“Top 23″/Winter Movie Review: “The Pink Panther”

“The Pink Panther” (1963)

Starring David Niven, Peter Sellers, Claudia Cardinale, Robert Wagner, Capucine and Fran Jeffries. Directed by Blake Edwards. From United Artists.

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My regular readers know that I have 23 favourite films: ten I’ve loved since my teens and early twenties, ten that I’ve grown to love in my later years and three that I rank above the rest. “The Pink Panther” is one that I’ve fallen in love with as an adult but it is also one of my favourite “winter” movies; one of those that make the cold, snowy months more bearable.

The infamous cat burglar who calls himself the Phantom has been stealing diamonds and jewels all over Europe. French Police Inspector Jacques Clouseau (Sellers) is determined to catch him and follows a lead to Cortina d’Ampezzo, a ski resort town in the Italian Alps. There, the Inspector and his wife, Simone (Capucine), meet George Lytton (Wagner) who is looking for his uncle, legendary swinging bachelor playboy Sir Charles Lytton (Niven). Turns out, Sir Charles is actually the Phantom and is in cahoots with Simone to steal the Pink Panther; the most fabulous diamond in all of the world that belongs to Her Highness, Princess Dala of Lugash (Cardinale).

Sir Charles plans to ingratiate himself with the Princess by having a crony kidnap her dog. Sir Charles pretends to try and thwart the kidnapper but fails and sustains a phony injury. In gratitude, Princess Dala invites Charles for supper. In the course of the evening, they nearly become intimate but Dala passes out from too much champagne.

Meanwhile, in order to keep George from discovering his uncle is the Phantom and in a relationship with her, Simone feigns an interest in him, much to George’s delight. George sets up a ruse to get Clouseau out of town so he can make time with Simone. Charles inadvertently shows up at the same time and much slapstick ensues.

The action turns to Princess Dala’s villa in Rome. Clouseau comes to call on her telling her that he is certain that Sir Charles is the Phantom and that he will try to steal the Pink Panther during a costume ball she is throwing that night. Charles, indeed, shows up with evil intent but runs into George who tells his uncle that he now knows his secret. The two join forces but are arrested and thrown in jail. It looks bad for the Lytton boys until Simone and the Princess get together and come up with a devious plan.

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Jet-setters taking the Alpine air.

This first entry in the “Pink Panther” series is quite unlike the rest. When most people think of The Pink Panther, the first thing that comes to mind is the bumbling Clouseau getting attacked by his valet, Cato. This first film is of a totally different ilk. It was followed almost immediately – six months later – by “A Shot in the Dark”. In this film, Sellers added Clouseau’s exaggerated French accent and the characters of Cato and Commissioner Dreyfus were introduced. There was a one-off anomaly released in 1968 which starred Alan Arkin as Clouseau. The franchise would return in 1975 with “The Return of the Pink Panther”, featuring Canadian Christopher Plummer in the role of Sir Charles, and many other films would follow. Much like the thin man of the “Thin Man” film series, subsequent installments would have little to do with an actual pink panther, diamond or otherwise. 

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For the opening titles of the first film, an animated pink feline was created and “The Pink Panther” would enjoy a cartoon life of it’s own quite removed from the films. The character – usually mute but later voiced by Rich Little (see below) – went on to make 124 short films and to star in 10 television shows and four TV specials including “A Pink Christmas”, a perennial favourite in our home.

This first film, though, may very well be the ultimate “cocktail movie”. The clumsy but earnest police inspector does feature in the proceedings of course but what really stands out here is the swank lifestyle of the rich and idle in the gorgeous town of Cortina.

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Sunshine, sweater, shades.

