A Shot in the Dark
April 21, 2018
1 Hr., 34 Mins.
he protean comedy actor Peter Sellers took his work very seriously, and that dedication served his versatility well. Sellers was a Method actor, and loathed the idea of phoning it in. No matter if he was playing an outlandish, Indian theater type or a retired British army general, the actor would essentially become his parts for months on end. Sellers frequently claimed there wasn’t much to him besides his ability to perform. “If you ask me to play myself, I will not know what to do,” he jokingly said at the height of his career. “I do not know who or what I am.”
This dedication to his craft produced multitudinous problems in his personal life – he was married four times, and had contentious relationships with his wives and children – but engendered uniformly magnificent performances and movies.
Sellers’ virtuosity was at its most fertile in the 1960s, a decade that saw the dawn of the Pink Panther franchise (1963-’82) and the brilliance of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). These films set a new precedent for the capabilities of commercially steadfast comedic actors, and additionally reinforced the idea that a farce, with enough performative formidability backing it, could bear as much artistic value as the most distinguished of a prestige drama.
Of the characters Sellers played in his short but productive career, Jacques Clouseau, the bumbling French detective he played in the original The Pink Panther (1963) and almost all of its sequels, has proven to be the longest lasting fixture. This is helped in part due to the reimagining of the character in the 2006 reboot series, which, despite being reviled by most critics, has become a mainstay on movie channels and has helped renew interest in the original saga.
But the endurability mostly has to do with the reality that Sellers’ movies-long portrayal of Clouseau is among the best, and most complex, comedic performances in cinema history. He is a character equipped to be cartoonishly interpreted, his clumsiness and his idiocy primed for tiresome exaggeration. But Sellers plays him as Laurence Olivier would portray Henry V, as Orson Welles would Macbeth. He digs into Clouseau’s ticks and shortcomings and realizes them all with nimble physicality and immaculately timed delivery. He is not indirectly making fun of this man — he convinces us that he understands him, and brings him to life with conviction. So many actors strain for an efficient comedic performance, their mannerisms fraught with obvious desperation for a laugh. That doesn’t happen with Sellers. Because he plays Clouseau so seriously, the jokes soar higher and the gags unfold more fluently.
Arguably, the best film featuring the character is 1964’s A Shot in the Dark, the first sequel in the Pink Panther series. Clouseau is given a bigger part in the story; the laughs are more ambitiously mounted; the central mystery is more engaging. It was also released a few months before Dr. Strangelove, unofficially turning ‘64 into the year of Peter Sellers.
The film makes for a sound argument for the actor’s genius, and remains one of the great comedy features of the ‘60s. In it, Sellers’ Clouseau is called to the mansion of the swank millionaire Benjamin Ballon (George Sanders), whose chauffeur, Miguel, has been murdered. The prime suspect in the case is a shapely maid named Maria (Elke Sommer), who was having an affair with the man and who was found with the smoking gun at the time of his death. Maria, a naif who probably still thinks all people are inherently good, says, with believable certitude, that she didn’t do it. She claims she was knocked unconscious just before her lover was killed, and that, upon waking, the weapon somehow made its way into her hand.
Everyone, including Clouseau’s superiors (like Herbert Lom’s Commissioner Dreyfus, who is masterfully unhinged), believe that Maria is responsible in spite of her assertions. But the former isn’t convinced, and not just because he finds the young woman incredibly attractive. The mansion serves as the abode of a number of shady characters who regularly do shady things, so there’s a rather high chance that Miguel was involved with something iniquitous that led to his getting gunned down.
What exactly went on is revealed during the film’s Agatha Christie-esque finale, which affirms that Miguel’s death was, in fact, part of something bigger. And among the many things I like so much about A Shot in the Dark is the way it takes as much time developing its glowing comedic showcases as it does generating a genuinely compelling whodunit. Take out the humor and all exhibited here wouldn’t be out of place in a P.D. James novel.
Sellers is just the icing atop the cake that is this delightful movie. Though I’m certain it’d still be competent and entertaining without him – co-writer and director Blake Edwards could make anything sing if he tried hard enough – he is what makes A Shot in the Dark stand out as the unusually inspired lark that it is. A