Between his work in Being There and A Shot in the Dark, Peters Sellers showed off his immense range of talent as a comedic actor. Whereas Chance the gardener is a stoic, underwhelming, slightly mysterious presence, his performance as the iconic Inspector Clouseau in the long-running Pink Panther series is brash, debonair, and physically expressive. That isn’t to say his performance as Clouseau is any more effective than Chance. Instead, both show off Sellers’s classic theatrical sensibilities in two characters that have little in common on the surface.
A Shot in the Dark is the second of six Pink Panther films starring Sellers, the second of eight directed by Blake Edwards, and is often considered the best of the series. Interestingly, as someone who has limited knowledge of all things Pink Panther, the first film [released the previous year] was not centered on Sellers as Clouseau, but a character played by David Niven—audiences preferred the bumbling inspector and so the direction of the franchise dramatically shifted.
A Shot in the Dark opens with the murder of a Spanish chauffeur on the estate of a millionaire [George Sanders]; a maid [Elke Sommer] is found with the murder weapon and is immediately suspected, though she has no memory of killing the man or how she came to hold the smoking gun. Her staggering beauty transfixes Clouseau so rapturously that he can’t believe she could be capable. And then the body count starts to rise with maid Maria at the center of it all.
The film is based on a stage play [which is something else I didn’t know] and it really shows in the film, which is a much smaller production that I expected. While there are a few larger set-pieces, including a famous scene involving a nudist colony, most of the action takes places indoors. Sellers is more than capable of keeping the energy up, however, as he flops and karate chops his way through the film. It isn’t a purely silent comedian performance [a la Chaplin, Keaton, or Lloyd], but most of the film’s humor comes from the bodily harm Clouseau endures, mostly from the character’s own clumsiness. There is also a recurring plot point wherein Clouseau, for some reason a black belt in karate, gets jumped by an Asian assistant Cato [who may or may not be a Green Hornet reference, I’m not at all sure].
The murder mystery elements of the film are fine, but secondary. A Shot in the Dark doesn’t fool anyone in being a hardboiled detective case, nor should it. The joys of watching Sellers putting on a physical tour de force carries the film through to the madcap conclusion, which uncovers the true killers in a raucous scene.
The differences between Being There and A Shot in the Dark are not only seen in the differing Sellers characterizations but also in the styles of their auteurs. While Hal Ashby made his career on complicated character studies, often with darkly humorous or potentially controversial subject matter, Blake Edwards is a tried-and-true entertainer. His most famous work, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, is a far more emotionally rounded given the rest of his filmography of broad and entertaining comedies like his half dozen other Pink Panther films and another Sellers collaboration, The Party.
There is no doubt in my mind that Being There is a more compelling and better film than A Shot in the Dark, but there is value in both. Am I compelled as a Pink Panther novice to check out the rest of the series? Not particularly, but I assume I could do worse than watching Peter Sellers bumble and stumble through a ridiculous criminal investigation, even if the rest of the series isn’t held in as high a regard. Ultimately, I see the legacy of A Shot in the Dark as a perfect star vehicle for Sellers, one that allows him the full stage to do what he does best: simply entertain.