Lowdown: An elusive international thief tries to steal a precious gem, but not if a French police inspector can help it.
As it happened, we’ve bumped into several respected sources urging us to revisit 1963’s The Pink Panther (and avoid the recent remakes, or – for that matter – the numerous sequels). Most notable of these sources is Richard Dawkins, who urges the young readers of his wonderful The Magic of Reality to check out Peter Sellers’ slapstick display. If Dawkins goes so far with his recommendation, how can I avoid complying?
With its lengthy opening credits, The Pink Panther proved a peculiar film to watch right from the start; they simply don’t do that anymore. Reading those credits, it occurred to me that all the people I’m looking at are people that were probably around during my childhood years but have mostly passed away since or are very old in the better case. No doubt this feeling is not limited to The Pink Panther, yet there are a few actors whom I respected as a child that could trigger the notion. Peter Sellers and David Niven certainly are, and they're both in The Pink Panther (Steve McQueen is the only other name I can think of at the top of my head).
The Pink Panther tells the story of a gem, The Pink Panther, which was gifted by the dictator of a 10 million strong country to his princess daughter (Claudia Cardinale). That daughter is now roaming about internationally, which makes her an attractive target for a very successful thief with an illustrious record of breaking in to secure spots and getting out unscathed with the treasure. He's known as The Phantom (David Niven) for this trade of his, but in day time he's a famous Sir. Also happening to be in the neighbourhood is said Phantom’s nephew, a conman by his own rights, attending probably to drink more of his beneficiary’s funds (Robert Wagner). However, the police isn’t too far behind the trail, with the dreadfully clumsy French Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers) sticking his nose, literally. To add further twists, Clouseau’s wife is actually cooperating with The Phantom against her husband.
The whole complex, and never to be fully explained, setup is there to initiate proceedings at some First Class European hotel where all the characters meet and play before us in what feels a lot like a play (as in, theatre). Some try to steal a jewel, some try to catch a thief, and the mixture is meant to be highly combustible. Only that it isn’t. By today’s standards, The Pink Panther feels more like a punctured tyre.
Sure, Sellers’ slapstick is good. But it’s not that frequent, and with the old fashioned action scenes (read: none that any modern person would refer to as action) never truly heat up. Dialog is dubbed and badly matched to lips. There’s even a musical interlude stuck in the middle, as if actively trying to shatter the experience by having a mysterious woman come up and break the camera/viewer barrier by staring us directly in the face. Very weird.
Not all hope is lost, though. The Pink Panther still serves, but less as a film and more like an anthropological relic on the evolution of our culture. There’s plenty of that to be found, like the totally politically incorrect (by today’s standards) seduction scenes and implied sex vs. the total lack of violence; if you ask me, they had their priorities right back in the sixties. More obvious is the constant smoking and the way women are treated, demonstrating just how far feminism has advanced in the course of less than a life time (even if it still has a long road ahead of it). Most notable is the attempted seduction of a 20 year old (Cardinale) by a 50 year old (Niven); the fact it could have been regarded as plausible at the time says a lot about the times.
Best scene: Two thieves, both dressed up as gorillas, attempt to break into the safe holding the Pink Panther at the same time. Sellers isn’t one of the thieves, but it’s got the best humour in the movie by far.
Overall: Not much of a movie anymore, The Pink Panther serves mostly as a blast from the past. A blast that’s there to show just how far society has moved during recent decades, some times in the wrong direction but mostly forwards. With that in mind, I will give the panther 3 out of 5 crabs.