The role that I’ve always most associated Peter Sellers with is that of Inspector Clouseau from the Pink Panther series. The original series saw nine entries, and to this day I’m still not exactly sure which ones I’ve seen and which ones I haven’t. They all start to blur together after a while. There has also been a reboot series of two films and, of course, the series of animated short subjects from DePatie-Freleng. The series has certainly had a lasting legacy, much of which was focused on Sellers. Somehow the man even managed to appear in a new Pink Panther film released a year and a half after his death. Here comes 1982’s Trail of the Pink Panther.
To get things rolling, the valuable Pink Panther diamond is once again stolen from the country of Lugash, so Chief Inspector Jacques Clouseau (Sellers) is brought in to get to the bottom of things. Clouseau decides he must pay a visit to Sir Charles Litton (David Niven), the thief who stole the diamond in the original film and ran off with Clouseau’s wife, Lady Simone (Capucine). The Inspector heads for London to interview Litton, not remembering that he actually lives in the south of France. So, we get some craziness with Clouseau on the plane, and then later at a hotel.
Later, Clouseau’s plane to Lugash disappears en route. So now, we start to follow a reporter named Marie Jouvet (Joanna Lunley) trying to learn more about Clouseau. Various associates from the inspector’s life are interviewed, including Cato (Burt Kwouk), Inspector Dreyfus (Herbert Lom), as well as Charles Litton and Lady Simone. This leads to various flashbacks to events from previous Pink Panther films. Eventually there is a subplot involving a gangster named Bruno Langlois (Robert Loggia) and even a visit to Clouseau’s father (Richard Mulligan), which leads to flashbacks of Clouseau as a child.
The story of how this film came to be is actually much more interesting than the film itself. Most of the scenes involving Sellers actually came from the 1976 entry in the series, The Pink Panther Strikes Again. Director Blake Edwards’ original cut of that film was about 20 minutes longer than what eventually made it to theaters. So, after the death of Peter Sellers, Edwards decided to take the unused footage from Strikes Again as the starting point for Trail. One could certainly make a case that this was a somewhat underhanded and downright morbid move for Edwards. In fact, such a case was made as Sellers’ widow, Lynne Frederick, was awarded one million dollars in damages after successfully suing United Artists over this film. She also tried unsuccessfully to have the film banned.
Frederick was quoted as saying the film was “appalling” and I’m pretty darn close to agreeing with her. If the film has a saving grace it is the sequences of Sellers footage. There’s a funny sequence in which Clouseau struggles to carry a large package and a bag of groceries while trying to keep an elevator door from slamming on him. Another funny sequences invovles him trying to use a tiny airplane washroom despite having his leg in a cast. These scenes do show the considerable comic talent that Sellers regularly brought to the role of Clouseau. There is a bit of a cloud that hangs over these scenes, though, from just knowing what Edwards did to bring them to the screen. Still, I laughed at these moments.
When the film shifts, however, to focusing on the reporter who is trying to learn about Clouseau it becomes absolutely dreadful. Essentially, the film becomes a clip show. You know what a clip show is, right? It’s like when you have those episodes of The Simpsons where the characters spend a half hour saying things like, “Remember that time we saved Krusty the Clown from being cancelled?” followed by some clips. I can’t imagine that any viewers were pleased that they got a babysitter for the night and went down to the theater to see a film which is half made up of scenes from other movies.
The new footage that strings together the old clips is painful to watch, as well. In the sequence featuring David Niven it is clear that the actor was in poor health. It even became necessary for his voice to be dubbed by celebrity impersonator Rich Little. Things don’t go well for the other players, either. Normally I would be thrilled to have Robert Loggia as a mafia kingpin, but there’s just none of that Loggia magic to be had this time. It was kind of fun, though, seeing Denise Crosby, before Star Trek the Next Generation, as his moll. The worst offender of the film, though, is Richard Mulligan, who is a fine comedic actor but has absolutely no business playing Clouseau’s father. It’s maybe one of the worst cases of miscasting I’ve seen in recent years.
Suffice it to say, Trail of the Pink Panther is a film that should’ve never been made. Even though I say that, I am glad to be able to see some of Peter Sellers’ footage that was excised from another film. There’s some funny stuff in there, but that’s what DVD bonus features are for. To do what Blake Edwards did with this film was shameless and disrespectful. This is technically the final film on Sellers’ filmography and a fitting send off it is not.