First of all, the cast is loaded with great looking and well-dressed people, all who appear to be right at home in an aprés ski setting. I suppose the biggest names here are David Niven and Peter Sellers. David Niven was 52 while he was filming “The Pink Panther” and, to me, he looks even older. I like David Niven and he brings to the role the perfect amount of élan and suave style but he plays Sir Charles about ten years too late. Seeing him romance Capucine somehow seems alright but alongside a beauty like Cardinale he seems grandfatherly. By 1962, Niven was an established star who had made countless films, among them “The Bishop’s Wife” and “The Guns of Navarone” and had won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for “Separate Tables” in 1958. Sir Charles was the last notable role for Niven; it was supposed to launch a series of films starring him as the cat burglar but when the film was released it was Sellers’ inept detective that stood out. Niven would go on to make several more non-descript films. He played “Sir James Bond” in the ‘non-canon’ “Casino Royale” in 1967 and Count Dracula in “Vampira” in 1974. In 1980, Niven began to show signs that he was suffering from Lou Gehrig’s Disease or ALS. When, in ’82, Blake Edwards brought Niven back for cameo roles as Sir Charles in the two final “Pink Panther” films – “The Trail of…” and “The Curse of…” – the disease had rendered Niven’s speech indecipherable. Canadian impressionist Rich Little was brought in to dub his voice. David Niven died – in true Sir Charles style – at his villa in Switzerland in 1983. He was 73. He passed away on the very same day that his two-time co-star Canadian Raymond Massey passed.

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Princess Dala (Cardinale) and Sir Charles (Niven) enjoy the ‘cocktails-by-fireside’ lifestyle offered in Cortina.
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Sellers as the earnest Clouseau. Before the character became too zany.

Renowned comedic actor Peter Sellers is perhaps best remembered for his portrayal of Inspector Clouseau. By 1962, Sellers had really only appeared notably in Stanley Kubrick’s “Lolita”, for which he received a Golden Globe nomination. “The Pink Panther” started for him a run of successful films and distinctive roles. His very next film was another Kubrick classic, “Dr. Strangelove”. Later Sellers appeared in “Casino Royale” with Niven, “The Party” and 1979’s “Being There” for which he was awarded a Golden Globe. Sellers died in the summer of 1980. 18 months later, Blake Edwards went ahead with “The Trail of the Pink Panther” utilizing old footage of Sellers as Clouseau and dedicating the film to him.

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Tunisian-born Cardinale was 24 years old when she appeared in “The Pink Panther”.

But these two biggest stars are not what give “The Pink Panther” it’s swank distinction. That comes in part from a decorative supporting cast. Stunning Claudia Cardinale was born in Tunisia. She spent her career working predominantly in Europe. The same year as our film, she appeared in Fellini’s “8 1/2”. Later, she appeared in “The Professionals” (1966), was part of the most eye-pleasing cast in film history in “Don’t Make Waves” and graced Sergio Leone’s seminal “Once Upon a Time in the West” (1968). She proceeded to enjoy a lengthy career in Europe and returned to the franchise again in 1993’s “Son of the Pink Panther” starring Roberto Benigni as Clouseau’s illegitimate son. Miss Cardinale is still alive at 80. She will forever be remembered as one of the most beautiful actresses to ever grace the screen.

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RJ, looking the perfect sharpie in turtleneck and blazer, as George.

The other cast member to remain topside is Robert John Wagner. By ’62, sharpie RJ had been in the business for 11 years and had made films the likes of “Beneath the 12-Mile Reef”, “Titanic” and “A Kiss Before Dying”. After “The Pink Panther”, he cemented his reputation as a handsome, debonair second lead in films such as “Harper” and “Winning”. He also returned to the “Pink Panther” franchise with an appearance in ’83’s “Curse”. He became known to modern audiences with his portrayal of “Number Two” in the ridiculously wonderful “Austin Powers” films. RJ is a ‘celebrity’ of the first order. He was famously married to Natalie Wood twice and in 2018 was named a “person of interest” in the investigation of Wood’s drowning death. Wagner has been married to Jill St. John for going on thirty years.

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Capucine looked every inch the model she was.

