I doubt I have to spend much time introducing folks to Peter Sellers. His influence is too widely felt in modern comedy, inspiring everyone from Eddie Murphy to Sasha Baron Cohen, any of the comedians who like to go deep into disguise to play outrageous characters far removed from themsevles. Though the majority of recent studies of the actor have dealt more with his sometimes surreal life than his work (including the cable movie The Life and Death of Peter Sellers starring Geoffrey Rush), most people know at lest a couple of his performances, even if they don't realize that the same chameleon played all of the parts.
Instead, what readers who clicked on the title The Peter Sellers Gift Set most likely wanted to know is what kind of set is this and what is in it. For collectors, this new MGM box is probably not going to require a double-dip, so you can breathe a sigh of relief. For those who haven't loaded up on Peter Sellers movies yet, this is a pretty good shot to get four of the good ones.
The long and short of it is The Peter Sellers Gift Set is a bundling of four previously released DVDs for The Pink Panther, Casino Royale, What's New Pussycat?, and The Party. The DVDs are straight reissues of the versions that have been in print for quite some time now, the only difference being they are now each in a slim plastic case rather than the standard issue case, and they are housed in a nicely illustrated box. (The cartooning looks a little bit like Shag, who designed the ginchy box for The Pink Panther Film Collection, but I don't think it's him. The art is not signed, so I can't be sure.)
* The Pink Panther (115 minutes - 1964):The lead film in the box is The Pink Panther, the first in the series where Sellers played his most famous character, Inspector Clouseau, a bumbling French police detective on the trail of an international jewel thief (David Niven). Directed by Blake Edwards, The Pink Panther is a mild farce that involves more bed-hopping, though little actual bed action, than it does criminal intrigue. Still, Sellers is incredibly funny as the clumsy investigator, turning every scene into an opportunity for expertly executed pratfalls and precisely timed cock-ups. Though the character wouldn't be fully realized until shortly after, in the sequel A Shot in the Dark, the formative clay is all here, and it's easy to see why Sellers was chosen out of the ensemble to be the anchor for a new franchise. The final chase scene following a costume ball is up there with the silliest chases ever put on film. Both Sellers and Edwards loved silent film comedies, and so they make the most of pantomime and sight gags. Placing a doddering old man in the middle of the street as multiple cars full of costumed cops and crooks speed by was a stroke of genius.
The DVD quality of The Pink Panther is about as good as you can get. Utilizing the same 2.35:1 transfer as from The Pink Panther Film Collection (see link above for that review), every frame is bright and colorful, free of edge enhancement, and scrubbed thoroughly for dirt and scratches. The English audio has been remixed in a healthy 5.1 which doesn't overdo it on bells and whistles but is as lively as the film demands. You can also opt for mono mixes in English, French, and Spanish, as well as subtitles in all three languages.
Though the studio has done its best to make you think there are no extras on this DVD, load it up and you'll be pleasantly surprised to discover a Special Features menu all primed and ready for your attention. Why not list this on the outer box? Not even the individual DVD case trumpets any of the bonuses. In addition to your standard stills gallery and theatrical trailer, there is an audio commentary from Blake Edwards and a trivia track. The commentary is so-so. Edwards is interesting to listen to when he gets talking, but the track is riddled with gaps that just seem to get longer and longer as time goes by. The director has fond memories of the production, and he mainly talks about the people he worked with. The trivia track is far more extensive, using pop up windows to relay all manner of information, both directly and tangentially related to the movie. Some factoids speak specifically to what you are seeing on screen, some go beyond the movie to the overall history of the franchise and biographical tidbits about the movie's cast and crew. Expect no stone to be left unturned!
* Casino Royale (137 min. - 1967): This all-star send-up of James Bond films also ends in a brawl and a chase. As the titular casino comes crashing down around Bond (David Niven) and his agents, it becomes an international rumble, with the French Legion (represented by Jean Paul-Belmondo), American cowboys, and even Frankenstein's monster getting in on the act in order to bring down evil genius Jimmy Bond (Woody Allen), the nebbish American nephew of the superspy. The only person missing by that point is Peter Sellers, who had exited after his hallucinatory sequence as Evelyn Tremble, a card sharp masquerading as Bond to take down dastardly cheater Le Chiffre (Orson Welles).
