FILM REVIEW: A Shot in the Dark (1964)

A Shot in the Dark (USA, 1964)
Directed by Blake Edwards

Starring Peter Sellers, Elke Sommer, George Sanders, Herbert Lom

When stripped of their reputation, the Pink Panther series are a complete rollercoaster, ranging from the early brilliance of Peter Sellers to the cash-cow efforts in the 1980s and 1990s which brought lawsuits, controversy and further embarrassment to anyone close to Roberto Benigni. A Shot in the Dark, often held up as the best instalment, has dated as badly as the rest in certain aspects, but still has plenty to offer as a piece of light-hearted entertainment.Like The Pink Panther before it, A Shot in the Dark was not originally designed as a vehicle for either Peter Sellers or Inspector Clouseau. The film started out in life as the French play L'Idiote, which had been translated into English by Harry Kurnitz. Blake Edwards bought the rights and worked on a screenplay with William Peter Blatty, the man who would later create The Exorcist. After Sellers stole his every scene while filming The Pink Panther, Edwards and Blatty retuned this script for Sellers should the film be a success.But it wasn't just the emphasis on Clouseau that changed. Before shooting his part in The Pink Panther, Sellers had completed filming for Dr. Strangelove, developing a strong rapport with Stanley Kubrick who in turn allowed him to freely improvise. Any new director coming along would have struggled to replicate such a bond, made doubly hard by the relatively small role accorded to Clouseau. But by the time A Shot in the Dark began shooting, Sellers had an Oscar nomination under his belt, making working with him all the more impossible.This conflict between Sellers and Edwards might explain the grimmer nature of the finished product. Where The Pink Panther revolved around a jewellery heist, fancy dress and drunken seduction, A Shot in the Dark is a murder mystery with multiple casualties, most of them unintentional. Where there are direct crossovers, such as Clouseau messing with a globe, the punch lines are much harsher - instead of putting his hand on and falling down, his fingers are painfully trapped. And then there is the addition of Commissioner Dreyfus, whose very physical presence brings a sense of danger and threat.

As with all the subsequent Pink Panther films, A Shot in the Dark rises and falls on the comic timing of Sellers, who was in his prime as a comedian. Because the French accent is less exaggerated, it allows him to play everything straight without making it look like he is trying to do just that. Edwards' love of silent cinema shines through in both his approach to jokes and his characterisation of the leading man: Clouseau is so clearly and sympathetically drawn than we care about him and root for him even when his circumstances become outlandishly overblown.The supporting performances around Sellers are also pretty agreeable. Herbert Lom is terrific as Dreyfus, creating one of the best comedy psychos in cinema. Drawing on his performance in Hammer's The Phantom of the Opera, he descends into operatic levels of madness as the nervous tic slowly consumes his face. George Sanders is his usual caddish self, and his scenes with Sellers are enough to make any Goon Show fan-boy go weak at the knees (Sanders was the inspiration behind Hercules Grytpype-Thyne, the show's main villain voiced by Sellers). And there is an enjoyable cameo by Turk Thrust a.k.a. Bryan Forbes, director of The Stepford Wives and Whistle Down The Wind.By having such warm and enjoyable characters, the film manages to pull quite a sneaky trick on us. Underneath all the japes involving Clouseau and his infatuation with Maria Gambrelli, there is a pretty complex murder mystery involving multiple adulteries, back-stabbing and blackmail, with an 'everyone-in-on-it' solution similar to Murder on the Orient Express. In certain scenes, Blatty's script takes the opportunity to send up several Agatha Christie conventions - for instance, Clouseau assembles all the suspects together in one room, only to make a fool of himself and cause considerable damage in the process.

The central thrust of both the original play and the film is based around the idea of the holy fool: the one person who seems to have no bearing on reality, ignoring the 'facts' to support his own conclusions, turns out to have been right all along. Regardless of the nature of the pre-Clouseau script, the jury is still out on whether this approach was the right one. On the one hand, the idea of Clouseau rigorously pursuing his theory with the aim of pulling Maria does have great comic potential, most of which is realised. On the other hand, one can't help but thinking that we have been deprived of a great comedy in place of a much lighter good one: after we have seen what Sellers is capable of, we wish that there was more material on which he could riff.Then we come to the actual comedy of A Shot in the Dark. For the most part it's still funny, particularly when Sellers is allowed off the leash to partake in all-out slapstick. The running jokes about him going undercover and then being arrested are funny, as is the sequence of him breaking down a door, charging through an opera recital and falling out of a fourth-floor window into a river. In the final sequence at Sanders' house, Sellers is on top form, stumbling seamlessly from joke to joke while somehow retaining his dignity.In other aspects, however, the film had not stood up to the test of time. Even if we buy into the central romance and accept that the film will have a bawdy edge to it, the amount of bawdiness eventually becomes tiresome. The scenes in the nudist colony are only fleetingly funny and drift dangerously close to the Carry On series, which was reaching its peak at around the same time. Many jokes which are not built around slapstick feel telegraphed, like they are being shouted at their audience. The second that the camera cuts between Sellers and a bird in a tree, the outcome is so predictable that they needn't have bothered with the punch line.In its middle section, during the various attempts on Clouseau's life, the film also begins to get repetitive. The actual montage of the deaths is well-constructed, if we can forgive the lingering on dancers' derrieres and the general tackiness of after-dinner entertainment. And the idea of assassins accidentally killing bystanders in their hunt for Clouseau hints at the most elaborate sequences in The Pink Panther Strikes Again, in which a league of assassins hired by Dreyfus end up doing each other in. But from a narrative point of view, this part of the film is found wanting and feels a little stagey.All in all, A Shot in the Dark remains a pretty good comedy and the most consistent in tone of the Pink Panther series. It is not without its flaws, which have become more marked with the passage of time, and some viewers will feel cheated at being given a frothy, bawdy romp at the expense of something more complex and interesting. But for every second that Sellers is on screen, it never fails to be entertaining, and there are enough laugh-out-loud moments for us to mostly overlook all the little niggles.

Rating: 3.5/5

Verdict: A shot that's partially on target


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