The Pink Panther (Blake Edwards / U.S.-United Kingdom, 1963):

A priceless gem, presented to a sultan's young daughter, gives the film its title along with a feline mascot for its iconic animated credits. Three trompe l'oeil sketches lay the groundwork, each quicker than the last: A gloved hand removes an engraving of the Lupa Capitolina to reveal a safe, it's The Phantom (David Niven) at work; an ersatz graduation picture taken in a Hollywood studio ("Matte or glossy?") introduces the cat burglar's young nephew (Robert Wagner); a trenchcoated agent flees the Paris police by going into an elevator and coming out as Capucine, not just a soigné swan but the wife of Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers). The action finally settles in snowy Cortina d'Ampezzo, where the sultan's daughter, now a princess (Claudia Cardinale), is vacationing, her jewel watched by the suave Niven. Such are the sterling games Blake Edwards plays -- with no idea that he's launching a blockbuster franchise, he merely marshals all his comic resources to turn an Arsène Lupin caper into a jet-set roundelay, mating high with low comedy for the sheer joy of having a '60s clotheshorse like Capucine do a spit-take. Sellers' Clouseau, not yet fully stylized, is less the Zen hero-fool of the later films than one of the assorted elements in Edwards' bravura set-pieces, one of the four figures spinning in the air during the boudoir passage that culminates Clouseau's extended cockblocking routine with his wife (ejaculating champagne under the sheets, from Edwards' The Perfect Furlough, provides the capper). Elsewhere, the filmmaker avails himself of Ninotchka (Cardinale's pixilated drunkenness on the tiger rug) and also To Catch a Thief for the climactic costume party, where Duck Soup's mirror gag is given the benefit of 'Scope and twin gorilla suits. The whole ensemble is played like a Stradivarius, though Sellers, by dint of inspired denseness, makes Clouseau the protagonist and, furthermore, the axis of the Edwardsian world -- the doofus lumbering in knight's armor, prone to literally slipping off the globe and turning a pratfall into a thing of grace. With Brenda de Benzie, and Colin Gordon.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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