Casino Royale is an infamous comedy fiasco. Made by producer Charles K. Feldman to cash in on the fact that he owned the debut Bond novel, he pulled in five different directors to shoot stand-alone sections of the picture before deciding to have Val Guest (the Quartermass films) try to link everything up. Naturally, this leaves huge, gaping holes in the plot, but it's a movie more geared toward slapstick than espionage. The basic idea is ingenious, casting Niven as a retired spy of the old school, a do-gooder with high morals who sniffs at the appropriation of his name (Bond, James Bond) and number (007) by a sex-crazed upstart who shall not be mentioned. Forced out of retirement when the evil organization SMERSH starts killing off spies around the world, he decides to have every agent on Her Majesty's Secret Service call him or herself James Bond, so that no one will know who holds the real license to kill.
In a 20-minute bonus feature, "Psychedelic Cinema," Val Guest gives an extended interview where he relates his version of the behind-the-scenes mishaps that became Casino Royale. This includes the on-set clashes between Welles and Sellers and the misbehavior that got Sellers fired from the movie, cutting his role unceremoniously short. The actor's performance is bizarrely disjointed. He's good as the suave yet nerdy mathematician roped into the underworld of international intrigue, but he adopts exaggerated accents for the occasional line delivery that never quite makes sense.
The film as a whole is entertaining, if dated. The groovy cash-in on '60s psychedelia comes off as campy now, and the whole film is pretty silly, including the ribald sexual humor that's cloaked in so many winks the resulting wind velocity must have blown the censors right out of their seats. Everyone is gung-ho, including a surprisingly goofy Deborah Kerr, and the movie has more leggy models vying for Bond's attention than the rest of his franchise combined. I wouldn't exactly call it a classic, but it's good fun. (For a review by someone who liked it a bit more than me, read DVD Savant's write-up of the original solo issue of Casino Royale.)
The video transfer is fairly sub par. The 2.35:1 aspect ratio is preserved, but the picture has lots of marks on it. There are particular problems with the final scenes with Woody Allen, when his hiccups manifest as animated clouds; given the specific nature of this material, perhaps that alone is a product of the process of adding the cartooning. On the other hand, the sound is quite nice, with the English audio getting a 5.1 mix that does a lot with the sound effects and music. You can also opt for English or Spanish mono mixes, as well as subtitles in English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese. In addition to the making-of feature, extras include a theatrical trailer and a 50-minute television version of Casino Royale filmed live in 1954 and starring Peter Lorre as Le Chiffre. It's a bit stagy for a spy story, but noteworthy for its early, more romantic portrayal of James Bond (here he's an American, even).
* What's New Pussycat? (109 min. - 1965): Though the Peter Sellers Giftset doesn't number the discs in the collection, they do give them an order on the insert sheet that comes attached to the back of the box, and that's the order I'm following here. It's strange that they would swap Casino Royale and What's New Pussycat? in the running order, not just because it's a chronological flub but Casino Royale contains two jokes that are a throwback to Pussycat, including a cameo by Peter O'Toole and a snatch of the title theme (composed by Burt Bacharach, who did the music for bother films; Henry Mancini did the scores for the two Sellers/Edwards pictures, giving the Peter Sellers Giftset quite the musical pedigree).
Written by Woody Allen and directed by Clive Donner (Luv), What's New Pussycat? is a crazy sex romp full of the young Allen's trademark cornball wit. O'Toole is Michael, an editor for a fashion magazine who can't stop chasing skirts long enough to settle down with his fiancée, Carole (Romy Schneider), whom he adores. Michael goes to a psychoanalyst, Dr. Fritz Fassbender (Sellers), to try to sort this problem out, but Fassbender is a seething lecher on his own. He'd much rather live vicariously through Michael than help him toss away a life that is every man's dream.
