A SHOT IN THE DARK unleashed the full idiocy of ‘Jacques Clouseau’ (Peter Sellers) upon a grateful world mid-1964, just three months after his film-swiping supporting jewel as the idiotic Inspector of The Pink Panther. Both were directed and co-written by Blake Edwards. William Peter Blatty helped whip the script, based off a play, but adapted to suit the Clouseau character and Sellers comic persona. With laughs from one end to the other, it became the years 5th-biggest hit, grossing $19,300,000. This rounded out Sellers quad score of Dr.Strangelove, The Pink Panther and The World Of Henry Orient, all topping a slew of good comedies in ’64: the inspired A Hard Day’s Night, the biting The Americanization of Emily, Rock & Doris fun in Send Me No Flowers, Jack Lemmon on target as Good Neighbor Sam and the foreign teases of That Man From Rio and Topkapi. Plus there was Father Goose, the underrated Bedtime Story and the harmless silliness of Bikini Beach, Muscle Beach Party and Kissin’ Cousins. *
“And I submit, Inspector Ballon, that you arrived home, found Miguel with Maria Gambrelli, and killed him in a rit of fealous jage!”
France’s most inept detective is assigned to investigate the murder of the chauffeur at the country estate of snide rich swell ‘Benjamin Ballon’ (George Sanders). Evidence points to va-voom maid ‘Maria Gambrelli’ (Elke Sommer), but Clouseau is not only smitten by her charms (not a mystery, considering, well, Elke Sommer) but is convinced there are more feet afoot. Such dogged pursuit of justice drives his supervisor, ‘Commissioner Dreyfus’ (Herbert Lom) to homicidal insanity, while his strict orders to valet ‘Cato’ (Burt Kwouk) are to attack him without warning, so as to sharpen his hand-to-hand combat reflexes. Also aiding or dodging Clouseau are fellow officers ‘Hercule’ (Graham Stark) and ‘Francoise’ (André Maranne).
Director Edwards gives Sellers full rein on the character in this one, elevating the prideful bumbler from ‘Panther‘s scene-stealing supporting fool to supreme commander of his destiny as a lead. Mastering slapstick gags and adroit throwaway drollery, Sellers bakes one of filmdom’s great comic inventions, an inimitable dork whose decency is so sympathetic that you can’t help but root for him even as he demolishes everything he lays his hands on.
Sanders plays along with his effortless withering cool, and Lom finally gets to escape from a long run of playing evil swine and show some comic chops. Game for farce, Sommer is simply delightful. A beautiful woman who can make you laugh is one of Life’s sweetest treats.
MARIA: “You should get out of these clothes immediately! You’ll catch your death of pneumonia, you will.” CLOUSEAU: “Yes, I suppose I probably will. But it’s all part of life’s rich pageant, you know.”
Though he doesn’t employ the ‘Pink Panther’ theme, Henry Mancini’s sly music score is immediately recognizable as his own. With André Maranne, Tracy Reed, Martin Benson, Reginald Beckwith, Douglas Wilmer, Tutte Lemkow and Bryan Forbes, masquerading as the nudist with the guitar, under the name ‘Turk Thrust’.
* Edwards and Blatty based the zanity off a play by the same name that ran 389 performances on Broadway in 1961-62. Julie Harris, Walter Matthau and William Shatner starred. Harry Kurnitz had adapted it from a French play written a year earlier by Marcel Achard (The Earrings of Madame De…) titled L’idiote.
Blatty is best-known today for summoning The Exorcist, but before that descent into Devil despair he was raising farces—The Man From The Diner’s Club, John Goldfarb Please Come Home, Promise Her Anything, What Did You Do In The War Daddy (with Edwards) and The Great Bank Robbery.
“I believe everything and I believe nothing. I suspect everyone and I suspect no one.”
Speaking of demons out of Hell, the notoriously neurotic Sellers and Edwards battled violently throughout the production, swearing never to work together again. They patched up enough by 1968 to do The Party and then three more ‘Panther’ pix. Sellers soared in 64′, with the two Clouseau flicks, the charming The World Of Henry Orient and the brilliant lunacy of Dr. Strangelove. Not only did his salary zoom from £90,000 for The Pink Panther to $1,000,000 for Dr. Strangelove, but his overtaxed 38-year-old heart revved itself into multiple episodes of cardiac arrest on April 5, 1964, nearly killing him after using several amyl nitrite poppers during sex with Britt Ekland. There are worse ways one could go.
On the subject of to-die-for: Germany’s answer to a good many fervent wishers, the ravishing 23-year-old Teuton Bomb known as Elke Sommer, had been smashing atoms in Europe in two dozen films since 1959, but with her 1963 appearances in The Victors and The Prize followed by her delectable role here, she detonated internationally. Further shock waves emerged from her Playboy pictorial later in ’64, which somehow fell into my nine-year-old geography-fascinated clutches. I actually have it on good authority that she was a neat lady as well. My late brother-in-law, Larry Pennell, had some social encounters with her, I believe (it’s been a while) to do with track & field. I recall he said she was not only quite pleasant but also was “athletically, the most naturally gifted actress (he’d) ever met.” Kinda cool.