the Pink Panther, has been remastered to high-def as well. It's fun to watch.
To older documentaries carried over from an earlier DVD release are included; both are very good: The Pink Panther Story and Beyond the Feline: The Cartoon Phenomenon. The former, featuring an on-camera interview with Edwards (among others) has a lot of good information on the first two films, gets sketchy about the later ones and strenuously avoids ever mentioning Return of the Pink Panther, which MGM didn't own at the time. The latter is a good overview of the subsequent series of theatrical cartoons, which had an unusual genesis.
Finally, Blake Edwards himself provides an audio commentary that's sometimes okay but often, well, very very sooooothing. It's almost like a trip to the hypnotherapist.
The Pink Panther is overrated as a movie and underrated as an entry in the official "Pink Panther" film series. It's overlong and not as funny or sexy or romantic as it might be, but on Blu-ray it sure looks nice and the extras are all good. And despite its ups and many downs, it would be nice to see all the pre-1980 films on Blu-ray eventually.
* Some argue Zulu was ruined with excessive DNR, but to my eyes I thought it looked splendid. Certainly it wasn't excessive on the level of The Longest Day, and the transfer was vastly superior to Universal's dreadful HD DVD of Spartacus, yet another (Super) Technirama (70) title.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's latest book, The Toho Studios Story, is on sale now.