Friday, January 27, 2012

CMBA Comedy Classics Blogathon: A Shot in the Dark

It's ironic that A Shot in the Dark, the second Panther Panther film, turned out to be the one that established the formula for the film series. It was based on the French stage play, L'Idiote, which didn't even feature Inspector Clouseau. The play was adapted for Broadway in 1961 as A Shot in the Dark and starred Walter Matthau and Julie Harris. After Peter Sellers agreed to play the lead in a 1964 film version, the actor had second thoughts. He asked Pink Panther director Blake Edwards to take over the film.

Initially, Edwards declined, but finally relented on the condition that it be revamped as a Clouseau vehicle. Sellers enthusiastically agreed and convinced the film's backers. Edwards and William Peter Blatty (who would later write The Exorcist) completely rewrote what Edwards could come to call "the unintentional Clouseau" film.

Clouseau: "You've been cutting flowers."
As with all of The Pink Panther movies, the plot is just a framework for the gags. When a murder occurs at a millionaire's country estate (where everyone seems to be having an affair), Clouseau is sent to investigate. The obvious suspect is the maid Maria (Elke Sommer), who is found in possession of the murder weapon. However, Clouseau becomes smitten with her on first sight and becomes determined to prove her innocence.

Herbert Lom with eye twitch.
A Shot in the Dark introduces several elements that would define the Pink Panther formula. Herbert Lom makes his first appearance as Commissioner Dreyfus, who is slowly driven (literally) insane by Clouseau's incompetency. Burt Kwouk makes his debut as Clouseau's valet Kato, who attacks his boss at the most inconvenient times to "strengthen Clouseau's reflexes" (or so the French detective says). A Shot in the Dark also marks the first appearance of the running gag of a killer failing to assassinate Clouseau (often at the expense of innocent bystanders). This is even the film in which Sellers perfected Clouseau's unique mangling of the English language (in a French accent). In the documentary, The Pink Panther Story, Blake Edwards recounts a weekend in which Sellers inexplicably disappeared during the production. When he returned, Sellers told Edwards that he'd met a concierge whose voice was perfect for Clouseau.

Although there are classic comedic routines in other Pink Panther films, A Shot in the Dark features three of my favorites. The first occurs when Clouseau tracks Maria to a resort that turns out to be a nudist camp. The sight of Clouseau navigating among the camp members--with a guitar hanging strategically in front of him--is brilliant visual comedy. Equally amusing in a more subtle way is the running gag of Clouseau being arrested and carted away to jail for selling balloons without a licence, hunting without a license, painting on a sidewalk without a license, and--of course--indecent exposure while fleeing from the nudist camp. Of course, Sellers isn't responsible for all the best scenes. Herbert Lom's eye ticks and muffled manic laughs are funny on their own, but the part where an irritated Dreyfus accidentally cuts off one of his fingers is a classic.

Kato stops to answer the phone
during martial arts practice.
Yet, while Lom and Kwouk are fine supporting players, A Shot in the Dark--like all Pink Panther films--belongs to Sellers. He can generate laughs simply from walking into closets, destroying a rack of billiard cues, spinning a globe, or mispronouncing a word. Paired with a director like Edwards, who understood the dynamics of physical comedy, it's no wonder that the Pink Panther movies became immensely successful.

What is amazing is that additional Pink Panther films were made at all after A Shot in the Dark. Despite their successful partnership, Sellers and Edwards frequently clashed when working together. In fact, they swore they'd never work together again after A Shot in the Dark. Yet, four years later, they made The Party, a fairly funny film with Sellers as a small-time Indian actor mistakenly invited to a posh Hollywood party.

Clouseau in disguise!
Ironically, that same year saw the release of Inspector Clouseau, which starred Alan Arkin and was directed by Bud Yorkin. It proved that audiences weren't interested in a Clouseau movie without Sellers--though it still left the door open for future Pink Panther films. Seven years later, Edwards and Sellers rebooted the franchise with The Return of the Pink Panther (1975). Its worldwide success surprised everyone--save Edwards and Sellers--and set the stage for two direct sequels and a slew of spinoff and remakes.
None of them can match A Shot in the Dark for laughs per minute and originality. In 2000, when the American Film Institute saluted great screen comedies, it ranked A Shot in the Dark at #48 among the all-time comedy classics. I might have ranked it even higher.


  1. Rick - I just ADORE this film. I can still remember sitting in the theater as a kid and roaring with laughter (especially at the scene in the nudist camp). Elke Sommer was just the cutest thing and this film started a long love affair (from afar, of course) with Peter Sellers. His Clouseau "eez a werk of arrt!" Great post.

  2. Rick,
    Really interesting 'behind the scenes' info on Pink Panther, Shot in the Dark. I must confess that I've only seen "Return of the Pink Panther" though.

    I'm all for a good laugh so with that ranking #48 (pretty impressive) and your recommendation, I'll do my best to get Shot in the Dark checked off my 'must see' list.

    Interesting that a concierge was used for inspiration for a character in such an iconic franchise. Love the trivia.

    An informative contribution to the Blogathon. Always interesting to see what your favorites are.
    Oh, and again, Thanks for putting such a fun Blogathon together. Another success for your record books.

  3. Rick,

    A SHOT IN THE DARK is arguably the best in the series. For me, this film and the original are the best in the series (I list this one as my favorite). The scenes with KATO are hilarious and Sellers is just a master comedic actor.

    Back sometime after the movie came out, I found a copy of the play in a local library and other than the base storyline of the murder it is totally different.

    An extremely informative and well executed post.

