When it’s on: Friday, 26 December (5.00 pm)
Channel: Channel 5
A Shot in the Dark is the second Inspector Clouseau film, and the best. It marks the point that Peter Sellers’s bumbling French detective becomes centre stage, perfecting his incredible accent and slapstick comic moments, before the show becomes too much a series of set-piece pratfalls as would happen later in the series. Sellers was always funny as Clouseau, but never more so than here.
In the previous year’s The Pink Panther, Sellers was on hand as a supporting player to David Niven, yet stole the show and both he and director-producer Blake Edwards realised they had struck comedy gold. A sequel was quickly demanded, and for it the pair mined a project that the actor was already attached to, inserted Clouseau and made him the focus.
A Broadway hit, A Shot in the Dark was adapted from the French play L’Idiote, and starred Walter Matthau and William Shatner. Excising pretty much everything from the story apart from the central plot about a maid being accused of killing her lover, it was transformed into Clouseau’s efforts to crack the case whilst similarly falling in love with the main suspect and doing all he can to exonerate her.
The resulting film is owned so completely by Sellers that everything depends on how funny you find his hapless Inspector to be. Fortunately, he’s completely hilarious, tapping comedy from as simple a situation as placing a billiard cue into its rack or agreeing on a time to switch off the power with his perpetually fed up assistant, Hercule (Graham Stark). Utterly incompetent, and yet pompous and filled with implacable self-belief, the fun derives from his ability to conjure slapstick genius from virtually anything whilst those around him grow increasingly irritated.
No one does this better than Herbert Lom’s Chief Inspector Dreyfus, making his first appearance in the franchise as the boss driven literally insane by Clouseau. Further down the line, Dreyfus would become a villain, but it’s here that the descent into madness starts, Lom’s famous eye tic developing over the course of the film along with the introduction of his lunatic giggle. What drives him over the edge is his insistence that Clouseau be removed from the murder case, whilst someone ‘higher up’ demands that he stays on it, leaving him to clean up after every mess.
The film’s opening scenes focuses on a mansion in Paris, the home of millionaire Benjamin Ballon (George Sanders). Everyone in the house seems to be having an affair with someone else, occupants sneaking around into each other’s bedrooms, before eventually the Spanish driver, Miguel, is shot dead. His lover, Marie the maid (Elke Sommer) is the prime suspect as she’s found holding the smoking gun, but once Clouseau arrives and gets a whiff of her scent, he’s intoxicated and determines to prove that someone else is the murderer. What follows is a series of episodes that feature Marie being put in jail as the killings continue and she’s always on the scene, then getting released so that Clouseau can trail her, only each time he does he’s arrested for not having a license for whatever disguise he happens to be wearing.
A brilliant scene that has Sellers at his best takes place in a nudist camp to which Marie has retreated. Clouseau follows but has to do so naked, and wanders around covering his dignity with a strategically placed guitar, clearly very awkward and shamefaced. The moment can only end one way, with a naked Clouseau and Marie fleeing the camp in a car, before being caught in the middle of a Paris traffic jam and once again arrested, this time for indecent exposure.
Any element of sleuthing is removed from the story as we never find out conclusively who the killer is and, besides, that’s never really the point. The murders are little more than a hook for more Sellers comedy, and this is always worth the film’s ultimate lack of interest in identifying the culprit. We also get the introduction of Clouseau’s manservant, Cato (Bert Kwuok), who the Inspector employs to help hone his martial arts skills by demanding he attack him at any time, leading to more hilarity. The confection is topped off with another winning score from Henry Mancini, who doesn’t reprise the Pink Panther theme (for which he was Oscar nominated) but produces a tune that’s every bit as fine, accompanied with some fantastic animation for the opening credits.
By all accounts, the making of A Shot in the Dark was strained as the working relationship between Edwards and Sellers – both men thought they were the driving force – was tense, bad tempered and frequently broke down. They needn’t have bothered. It was a big success, critically and commercially, and drove the pair back together for three sequels before Sellers’s untimely death in 1980. Even after his passing, Edwards used cutting room floor footage of the actor as the foundation for further Panthers.
A Shot in the Dark: ****