The recent passing of Burt Kwouk made me nostalgic for the Pink Panther movies. Granted, Burt Kwouk does not appear in The Pink Panther, but I wanted to start at the beginning.
The Pink Panther is not quite like the others in the series that Peter Sellers starred in. The focus was never supposed to be on Peter Sellers, but his character was so popular that it spawned other movies in the series.
The Pink Panther is the name of a huge diamond that was given by the ruler of an Indian kingdom to his daughter. Fast-forward several years. The daughter is now a princess in exile, but still in possession of the diamond. However, “the Phantom”, a famous jewel thief, is intent on stealing it. Inspector Clouseau is not far behind him, intent on catching the Phantom as much as the Phantom is intent on stealing the Pink Panther.
The Phantom is the famous Sire Charles Lytton (David Niven), well known and loved by others in high society. He socializes with the princess, trying to woo her—all in the name of stealing the diamond. Meanwhile, he is carrying on an affair with his partner in crime, Inspector Clouseau’s wife Simone. His nephew (a young Robert Wagner), newly graduated from a college that he pretended to attend, shows up to gum up the works.
The nephew George goes after the Inspector’s wife and the famous bedroom scene ensues. Both George and Sir Charles happened to be in the Clouseaus’ hotel room, but unknown to each other. Simone plays the exhausting job of keep them none the wiser of each other and Inspector Clouseau none the wiser about either of them being there.
Peter Sellers bumbles his way through the movie, a subdued version of Inspector Clouseau in later Pink Panther movies. He seems to fall into clues without really trying. The physical humor is subtle. The lines and other jokes in the movie require some attention.
One of my favorite scenes is in the hotel lounge. The hotel guests are all around a fire pit that is covered with a metal hood. Deep in conversation, Inspector Clouseau places his hand on the hood to lean against it. Of course, he is burning his hand and quickly shoves it into the closest liquid: a stein full of beer that his conversation partner is holding. The response? “It is my beer, old man.” “My hand!” Inspector Clouseau exclaims. Naturally, his hand proceeds to get stuck in the stein—classic physical humor.
The Inspector is never quite aware of his surroundings. In speaking with someone in his office, he raises his hand, pointing his index finger for emphasis. It just so happens that the person he was speaking to was standing right next to him…and his index finger went up the guy’s nose. Without skipping a beat, the Inspector wipes his finger on his pants and keeps talking. Subtle humor like that peppers the movie.
Sometimes it is so subtle you might miss it. The Inspector plays the violin to help his wife sleep. (I use the word “play” loosely here.) Once he accidentally stepped on the violin in the dark, completely destroying it. In a later scene, a hotel worker brings his violin back from being repaired. His response? “Oh my Stradivari? I hope they know how to fix plastic.” That elicted a snort from me. And then a replay. (Did I really hear what I thought I heard?)
Foreshadowing the role that Cato (Bruce Kwouk) plays, whenever the Inspector is leaving his hotel door, the Inspector pauses, as if there is a trap or someone waiting to attack him on the other side. Cato, of course, played the Inspector’s servant in later films who would lie in wait to attack the Inspector when he least expected it. (The Inspector wanted to keep his instincts honed.)
In The Pink Panther, Sellers set the stage for who Clouseau would become. And opened the door for other characters, such as Cato. But in The Pink Panther, Clouseau is just another man, albeit a slightly incompetent one, with an unfaithful wife. In the following movies, Clouseau becomes a caricature of himself.