Capucine – born Germaine Hélène Irène Lefebvre in France – had been a fashion model working for the stylish likes of Givenchy and Christian Dior. She appeared as Angel in 1960’s “North to Alaska” with John Wayne. After “The Pink Panther”, she made “What’s New, Pussycat?” with Sellers and then appeared in several box office failures and international productions. She later reprised her role as Simone, making appearances in “Trail” and “Curse”. Her film career was largely unsuccessful, however. The producer of “The Pink Panther”, Charles K. Feldman, had been in charge of Capucine’s career since 1957. The two were in a relationship and when Feldman died her career dried up. I have to report that, while I was researching her career, I came across the 1979 Spanish-American action film “Jaguar Lives!”. The film was a vehicle for martial artist Joe Lewis and starred not only Capucine but also Christopher Lee, Donald Pleasance, Barbara Bach, Canadian Joseph Wiseman (all these from Bond films), Woody Strode and John Huston! She also had an affair with William Holden – as I think most actresses did. Sadly, in 1990 when Capucine was 62 and living in Switzerland, she jumped from her 8th-floor apartment window to her death. Friends say she had been battling depression.

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Aprés ski. Fran Jeffries entertains

Fran Jeffries was more a singer than an actress. She had debuted in films in 1958’s “The Buccaneer” – the only film to be directed by Anthony Quinn. “The Pink Panther” was her second film and she plays the “Greek cousin” and has no English lines; Jeffries is of Greek descent. Her appearance here is notable for her rendition of the ‘second’ theme from the soundtrack, “Meglio Stasera (It Had Better Be Tonight)”, written by the score’s composer, Henry Mancini. It eventually had English lyrics written by the great Johnny Mercer. She made only three more films although two were notable. Next up was the Tony Curtis-Natalie Wood film “Sex and the Single Girl” and afterwards she appeared in “Harum Scarum” with Elvis Presley. Jeffries married singer Dick Haymes in 1958 and the two had a nightclub act during their marriage which lasted until 1965 and produced a daughter. She released three albums in the ’60’s and twice posed for Playboy, once in 1971, aged 33 and later in 1982 when she was 45. She passed away from a type of blood cancer in 2016. She was 79.

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Blake and wife, Julie Andrews, in an appropriate setting.

By the time he made “The Pink Panther”, Blake Edwards (born William Blake Crump in Tulsa) had been making movies since 1948. He had started as a writer before moving into directing and producing. He also made notable forays into television including the iconic and innovative “Peter Gunn”, a series on which he worked with composer/conductor Henry Mancini. The theme music from “Peter Gunn” became only the first iconic and culturally significant theme from Mancini. Edwards then made the films “Mister Cory” with Tony Curtis and Kathryn Grant – the second Mrs. Bing Crosby – “Operation Petticoat” with Cary Grant and Curtis and “High Time” with Bing Crosby before he reached the pinnacle with 1961’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”. That enormous hit lead to the decidedly different “Experiment in Terror” and “Days of Wine and Roses”. He decided to get back to lighter fare with “The Pink Panther”. He and Sellers worked closely together to flesh out the Clouseau character and Edwards would cement his legacy with the franchise. For the music accompaniment to his films, Edwards often would call on Mancini. “The Pink Panther” was the seventh time the two had worked together and, in total, they would collaborate on an astounding 28 pictures. The two would team up later for the successful films “10” and “Victor/Victoria” and the first two films to star Bruce Willis, “Blind Date” (1987) and “Sunset” (1988). Blake Edwards was married to the star of “Victor/Victoria”, Julie Andrews, from 1969 until his death in 2010.

The real stars of this movie are not legendary actors or urbane writer/directors with cool names. One of the two things that have always stood out for me is the setting in the town of Cortina d’Ampezzo in the Italian Alps. Located in the north, Cortina is a winter sports town known for it’s skiing, scenery, it’s aprés ski scene and for it’s jet set, aristocratic European crowd. As I’ve often said “If it has to be winter, why can’t it be Cortina?” I gravitate towards “The Pink Panther” – and other “winter movies” – in January. The holidays are over, the bills are coming in and January 21st, in particular, is often referred to as the most depressing day of the year. I always like to watch a movie that depicts others coping with winter; still living, getting into adventures and looking fabulous. “The Pink Panther” is perfect for this. The film depicts winter in Cortina as idyllic. Sunny but cold, you hit the slopes in just a warm sweater. In the evenings, cocktails and dinner by a roaring fireplace. And then you bundle up for the brisk walk back to your chalet in the ringing-cold night air.

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You could go mad with longing looking at these two images from the film. Cortina, late 1962.

