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When Peter Sellers reunited with director Blake Edwards to revive their hapless Gallic detective Inspector Jacques Clouseau after an 11-year screen absence in The Return of the Pink Panther (1975), the resulting box-office success served to pull both men out of respective career funks. It's small wonder that they each opted to swiftly return to the well with The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976) and Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978), even if the comedic returns on the formula waned with each successive outing. With Sellers' untimely death in 1980, it seemed like the Clouseau comedies, so closely dependent on his classic characterization, would follow the chameleon-like performer into cinema history. Edwards, for his part, wasn't ready to let go, and started his bid to continue the Clouseau legacy with Trail of the Pink Panther (1982).
Edwards' gambit for this professed elegy to "Peter...the one and only Inspector Clouseau," as per the film's dedication, was to weave a new-footage narrative around unearthed out-takes and selected scenes from their five prior Clouseau efforts. The opening action once again concerns the fabulous Pink Panther diamond, purloined yet again from its safekeeping in the mythical emirate of Lugash, whose government has entreated Clouseau to ensure its recovery. Roughly the first half of the movie depicts the inspector's journey to London for surveillance on his old nemesis Charles Litton (David Niven, whose own declining health necessitated having his dialogue looped by Rich Little), interspersed with psychiatric sessions for Herbert Lom as Clouseau's driven-around-the bend superior Dreyfus. The unused footage includes a bizarre sequence with Clouseau, encumbered by an improbable fake full-leg cast, attempting to negotiate an airliner lavatory.
It's at this point that the plane bearing Clouseau to Lugash vanishes without a trace, and the balance of the film follows the efforts of a French TV journalist (Joanna Lumley) to gain perspective on the missing hero via interviews with those who knew him best. The roster whose recollections are captured includes Dreyfus, Litton, the Lady Litton/ex-Mrs. Clouseau (Capucine), and Cato (Burt Kwouk), as well as series regulars Graham Stark and Andre Maranne. Newer faces include Harvey Korman as Clouseau's disguise armorer, Robert Loggia as a mob boss, and a very effective Richard Mulligan as the inspector's aged father. When all's said and done, the reporter finds herself no closer to finding the man himself. Cut to a seaside cliff of indeterminate location, where a familiar, trench-coated figure stands back to camera, wiping off gull droppings. He turns, and...
If nothing else, Trail of the Pink Panther rewards the Sellers devotee who'll enjoy both the highlights of the earlier films and the unused footage that may have otherwise never have come to light. Edwards immediately followed up with Curse of the Pink Panther (1983), which involved the further hunt for Clouseau, wrapped around the effort to push Ted Wass as a new bumbling cop hero, Sgt. Clifton Sleigh. Many of the players from the new Trail sequences returned, but the end results weren't satisfying. Beyond having the box-office drop precipitously from the '70s Panther films, it seems like the biggest beneficiaries of these enterprises were attorneys. MGM/UA ultimately settled out of court with Sellers' widow, actress Lynne Frederick, for using the Trail footage without permission; the studio thereafter wound up facing suit from Edwards over having allegedly devalued the franchise with their marketing of the latter films.
The strength of Sellers' identification with the role was so overpowering, though, that public resistance to any continuance of the series in his absence seems unsurprising in retrospect, no matter how accomplished the comic performer taking the pratfalls. Alan Arkin's turn in the title role of Inspector Clouseau (1968) has and continues to be largely treated as non-canonical; Edwards' last bite of the apple, Son of the Pink Panther (1993), which offered Roberto Benigni as the inspector's illegitimate offspring, failed to resuscitate the franchise. It probably took the fullness of time, as well as a dearth of relatively family-friendly comedy fare, to allow the acceptance that Steve Martin found when he assumed the mantle with the series' 2006 relaunch.
Producers: Tony Adams and Blake Edwards
Director: Blake Edwards
Screenplay: Frank Waldman, Tom Waldman, Blake Edwards, Geoffrey Edwards; Blake Edwards (story)
Cinematography: Dick Bush
Art Direction: Tim Hutchinson, John Siddall, Alan Tomkins
Music: Henry Mancini
Film Editing: Alan Jones
Cast: Peter Sellers (Chief Insp. Jacques Clouseau), David Niven (Sir Charles Litton), Herbert Lom (Chief Insp. Charles Dreyfus), Richard Mulligan (Clouseau's father), Joanna Lumley (Marie Jouvet), Robert Loggia (Bruno Langois).
C-97m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Jay S. Steinberg