Directed By: Blake Edwards
Starring: Peter Sellers, Elke Sommer, George Sanders
Tag line: "The screen commits the perfect comedy! "
Trivia: The role of Maria Gambrelli was originally given to Sophia Loren, but she became ill and couldn't do it
Though only a supporting character in 1963’s The Pink Panther, bumbling French police Inspector Jacques Clouseau, as played by the great Peter Sellers, managed to steal that movie away from his co-stars. With 1964’s A Shot in the Dark, Clouseau moves into the lead role, showing all of Paris, and indeed the entire world, how incompetent he truly is.
A murder has been committed at the Ballon Estate, a large mansion owned by millionaire Benjamin Ballon (George Sanders), who resides there with his pretty young wife Dominique (Tracy reed) and his numerous servants. The dead man is the Ballon’s chauffeur, Miguel, and the main suspect is their maid, Maria Gambrelli (Elke Sommer), with whom the deceased was having an affair.
It seems like an open and shut case: Maria Gambrelli was found holding the murder weapon in the very room where the killing occurred. The rest of the household staff, as well as the Ballons themselves, have air-tight alibis, and Maria admits Miguel attacked her just prior to being shot dead. So, the logical conclusion is that Maria Gambrelli is the murderer.
But that’s not how inspector Jacques Clouseau sees it; in spite of the overwhelming evidence against her, Clouseau is convinced Maria Gambrelli is innocent, and is keeping quiet to protect the real killer. Of course, nobody else believes this, including Police Commissioner Charles Dreyfus (Herbert Lom), who wants Clouseau taken off the case. But someone higher up overrules him, and as Clouseau meticulously conducts his investigation, the dead bodies continue to pile up, each one seemingly murdered by none other than Maria Gambrelli! Is Clouseau correct in his assertion that Maria is innocent, or is he so entranced by her beauty that he refuses to see the truth?
The second entry in the Pink Panther series, A Shot in the Dark introduced a pair of characters who would become regular fixtures in the later films. The first is Kato (Burt Kwouk), Clouseau’s Asian valet, who launches surprise attacks against his employer every chance he gets. Designed to keep Clouseau on his toes, these attacks usually occur at the worst possible times (at one point, Kato leaps at Clouseau while the inspector is having a bath), and, in most cases, end with Kato sprawled unconscious on the floor.
Next, we have Clouseau’s superior, Chief Inspector Dreyfus. Knowing full well that Clouseau is a buffoon, Dreyfus’s sanity slowly slips away from him as the Gambrelli case unfolds; he develops a facial tick, laughs maniacally for no apparent reason, and even becomes a danger to himself (while using his novelty guillotine to slice the end off of a cigar, he accidentally severs his own thumb). Watching poor Dreyfus’s mental health deteriorate is one of the funnier aspects of A Shot in the Dark, and we can’t help but wonder just how far he’s willing to take his hatred of Clouseau (“Give me 10 men like Clouseau”, Dreyfus says, “and I could destroy the world”).
Yet as funny as both Kwouk and Lom are, it’s Clouseau, Peter Sellers’ inept alter ego, who takes center stage. Equal parts fool and egomaniac, Clouseau is definitely accident prone; in his very first scene, he steps out of a police car and tumbles into a water fountain. The biggest obstacle Clouseau has to overcome, however, is his gross incompetence. To keep an eye on Maria Gambrelli without her knowing, he disguises himself as both a hunter and a balloon salesman, only to be whisked away to jail because he didn’t have a license to do either! Sellers is at his comedic best in A Shot in the Dark, and gets himself into one uproarious situation after another (the nudist colony sequence is flat-out hilarious).
As for the murder, we do eventually discover who killed Miguel the chauffeur, but, really, who cares? Like most of the Pink Panther films, A Shot in the Dark is a straight-up comedy that doesn’t give a damn about the mystery it creates (the finale, when all is revealed, is as outlandish as the rest of the movie). That’s OK, though, because what the film lacks in whodunit intrigue, it more than makes up for in comedic hijinks, and thanks to the creative team of Peter Sellers and director Blake Edwards, A Shot in the Dark gives us plenty to laugh about.