The build-up of What's New Pussycat? is watching as Michael gathers more and more women on his way to ending his cheating ways. There is the suicidal stripper/poet (Paula Prentiss), the sex-crazed female equivalent of Michael (Capucine), and when he least expects it, Ursula Andress parachuting from the wild blue yonder into his convertible. As seems to be the theme in these films, the climax involves all of these people, as well as the rest of the supporting cast, chasing each other around a love motel, with Michael trying not to have sex and everyone else shooting for the opposite.
Allen's script is sharp and full of great one-liners. I'd be curious, though, of how much of Fassbender was his creation and how much was Peter Sellers. I am not sure how to describe his look here. I imagine it must have been partially inspired by Brian Jones from the Rolling Stones, but the long Dutch-boy haircut and velvet suits make him look like Little Lord Fauntleroy joined the Ramones. Indulging in a semi-German accent (or is it Norwegian?), he is creepy and squirmy, like his portrayal of Claire Quilty in Kubrick's Lolita completely unleashed. He seems like he's from another planet, whereas Peter O'Toole is Peter O'Toole to the Nth degree. He speechifies, he rages, he drinks--Peter O'Toole!
As for the disc itself, Francis Rizzo III nails the many issues with the picture quality on this DVD in his review of it from the first time it came out back in 2005. Non-anamorphic, faded, a fairly shoddy transfer. The sound is the original English presented in a mono mix, and that fares better. (You can also listen to it in French or Spanish, or read subtitles in any of those three languages.) No bonus features are included at all, outside of the original trailer.
* The Party (99 min. - 1968): Easily my favorite of the movies collected here, Sellers reteams with Black Edwards to once again indulge their love of silent film comedies. The concept for The Party is something Chaplin or Keaton could have done wonders with, and though the movie does have quite a few verbal jokes, the majority of the more elaborate gags could run without sound and still inspire a huge round of guffaws.
Sellers plays Hrundi V. Bakshi, a recent transplant from India to Hollywood trying to make his way as an actor. After a particularly disastrous day on the set, where Bakshi's clumsiness brings the production crashing down, a mix-up causes him to be invited to the studio head's glitzy party rather than be fired. From there, comedy ensues, as the good-natured Bakshi just tries to fit in. He loses his shoe, runs afoul of parrots and dogs, tries to communicate with starlets, and even learns to play pool from a cowboy actor who is the only person in the movie that has an accent more extreme than Sellers.
The Party is a fantastic showcase for Peter Sellers' true talents. Not only does he completely lose himself in the role, but his physical agility as he traverses the many architectural oddities in the thoroughly modern home (inspired, perhaps, by Tati's Mon Oncle?) lets the actor show just how marvelous of a comedic athlete he is. The Party is one of those films I can watch a million times, and it never fails to make me laugh. I can even put it on while doing other things and check back in and out as the task demands, and every time I check in, I know it will make me smile. It's no hyperbole to call it a masterpiece.
The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer of The Party is about halfway there to being good. The vibrant colors have lost none of their luster, and the values are pretty good. It is, however, a noisy print, with lots of specks and scratches. All the audio mixes are in mono (English, French, Spanish--both audio and subtitle tracks for each), and the sound is pretty good. There might have been some fun to be had in messing with the field of sound and moving the effects through the speakers, but it also might have been overkill, so maybe better safe than sorry. As with What's New Pussycat?, the only bonus feature is a trailer. (To read a slightly less glowing review of The Party, jump to Holly E. Ordway's 2001 review of the stand-alone disc.)
I suppose one could consider it a bonus that this set retails for $39.95, whereas each film on its own, when sold at full price, is $14.98. Naturally, if you shop around, you can find them cheaper (I regularly see the solo discs at my local grocery store as part of various deals), but you can also comparison shop for the Peter Sellers Giftset and still save yourself a couple of bucks, getting the cool box to go with your movies in the process.