A Shot in the Dark (1964)

When it’s on: Friday, 26 December (5.00 pm)
Channel: Channel 5
IMDb Link

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: ****

The Mouse that Roared (1959)

The Mouse that Roared

When it’s on: Saturday, 26 January (7.05 am)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

One of my favourites as a child, perhaps because of its warm depiction of a tiny, insignificant European backwater where nothing really bad happened and everyone knew each other (these things seemed to matter back then), I continue to have good vibes towards The Mouse that Roared. It’s completely inoffensive, opting for gentle whimsy over biting satire. Anyone after the latter is strongly advised to head straight for Dr Strangelove instead. Whilst this entry does indeed poke fun at Cold War politics, in much the same way as Stanley Kubrick’s critical darling did to such devastating effect, The Mouse that Roared is an altogether easier and ultimately more optimistic affair. That it shares its star with Strangelove – Peter Sellers – and that said star similarly takes multiple roles in this, is a coincidental and significant footnote. Also worth mentioning is its now delightfully naive summation on American foreign policy, which lends a further ironic twist to the fun.

Despite being directed by an American, monster movie king Jack Arnold, The Mouse that Roared is a very British film in both its casting and attitude. Arnold brought to the table a sensibility of pace, never letting the film’s sentiments and ironic message take over and instead moving things along, hurling slapstick moments at the screen whenever things threatened to slow down. It focuses on a minuscule, proto-Liechtensteinian principality, the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, which has relied for years on plentiful revenue thanks to its export of good red wine, Pinot Grand Fenwick. Disaster strikes, however, when a Californian merchant floods the market with a cheap copy (dropping the ‘F’ from the title) and threatens the realm’s quiet prosperity. Reeling from the possibility of financial meltdown, Grand Fenwick’s Prime Minister, Count Rupert (Peter Sellers) hits upon the idea of taking advantage of American military dogma. When the USA won World War Two, he argues, it celebrated victory by showering billions of dollars’ worth of aid on its defeated foes, so that’s what his country should do – declare war on the Yanks, surrender and enjoy the windfall. It’s a plan agreed upon by the country’s monarch, Grand Duchess Gloriana XII (Sellers again), who duly arranges for a full scale army (of twenty men, dressed in chain mail and wielding bows and arrows) to invade the States, led by bumbling Field Marshall, Tully Bascombe (Sellers once more).

Whilst Grand Fenwick’s declaration of war is discarded by the Washington Post as a joke, Tully makes his way across the Atlantic by barge, aided by his able deputy, Will (William Hartnell), which is lucky as he spends the voyage suffering from seasickness. The ‘army’ hits New York on the day of a nuclear drill. This clears the streets, a fortunate coincidence as it means Tully can walk straight into the Institute of Physics and take Professor Kokintz (David Kossof) hostage, along with his invention, the dreaded atomic Q Bomb. Along for the ride comes Kokintz’s daughter, Helen (Jean Seberg), an instant attraction for Tully. Returning to Grand Fenwick with their prisoners and the bomb, the army finds that it’s somehow won the war, bringing the powers of the world to its borders as a bidding war over control of the world’s deadliest weapon erupts and the globe’s smallest planet is suddenly its most important.

Prior to The Mouse that Roared, Sellers was best known for his comedic work on radio and the television and the occasional supporting part in films, most notably The Ladykillers. This was his big break and an assured one it turned out to be as he filled his three roles effortlessly, indeed it’s in the clothes of his main character, Tully, that he appears least comfortable. Hartnell provides good support as the capable power behind Tully’s hereditary command, and MacDonald Parke is in fine fettle as the blowhard American General in Grand Fenwick, all Patton bluster until he nearly comes a cropper when he has possession of the Q Bomb.

If there’s a dissenting voice, it’s in the soft heart that’s at the core of the film. All ends well. A global disaster is averted easily enough, Tully gets the girl and Grand Fenwick fades happily back into obscurity. Even the Prime Minister, architect of the plan that kicked off the story, is punished by being demoted to trampling on the grapes that will produce the nation’s fine Pinot, hardly a disastrous end. But then it comes down to a simple choice – join in with the harmless fun, or take umbrage at its refusal to turn satire into anything more than gentle rib tickles. Certainly, it’s outlook is optimistic, essentially believing that everything will turn out okay because, at heart, everyone wants peace. And there’s a lovely final twist in the film’s last frame that underscores all its previous events; the joke in the end is on us, the audience. It’s a neat closing point for a film that opens with the ‘Colombia Lady’ being frightened from her plinth by a mouse, a terrific gag within a picture that’s rarely short on smiles.

The Mouse that Roared: ***