A Shot in the Dark (1964)

Posted by on Jan 2, 2012 in One-Man Show | 0 comments

Shot2

Disclaimer: Looney Tunes-esque violence and comical sexual situations.

A mysterious, mustached man in a trench coat sits patiently in a taxicab as it races to the scene of a murder. As cars pass the cab, their headlights reveal the man’s grimacing sneer and wide, inquisitive eyes topped with eyebrows raised with skepticism. When the cab arrives at the mansion, where a busty maid is suspected of killing a Spanish chauffeur, the straight-laced Parisian detective intends to solve the crime in a snap (though he cannot do so with his fingers). He believes everything and he believes nothing; he suspects everyone and he suspects no one. We know he means business, and nothing will stop him from catching the culprit(s).

With this set-up, the film could easily unfold in classic noir fashion – with cigarettes, double-crossing, Venetian blinds, and sweaty sex. But writer-director Blake Edwards and star Peter Sellers give us an entirely new kind of hero in the bumbling Inspector Clouseau, a clumsy nitwit who always manages to say the wrong thing, cause damage, injure himself, solve the crime, and get the girl. Like Wile E. Coyote’s attempts to capture the Roadrunner, Clouseau fashions ridiculous traps that never seem to work and instead lead to a slapstick-fest of explosions, falls, burns, lacerations, and humility – one on top of the other.

Within five minutes of Clouseau’s Shot1arrival, for instance, he falls into a fountain, leaving him soaking wet and at risk of catching pneumonia (“It’s all part of life’s rich pageant, you know”); he lights his coat on fire after forgetting to extinguish his lighter; he’s hit violently as a door opens and falls out of a two-story window; then he’s thrown off the case by his superior officer (only to be re-assigned to it later). Unexpected trouble is around the corner of every road Clouseau comically travels, including at his home where his Asian assistant Kato (Burt Kwouk) attacks him in vulnerable situations to keep him on his toes. His various disguises (from painter to nudist) repeatedly land him in jail, and his game of billiards is loaded with miscues.

Despite the mounting evidence against the maid (Elke Sommer), Clouseau assumes her innocence immediately and instead accuses millionaire Monsieur Ballon (George Sanders), who has a perfectly suitable alibi. As Clouseau keeps a close watch on the maid, mostly out of attraction, more and more bodies arrive at her side and murder weapons in her hand. We have a privileged view of the crime at the beginning of the film as various figures creep through the shadows, leading to “A Shot in the Dark.” On top of that we see glimpses of suspicious activity throughout the investigation. Pay attention if you please, but the clues lead to a classically twisted reveal that no one could have expected (especially Clouseau). I’m reminded of Wild Things, Clue, and any episode of CSI.

Loosely based on Marcel Achard’s farce and the play by Harry Kurnitz, A Shot in the Dark followed a highly successful comedy released just three months earlier called The Pink Panther. Written by Edwards and William Peter Blatty (author of The Exorcist), the film is by and large the funniest in the series, which still continues into 2010. As legend has it (because, let’s face it, he is a comedic legend), Sellers disappeared a week into filming. When he returned to an infuriated director, Sellers shared his discovery of a strange French accent that eventually defined the character and led to timeless pronunciations of “moths” and “bump.” Noted for his improvisation (“rit of fealous jage” and “I’ve got Africa all over my hand”), Sellers revived the character for three other installments, while seven other panther movies brought forth new leading men including Steve Martin, Roger Moore, and Alan Arkin. None, however, came close to the genius of A Shot in the Dark.

While a few children today will have an inkling of Henri Mancini’s jazzy theme  (“da dum, da dum”) or even the cartoons, most of them have no clue about the films that spawned them (which is a shame because they’d absolutely love Kato). Perhaps it’s hypocritical for me to say, because I was also one of those children, but I know I would regret every day if I hadn’t listened to my father saying, “Trevor, come in here; you’ve got to see this.” He was right. I did have to see it.

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