  4. Rick, my family and I are big fans of Peter Sellers in general (it's said that he was a difficult person, but that certainly didn't stop him from being a brilliant comedian) and the PINK PANTHER in particular, and we had no idea that A SHOT IN THE DARK didn't start life as an Inspector Clouseau comedy! All the Clouseau tropes we fans know and love are so perfectly performed, and what a great cast! Dreyfuss' tics in particular have always cracked me up. I thoroughly enjoyed your detailed, affectionate post!

  5. Sellers is hands-down the best Clouseau. He makes Clouseau funny with every little detail he puts into the character's personality. I enjoy watching the Pink Panther movies, and so I am glad you wrote this great review.

  6. After seeing "A Shot in the Dark" my family went around for days talking about having a "bimp on the hed." This is such a fun, silly movie! One would certainly not want to be anywhere around Clouseau because people around him seemed to drop like flies wherever he would go. One also wouldn't want to live in the same apartment building because of his confrontations with Kato. But, from a safe seat at home, Clouseau is welcomed in our family room anytime. This was a fun and informative post, Rick, especially about Sellers going away and returning with his unforgettable accent. Great job!

    from toto2

  7. 'A Shot in the Dark' is not only the best Pink Panther movie, it's one of the best films Sellers ever did. Love the bit when he and George Sanders get tangled up in the billiard sticks. But the nudist colony scene is the best, particularly the inventive ways used by Edwards to hide the actual nudity!

  8. Rick, I can't add anything else to the comments already posted, so I'll just say that you've written a thoroughly enjoyable post! This was very fun to read and a most excellent way to end a busy week.

  9. Thanks Rick, you had me laughing all over again by bringing up all those hilarious scenes. But I have to admit that I liked the first Pink Panther equally well. Regardless, thanks for choosing Shot in the Dark, It DOES rate higher than#48.

  10. You have reminded me that I haven't seen "A Shot in the Dark" in simply ages - and I've never shown it to my daughter. I'm a neglectful parent and that must be amended soon.

  11. Rick, a delightful choice for the blogathon--one of the great comic actors in his most famous role. I've seen only the first two Pink Panther films, and then only fairly recently. But I've long been a fan of Sellers, and I can honestly say that neither he nor either of the Clouseau movies I saw disappointed. I thought both were excellent and very funny. I'd have to give the edge to "A Shot in the Dark," though. The first film seemed to use more of the classic devices of silent and slapstick comedy, but "Shot" was more inventive and I suppose because it was based on a play that wasn't a Clouseau vehicle seemed to have a more satisfyingly intricate plot. I have to say that the whole nudist colony bit is my favorite part of the movie, especially when Sellers is driving around nude in the small car and gets caught at a red light next to a bus! It's hard to imagine what this was like with Julie Harris and Walter Matthau--two great actors--except that it must have been considerably revamped for Sellers.

  12. Wonderful comments as always! My criteria for a great comedy include: (1) It has to be funny on repeated viewings, even when you know the gags; (2) It has to generate laughs even when you watch it without a crowd. A SHOT IN THE DARK meets both criteria. Toto, you reminded of the genius of Sellers as Clouseau--just hearing him say "bimp" for "bump" makes me smile.

  13. Rick ~ I’m sorry I missed your post yesterday, but it certainly was worth the wait. I can’t recall a time from my teens until now when Peter Sellers, much like the Marx Brothers, wasn’t a part of my comic landscape. I have fond memories of laughing through tears while watching his films with my father and brother. Although “A Shot In The Dark” is early in the series of Clouseau films, it was one of the last that I discovered. You have perfectly highlighted some of the best gags in the film (I think it is hilarious that although apparently nude, Clouseau has remembered to cover his feet), and Herbert Lom and Burt Kwouk’s memorable contributions to the entire series of films. Thank you for this excellent addition to the blogathon, and a wonderful reminder of Seller’s genius (birdie num-num).

  14. I hope I do not sound like a broken record.. I have not seen many Peter Sellers films and that includes the film, A Shot in the Dark. I will have to keep an eye out for it. This sounds like a movie my husband would like to see too.

    Thank you for putting the Blogathon together. I have really enjoyed reading about movies I may have never known about otherwise..

  15. Rick, the Pink Panther series include my favorite comedies, by far. Shot in the Dark was my introduction to them, and I fell in love immediately. Peter Sellers was a genius of comedy, odd because he was such a dark person in real life -- but then I've heard that about other comedians as well. Your comment about directing the nudist scene was right on -- it's an unforgettable scene. And to me, those movies would not have been the same without wonderful Herbert Lom -- "Herbert Lom's eye ticks and muffled manic laughs are funny on their own, but the part where an irritated Dreyfus accidentally cuts off one of his fingers is a classic." He just got funnier with each movie, until he finally went completely insane. And who would not, with Clouseau to deal with? It's not from this movie, but I can never forget Sellers talking to the room clerk and saying "Is there a phun in my rum?" That's a family favorite. Wonderful job for the blogathon, Rick!

  16. Peter Sellers created an iconic screen character. My first introduction to the series was the 1975 film, so that entry still remains very funny to me. However, I agree that "A Shot in the Dark" is the best one -- and I didn't realize it was not conceived as a Clousseau film, so kudos to the screenwriters for converting it so well.

  17. I have to say that A SHOT IN THE DARK is my very favorite Peter Sellers movie next to THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT.

    It is hilarious. I, too, would rank it higher than 48.

  18. Hi Rick, A Shot in the Dark is by far the best of the Pink Panther series. I'm not a great fan of Peter Sellers, but I have to admit that he gave a perfect performance here.

    1. I like Sellers, but he made several duds. He's always amusing as Clouseau, but the movies eventually ran out of gas. This one, though, was a classic and, as you said, Sellers gave a perfect performance.