“The Pink Panther” was filmed at the Hotel Cristallo and the Miramonti Hotel. We are also treated to many street scenes that give us glimpses of the town itself. Cortina can also be seen in the James Bond film “For Your Eyes Only”, which adds much to it’s rep as a playground for jet-setters.

The other star of this film is the soundtrack by the unrivaled master of the cocktail jazz film score, Henry Mancini. Mancini got his start working on films at Paramount where he was a staff music writer. His work can be heard in “The Glenn Miller Story” and “Abbott and Costello Go to Mars”.  He first came to prominence with his score for the 1958 film “Touch of Evil” and he quickly positioned himself as one of the premier soundtrack composers with his work on “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, “Days of Wine and Roses” and “Charade”. With his theme from “The Pink Panther”, Hank created his most enduring and iconic piece of music.

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The theme – featuring distinctive saxophone work by Plas Johnson – is a great piece of music. The same goes for “It Had Better Be Tonight” but it is the rest of the music on this album that I am no doubt going to be at a loss to describe. Let us just say that Henry Mancini created the ultimate cocktail music for the film and the tracks as they appear on the record are beyond gorgeous. “Royal Blue”, “Champagne and Quail”, “The Village Inn”, “Cortina”, “The Lonely Princess” and “Piano and Strings” are all the gentlest, dreamiest songs you could ever hope to hear. It is sparkling-cold outside but inside the fire is raging. There is an almost overwhelming feeling of warmth and comfort that washes over you – and this is the music that plays. This is what that feeling sounds like. It’s even more so, actually, if you’re a regular Joe, like me. The tough trek through the winter has begun. It may be bitter cold outside, made worse by a harsh wind. You’re not wealthy. You can’t jet off to the Italian Alps. But what you can do is put Hank’s soundtrack on the turntable and lower the lights. This is to know bliss when all else is bleak. And I haven’t even mentioned “Something for Sellers”. This jaunty, mid-tempo number is a delight. It is actually one of my all-time favourite songs. What more can I say? This music – just as much as the film itself – is akin to a comfortable stay at a well appointed chalet. This is one of the albums that I cherish the most.

As an aside, I have to tell you what I found while researching this article. There is a sports team in India name of Jaipur Pink Panthers. They are a professional kabaddi team that competes in a pro kabaddi league in that country. Kabaddi is a contact team sport, doncha know? While reading about this I found myself reading English sentences but not having a clue what they were saying! You must read up on this.

I have trouble identifying a film as “bad” or “good”. If I am “getting something” from it, I’m happy and I either don’t notice or I don’t care about the actual quality of the movie. I’m aware enough of “The Pink Panther” to know that it is a well-made picture. The plot has a couple of twists for the first-time viewer but it is certainly easy to follow. The acting is pitch perfect. As I’ve mentioned, all the players seem to be right at home in these swank surroundings. Niven may look a bit old for my personal tastes but while he could play this role in his sleep he is certainly engaged. Peter Sellers displays true comedic flair and not so much for what he does on screen. His genius may be in that he instilled an earnestness in Clouseau, a dignity. The Inspector is funny but not a fool. He’s trying.

Blake Edwards pulls things off with his usual aplomb and keeps things moving. The photography of the Alps is stunning – but, really, you could photograph Claudia Cardinale and Cortina with the lens cap on and the results would still be favourable. Speaking of Claudia (or speaking for Claudia), her English was not advanced enough when she made this film so she had her lines dubbed, which is a bit awkward to watch. Dubbing her lines was the New Zealand singer who grew up in Canada, Gale Garnett (“We’ll Sing in the Sunshine”). How on earth Garnett got this job is anybody’s guess. Incidentally, Cardinale is not just window dressing. Watch her playing drunk, which is not easy to do. She pulls it off with engaging charm.

Frankly, once the action leaves Cortina, I tune out a bit and not just because of my love for that place. The party at the villa is followed by a zany chase which, while I understand that this type of comedy is the essence of the “Pink Panther” films that followed and very much the wheelhouse of Edwards and Sellers, it’s not always my cup of tea.

There is much to recommend this film so shut out the winter cold and escape.

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