Gifts for live-action visual comedy and sophisticated slapstick have been rare in movies ever since the disappearance of the silent clowns. But Blake Edwards had the talent to invent crackling lunacy that tickled the funny-bone and provoked belly-laughs with precise yet antic choreography.
When he and Peter Sellers created the maladroit Inspector Clouseau in "The Pink Panther" (1964), they took viewers by surprise with a blend of pratfalls and cosmopolitan elegance. If you've never seen it -- or haven't in 46 years -- pay tribute to Edwards, give yourself a break and watch this movie.
Set mostly in an Italian ski resort, it's a combination caper film and Cuckold Soup: both Sir Charles Lytton (David Niven) -- in reality, the notorious jewel thief, "the Phantom" -- and Lytton's con-artist nephew (Robert Wagner) woo Clouseau's wife (Capucine) while the inspector tries to prevent the theft of the fabulous Pink Panther diamond. By the end, even the gem's owner, the exotic Princess Darla (Claudia Cardinale), conspires against him. But Clouseau proves to be clumsy and unsinkable.
Brilliantly riffing on the character's stilted bearing and intense self-seriousness, Edwards and Sellers turn Clouseau into an archetypal figure -- the man of injured dignity who won't admit that any damage has ever been done to his pride. Under Edwards' direction, Sellers' eccentric, stop-and-go slapstick style hilariously frays the edges of the most elaborate set pieces. The movie provides a pleasant snowy dream of the high life, but what audiences love is Clouseau wagging a finger that lands in someone else's nose, or cooling off his burnt hand by stuffing it in a friend's stein of beer.
In their next Clouseau outing, "A Shot in the Dark," Edwards and Sellers exploited the character's weakness to perfection. From the hem of his spotless pale trench-coat to the rounded peak of his hat, Sellers' Clouseau was, like many of us, a man of many ill-fitting parts, struggling to keep them together and hoping to appear unflappable. He pulled off pratfall miracles with homely props like a letter-opener or a globe. No matter how ragged some of their later Pink Panther films became, you could count on Edwards and Sellers to deliver at least one or two bits of genius.
Edwards boasted diverse achievements in his long career. He gave Audrey Hepburn a daft and deft romantic showcase in "Breakfast at Tiffany's." He wrote the script to the first-class service comedy "Operation Mad Ball" (before directing his own hit military farce, "Operation Petticoat"). He brought high style to the TV private eye when he created "Peter Gunn." He tackled alcoholism head-on and elicited one of Jack Lemmon's most moving performances in "Days of Wine and Roses." But I don't think he ever topped his work in the first "Pink Panther" and "A Shot in the Dark." These days moviemakers sweat to concoct comic "icons." They should study Edwards' work with Sellers to see how it is done.
AP photo by Neil Jacobs