Saturday, March 24, 2012

Review – A Shot in the Dark

March 24, 2012

A Shot in the Dark – US/UK, 1964

Blake Edwards’s A Shot in the Dark is the film that a character like Inspector Jacques Clouseau deserves. Loosely adapted from a stage play by Harry Kurnitz, the film begins with a bang – literally - and for the next hour and forty minutes, it rarely allows viewers a moment’s rest. The jokes come from all sides, and this time around, the repetitiveness that slightly weakened the previous year’s The Pink Panther is missing. In that film, Clouseau’s comic shtick consisted almost exclusively of him bumping into things and turning the wrong direction. To say he does more in this film would be an understatement.

In my review of The Pink Panther, I remarked how Clouseau would never be believable as a top crime solver, and I’m pleased to report that A Shot in the Dark does not make him out to be one. In a wonderful set up, Clouseau is called in erroneously after there is a murder at the home of a local millionaire. His superior can’t get him off the case fast enough, and watching his initial interrogation, it’s not hard to see why. In fact, while the film’s title could refer to the murder that begins the film, it could just as easily refer to Clouseau’s investigative techniques. He takes one look at the lead suspect and concludes that she could not possibly be the murderer simply because he is smitten with her. In one of the film’s best moments, Clouseau, once again played by Peter Sellers, runs down what is known so far about the case, punctuating each sentence with a resounding, “Fact!” But what’s an inspector like Clouseau to do when the facts add up to a conclusion he doesn’t like? Why, assume a fact not in evidence, of course. That and release the lead suspect from prison time and again. He does this despite the fact that the body count rises every time she is released. It’s all enough to give Chief Inspector Charles Dreyfus (Herbert Lom) ticks, and that’s just the first of many ways that Clouseau affects this character’s health and mental stability. At one point, Dreyfus is asked what it would mean if Clouseau is right. Dreyfus’s response: it would signal the triumph of sheer chaos over logic and reason.

The prime suspect in the murder is Maria (Elke Sommer). Here’s the evidence: There’s Maria in a locked room with a smoking gun in her hand. The murder victim lies dead, four shots having been fired into him following a quarrel between him and Maria, who just happened to be lovers. Suspicious, no? It would seem an open and shut case if not for the bump of Maria’s head, which, according to Clouseau, exonerates her of all guilt. Without any evidence to back up his theory, Clouseau comes to the conclusion that Maria is hiding the killer’s real identity out of love, and his plan to catch the real killer basically boils down to following her. If only his disguises weren’t consistently getting him arrested.

Clouseau is aided by Hercule LaJoy (Graham Stark), who to be honest seems much more capable than Clouseau, and one of the film’s running jokes is that Clouseau always sends Hercule off just before he is able to tell him something important. Stark is quite good in the role, and he and Sellers play off each other rather well. A scene in which they try to synchronize their watches is particularly humorous. There’s also a running joke in the film involving Clouseau being trained by his servant Kato (Burt Kwouk) to always be on the alert. This involves Kato essentially attacking him at rather inopportune, yet humorous moments. The character wouldn’t work in a more contemporary film, but here the character, clearly a parody of the Green Hornet’s sidekick, adds nicely to the lunacy of Clouseau’s world. Also amusing are Clouseau’s attempts to play pool, his visit to a resort called Camp Sunshine, and his error-filled attempt at engaging a room full of suspects in a version of the children’s game Murder.

Unlike Edwards’s The Pink Panther, A Shot in the Dark makes Clouseau the central character in the film, and the film benefits greatly from this decision. In fact, the film wisely ignores the events of the first film, leaving completely unexplained just when Clouseau was released from jail and how many times the cat burglar in the original Pink Panther film has struck again. And by the end of the film, we have not been convinced that Clouseau is a great detective. Instead, he’s still the bumbling affable character he was when the opening credits began, and this is as it should be. A character like Clouseau should remain consistent. It’s just more fun that way. (on DVD)

4 stars

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