As a rule, I'm not a big fan of slapstick comedy. Sure, I get a good laugh out of Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory, Will Ferrell and buddies rumbling with rival anchormen, and even Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern getting plunked on their noggins by swinging paint cans. But it's not a cinema genre I actively seek out. To me, slapstick is the beer and pretzels of movie comedy, and I much prefer champagne and caviar – witty repartee, double entendres, and obtuse references. I can appreciate good slapstick, but it doesn't tickle my funny bone nearly as much as zingy one-liners.
That said, I secretly hoped Blake Edwards' original version of 'The Pink Panther' might change my mind and warm me up a bit more to the art of slapstick. I've always admired Peter Sellers' comic genius, especially in 'Dr. Strangelove,' 'Lolita,' and 'Being There', but – believe it or not – I had never seen his iconic portrayal of Inspector Clouseau, other than in isolated clips. (I know, I know, there have only been about a bajillion sequels, but somehow I avoided them.) So when I popped the disc in my player, I anticipated a high-energy, breathlessly paced, brainless, off-the-wall romp filled with sight gags, stunts, and zany caricatures galore. What I got instead was a sluggish, run-of-the-mill bedroom farce that dragged on far too long and provided only a few mild chuckles. In other words, 'The Pink Panther' wasn't stupid, just boring.
Maybe I set the slapstick bar too high. I know I expected to see more of Sellers, who in this first installment is really only an ensemble member of a large, impressive cast. And without a doubt, I assumed Edwards would knock the ball out of the park, rather than coast his way through a standard-grade comedy, especially after such top-flight work on 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' and 'The Days of Wine and Roses.' (I mean, if the original 'Pink Panther' is a dud, how can it spawn a follow-up, let alone a long-running series?) If anything – and I can't believe I'm actually saying this – 'The Pink Panther' needs more slapstick to jumpstart its sputtering engine. The only parts of the movie I truly enjoyed were the ones involving broad physical comedy – Sellers resting his hand on a spinning globe and tumbling to the floor; Capucine banging her head on a bar counter; people tripping, slipping, and walking into walls. Take away the pratfalls and we're left with dialogue that's devoid of sparkle and a lifeless story that never takes flight.
The premise has promise. Jacques Clouseau (Sellers), a bumbling French inspector, tails an elegant jewel thief known as "The Phantom" (David Niven) to a ritzy Alpine ski resort, where he believes his next heist will take place. An Indian princess (Claudia Cardinale) will be vacationing there, and she holds in her possession a big honker of a diamond that, when regarded closely, reveals a figure that some say resembles a pink panther. Unbeknownst to the clueless Clouseau, his wife Simone (Capucine) is not only having an affair with The Phantom, but is also his partner in crime. Further complicating matters is The Phantom's nephew (Robert Wagner), who also covets the jewel (as well as Simone) and hopes to blame its disappearance on The Phantom, who he doesn't know is his uncle.
With such good farcical elements in place, it's surprising that Edwards, one of the genre's masters, can't do more with them – especially since he co-wrote the screenplay (with Maurice Richlin). Like many '60s comedies, 'The Pink Panther' is all fluff, but despite high class production values, gorgeous locations, and breezy performances, the pieces don't fit together well enough to produce a cohesive whole.
Sellers is terrific as Clouseau, but in this first film of the series he doesn't yet fully realize the character. He'll refine bits and tics and the French accent later on, but his timing and deadpan facial expressions are already well honed. Although Niven was supposed to be the movie's undisputed star, Sellers – in the true spirit of the caper plot – effortlessly steals the show. It's impossible to concentrate on anyone else while he's on screen, and wondering what he'll do next provides welcome suspense. Niven sleepwalks through his suave, sophisticated role, but still exudes Cary Grant charm; the strikingly beautiful Capucine handles her comic chores well; and the dashing Wagner looks like he's warming up for his future TV turn in 'It Takes a Thief.' Star power only goes so far though, and 'The Pink Panther' just doesn't have the goods to back it up.
Call me a stick in the mud, but there wasn't enough joie de vivre in 'The Pink Panther' to hold my interest. As a '60s snapshot, it merits a passing glance, and it's noteworthy for Sellers' debut as Clouseau, but it's far from my definition of a classic. Maybe its sequels are better, but the original didn't exactly whet my appetite to see them.
I haven't taken a gander at any previous incarnations of 'The Pink Panther' on home video, but it's impossible to imagine a version that's bolder or more colorful than this 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC transfer. Grain is noticeable but not distracting, and the well-scrubbed print really spotlights the lush, vibrant hues that consistently splash across the screen, especially during the Alpine exterior shots. Niven's ski sweaters (one yellow, one red) are gorgeously saturated, and the deep blue sky set against the jagged mountain peaks is a high-def lover's dream. Blacks are dense and rich, while snowy whites are kept in check, even in bright sunlight. Contrast is pumped pretty high, but never destabilizes the image, and fine details are generally clear. Fleshtones are properly pitched as well, from the gentlemen's tans to Capucine's patrician complexion.
Some faint mosquito noise is present throughout, and a bit of digital sharpening can be detected, but the transfer is free of any banding or pixilation. This is a strong rendering from MGM that greatly enhances this 46-year-old film.
We haven't seen many (or maybe any) films of this vintage sporting a DTS-HD Master Audio track, so its inclusion by MGM is indeed good news. Clean, bright, and well-modulated, the sound serves both Henry Mancini's identifiable theme and the Richlin-Edwards script well. Dialogue is always clear and comprehensible, and the familiar saxophone strains enjoy good fidelity. The front channels provide a broad audio field that gives the illusion of surround sound, but the rears and subwoofer remain silent. There's no distortion on the high end, and any age-related imperfections have been erased. This is basically supped up mono sound, but it's been fashioned with care, and the effort shows.
There's a lot of fresh content on this Blu-ray edition, as well as a couple of extras from the previous DVD release. MGM obviously wanted to make this a true collector's edition, and they've put together a solid package that will definitely please the film's fans.
Hollywood has produced dozens of classic comedies throughout its history, but 'The Pink Panther' isn't one of them. Blake Edwards' farce may have been a big hit in its day, and was surely popular enough to inspire several sequels, but it hasn't weathered the years well. The film looks and sounds terrific on Blu-ray, and a healthy spate of supplements sweeten the deal, but only diehard fans should consider adding it to their collection. For everyone else, a rental more than suffices.