A Shot in the Dark (1964)
Written by Blake Edwards and William Peter Blatty
Directed by Blake Edwards
By 1964, British actor Peter Sellers was a well-known name in the United Kingdom and the rest of the world due to his appearance as Inspector Jacques Clouseau in 1963’s The Pink Panther. Previously, Sellers had built a career starting as a member of The Goon Squad on British radio and then as an actor, most prominently in Lolita for Stanley Kubrick. At the start of 1964, audiences were shown Sellers’ full range of abilities in Dr. Strangelove, and at the end of that same year, got A Shot in the Dark. Clouseau was a populist character, a mockery of the police that gave the audience laughs over his pompous buffoonery. That’s the core conceit of the character is that he is an idiot who carries himself with unearned confidence and, when he is proven inept time and time again, persists in his methods. He is the perfect parody of a police officer. Filmmaker Blake Edwards wanted to keep the Clouseau money machine going, so he, along with William Peter Blatty (yes, the author of The Exorcist), adapted a French play about a stupid detective investigating a murder and simply made it Clouseau.
There is a lot of movement in the massive country estate of millionaire Benjamin Ballon one night. Some people attempt to spy on others, while others slip into bed with people who are not their partners. Even the staff is getting in on these late-night dalliances. These trysts come to a sudden end when gunshots ring out, and the cook, Miguel, is found dead in the bedroom of the second maid Maria (Elke Sommer). Clouseau (Sellers) arrives on the scene with his assistant Hercule Lajoy. As soon as Clouseau’s superior, Commissioner Dreyfus (Herbert Lom), learns he’s involved, he tries to pull the Inspector off the case. However, Dreyfus’s superiors say to put Clouseau back on it, so he complies, despite knowing the detective will fuck it all up.
All the evidence points to Maria being the murderer, but Clouseau is insistent that she isn’t, mainly because he’s attracted to her. He does think Maria is protecting the identity of the actual killer. Two more murders occur in set pieces designed to highlight the slapstick comedy that audiences expect from Clouseau, including one at a nudist colony which seems to have inspired a big chunk of Mike Meyers’s particular schtick. Of course, Clouseau does uncover who the real murderer is purely by accident while attempting to point the finger at someone else. It wouldn’t be a Clouseau film without that.
In The Pink Panther, the action was kept to a single location, a ski resort. Here, Blake Edwards opens up the world, allowing for more freedom in where the Inspector can go. The cartoonishness of the world is also amplified now that the people involved understand what Sellers is capable of as a comedic performer. The result, which will be a mixed bag for some, is a bit formulaic: the setting up gag after gag with the singular focus of watching Sellers do funny things. It’s essentially how all actor-led comedies work, with audiences coming to watch a familiar element do the thing that makes them laugh. What makes Sellers stand out is that he is very creative in his physical comedy. Yes, there are some repetitions, like Cato, but for the most part, he finds new ways of doing things stupidly that keep us laughing.
My biggest critique of the Clouseau films is that they often have anticlimactic endings. I never feel terribly invested in the case anyway, as it’s far more interesting to watch Sellers in action, and the mystery’s outcome doesn’t matter. These films are similar to Looney Tunes shorts, with Clouseau right up there with the comedy greats like Bugs and Daffy. I’m not invested in if Bugs stops Elmer Fudd permanently so much as I want to derive enjoyment from the process. Edwards was one of the directors who really understood that notion in comedy. I won’t say he’s one of my favorites, but he comprehended comedy better than most contemporary directors. No matter how talented your cast is, you cannot use improv as a crutch (and most comedic actors today are not that good). Scripts and rehearsal make for the best comedy allowing for moments of inspiration, not banking that letting the cast ramble for hours will result in some good clips.
The film’s opening is an excellent example of this, a highly choreographed dance through Ballon Manor reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Rear Window. We become voyeurs, the camera our eyes, panning across a surprisingly open house plan that allows us to see through every window in the estate. Our attention is pulled from corner to corner as the inhabitants slip around corners and into beds. Dance is very similar to comedy when the latter is done right. Good comedy has a rhythm and flow, and there’s a delicate line between being too choreographed and not having enough structure. We want the person to come through in the work, but we also want to see strong technique on display.
There’s also a lot to be said for the balance in tone from Sellers and Herbert Lom as his put-upon boss. Clouseau without Dreyfus doesn’t work; we need the increasing frustration and mental collapse of the latter to make the former’s antics funnier. The Inspector represents bumbling chaos, with Dreyfus serving as the desperation of order. There’s nothing Dreyfus can do to stop the bumbling of the Inspector, which makes him a great example of why philosophies like Buddhism are essential. We cannot prevent the chaotic universe around us; we often simply have to find ways to endure it.
The Clouseau films would eventually become a case of diminishing returns, with the final “Sellers” picture being one of the most embarrassing I’ve seen. However, there have been many attempts to keep the series going in the absence of the comedian who made it all work, and they have varied in quality. I’m not so in love with the originals that I have a firm opinion on these follow-ups, but I do think Sellers was one of the best comedic performers of his era; many have emulated him, but few have managed to match what he could do.