A film review by Craig J. Koban

 

 
     

A SHOT IN THE DARK jjjj

40th Anniversary Retrospective Review

1964, PG, 104 mins.

Before there was Jim Carrey, Steve Martin...hell, even Rowan Atkinson, there was a wonderful Brit named Peter Sellers.  To step back and revisit Blake Edward’s 1964 film A SHOT IN THE DARK is to admire and pay respect to his comic genius.  With his character of Inspector Jacques Clouseau, Sellers has embedded in the world of cinema with one of its greatest and most loved comic icons.   The Inspector first appeared in another comedy earlier in the year, THE PINK PANTHER, where he was originally forged as a supporting character, but later developed such a distinct and winning persona that he became the star and seemingly pushed main star David Niven to the sidelines.   

The role of Clouseau was originally offered to Peter Ustinov and was to be played seriously.  After viewing THE PINK PANTHER it’s absolutely impossible to conceive of anyone else other than Sellers.  Despite being a relative unknown internationally at the time, Sellers took the role, which would cement his reputation as a comic mastermind.  Sure, Sellers has been great elsewhere (who could forget his three roles in DR. STRANGELOVE or THE PARTY or BEING THERE), but it’s his bumbling French Inspector that people most remember him for.   In the annals of great comic characters, he ranks right up there with Chaplin’s Little Tramp.  I think this analogy has weight.  Clouseau and Sellers seem so intertwined that it’s difficult to think of him without imagining his naïve and clumsy alter ego. 

A SHOT IN THE DARK came out a mere four months after THE PINK PANTHER, and for my money it’s the TRUE start of the PINK PANTHER series, not to mention that it firmly establishes the Clouseau that we all know and love.  In the film Clouseau is called to a country house where a murder was committed and finds that every clue points to the beautiful maid, Maria.  As the bodies accumulate, each set of clues always points to Maria, and Clouseau continues to release her and escort her around town. Things snowball from bad to worse and people keep getting murdered, and each time the seemingly innocent Maria seems to be the killer.  However, with someone important wanting Clouseau and nobody else to cover this case, his tolerance-challenged boss Charles Dreyfuss is close to losing his mind when casualties keep turning up.  Of course, Clouseau keeps on causing trouble without knowing it.

Writer/director Edwards really allowed himself some breathing room for this entry in the PINK PANTHER series.  This film feels freer, more whimsical, more slapstick, and more consistent with its laughs than THE PINK PANTHER.  Sellers is at the top of his form here, and it’s no wonder that this is the best of the series.  A SHOT IN THE DARK cements Clouseau as a true slapstick gem, a man who means well and has fierce determination, but he suffers from such complete, utter, and incompetent tunnel vision that he really has no clue of the havoc that he unleashes.  Clouseau is not just a bad policeman…he is a NOTORIOUSLY INEPT policeman that would make Frank Drebbin blush.  He’s the type of policeman whose complete lack of skill and ability cause more harm than good…it could be argued that it might lead to his superiors going insane.  Wait a minute, that actually happens to Chief Inspector Dreyfuss, Clouseau’s boss, and his reactions to the mayhem that he leaves at every turn are some of the film’s humorous highlights.  His scenes with a cigar cutter and a letter opener are two of the funniest scenes I have ever seen.

Despite the hilarity of the Chief Inspector, the real crutch of this film is Clouseau.  I have never seen a film that has created in me such an unbridled anticipation of humor than this one did.  Not only do you laugh at how stupid and moronic Clouseau is, but you also laugh in anticipation of his failures.  There are almost too many set pieces to mention that garnered huge laughs.  Clouseau is so stoic in his idiocy, even when he fails to understand that he is in a nudist camp, for example.  There are also a few tremendously hilarious scenes with Clouseau and his “manservant” Cato, whom attacks the Inspector at the least opportune time as part of his combat training.  When the innocuous Inspector congratulates Cato on a training job well done, he seems completely oblivious to the fact that he is unconscious!  The scene where the Inspector and his partner attempt to synchronize their watches has the patience to build to a pathological comic peak.  The final scene in the film where Clouseau tries to unravel the murder mystery is a masterpiece of slapstick timing and dialogue.  Only Buster Keaton and Chaplin are Sellers’ match.

A SHOT IN THE DARK is also very, very well directed, and Blake Edwards has a true gift for comic timing and pacing.  The film is consistently funny all the way through, and just when you think there was a funny moment that went by, another comes hurtling onward.  I love the way Edwards does not take great pains with camera work, editing, or sound to “spell out” to the viewer that the humour is coming.  The reason the film works is because it is so rigidly not self-conscious about its humor.  It’s played strategically straight so that when the clumsy Inspector does something embarrassing or ridiculous, the comic energy comes twofold.  Watching this makes me wince at the state of current comedies.  They seem so COMPLETELY self-aware and go to such great pains to rigidly set up their laughs that they lack anticipation and tension. 

A SHOT IN THE DARK goes right at the top of my list of the funniest films I have ever seen.  It’s part of a glorious 6 DVD package that has just been recently released as THE PINK PANTHER FILM COLLECTION by MGM Home Video.  If you have not seen this film, do yourself a favour and pick up the set.  If anything, it’s a package of supreme appreciation for the comic talent of a true genius that has been missed for nearly 25 years, and it represents a landmark film in establishing one of cinema’s funniest creations.  If you don’t rent this, you may just hit yourself (to quote Clouseau) “in a rit of fealous jage!”

 

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