The return of Inspector Clouseau

New on DVD

Movies: on screen, DVD/ Video

April 15, 2004|By Terry Lawson | Terry Lawson,KNIGHT RIDDER / TRIBUNE

I cannot say with any conviction that Steve Martin is the ideal choice to play one of the great comic creations of the 20th century, the bumbling French Inspector Clouseau, in the long-gestating revival of the Pink Panther franchise. As gifted as Martin may be, he is the John Wayne of comedy, always Steve Martin in whatever role he plays - even Silas Marner.

My personal choice was Kevin Kline (a look at A Fish Called Wanda should make the case), and I would have also been hopeful about Kevin Spacey, who apparently gave it semi-serious consideration. The brief and quickly forgotten missteps of Roberto Benigni and Ted Wass in Clouseau-relative roles are at least easily forgotten, but the possibility of Mike Myers and Chris Tucker had me muttering sacre bleu and worse.

There is, finally, only one true Clouseau, the chameleon Peter Sellers, a point proven by "The Pink Panther Film Collection" (MGM), which collects five of the Panther films in which Sellers starred.

Fans will already know that the recently departed Peter Ustinov was originally tapped to play Clouseau, the most inept and deluded French policeman of all time - an achievement unto itself - and that his departure led to the casting of Sellers, who became an international star with the success of 1964's The Pink Panther, titled for the legendary museum gem that dapper jewel thief David Niven plotted to steal. As funny as Sellers is as the pompous baton-twirler with the ridiculous accent, the film's success owed a great deal to the slinky, instantly memorable, do-doot-da-doo theme by Henry Mancini (which became a Top 40 hit) and the animated title sequence that made the suave cat an instant icon.

The success spawned a quick, even better sequel, A Shot in the Dark (1964), that introduced Herbert Lom as Clouseau's violently frustrated boss and Elke Sommer as a suspect whose guilt is obvious to everyone but Clouseau. Sellers declined to reprise the role in 1968's Inspector Clouseau, leaving the job to a game but miscast Alan Arkin, but returned in 1975's The Return of the Pink Panther which, due to rights issues, is not included in the box, to no big loss.

Sellers was back in free-fall trim for 1976's hilarious The Pink Panther Strikes Again, wherein he literally drives Lom insane and gets to bust an unlicensed organ grinder with the classic query "Ees thees your feelthy minkey?" and salvages Revenge of the Pink Panther in its final half-hour with side-splitting sight gags. The Trail of the Pink Panther from 1982 is an affectionate clip-job tribute, with a dying David Niven (his voice dubbed by Rich Little) recounting his encounters with the late Clouseau for a TV reporter played by Joanna Lumley.

A sixth disc is anchored by The Pink Panther Story, which does an extremely good job of sorting out the various permutations of the character and his animated alter ego, while giving Blake Edwards the respect he deserves for reviving the Chaplinesque art of intelligent physical comedy.

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