At some point one discovers this inescapable truth: Charles Dreyfus is the most sympathetic figure (“hero” is most assuredly the wrong word) in the Pink Panther movies. Jacques Clouseau drives each story forward and endearingly licks the audience’s face, but he does so as a force of nature more than a character. He’s something inflicted on everyone else in the movies. If Clouseau is Bugs Bunny, then Dreyfus is everyone who ever tries to get the better of Bugs. More to the point, Dreyfus is any hard-working person trying to go by the book while watching an irritating colleague fail upward. The source of the humor is in the audience sharing the inspector’s slack-jawed reaction to Clouseau as he miraculously avoids every catastrophe and bounces back from every embarrassment. Being repeatedly driven insane by Clouseau’s antics, Dreyfus is more than a straight man, but an unwilling participant in the madness.
The whole setup arrived fully formed in A Shot in the Dark, rushed into theaters six months after the premiere of The Pink Panther. The script by director Blake Edwards and William Peter Blatty (of all people) was adapted from an unrelated play, with Clouseau plugged in as the main character. The original film had gotten around the character’s flatness by surrounding him with an ensemble. Thanks to Peter Sellers’ performance, Clouseau became the breakout star anyway, so A Shot in the Dark put all the attention on him and on how everyone else deals with him — a mansion full of suspects on the one hand, his superior on the other. Later sequels would follow the template at a higher volume: confident and clueless, Clouseau tumbles into the solution to the case, dodging ambushes from his faithful valet/training partner Cato (Burt Kwouk) and leaving the increasingly unhinged Dreyfus (Herbert Lom) in his dust. Both of these characters, comic foils in their own ways to the main character, were introduced and perfected in this film.
For all the focus on Clouseau, one of the movie’s best scenes, its first, doesn’t include him. At the home of one Benjamin Ballon (George Sanders) in the middle of the night, several pairs of people slink about in secret. The camera tracks their movements from outside various windows, as in Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle. One will walk through a doorway just before another appears on the stairs at the end of the hall, and so on. The scene culminates in a series of gunshots, with the killer and the victim unseen. Had Clouseau observed this scene from the same vantage as the audience, he would be no less convinced that everyone’s a suspect than he is anyway. However, he has to contort himself around the fact that the murder weapon was found in the hand of a maid, Maria Gambrelli (Elke Sommer). He rejects her as the prime suspect — which in itself isn’t a bad call, as she clearly looks less nefarious or violent than anyone else in the film — because he’s immediately swept off his feet by her passive blonde beauty. As the body count starts to pile up, with Maria always suspiciously nearby, he never wavers from the conviction that she’s being framed. One of the great recurring jokes involves Clouseau laying out all the incriminating facts against Maria before sidestepping Occam’s razor completely.
It is Dreyfus’ special torment to be bothered by Clouseau more than anyone else is. Ballon himself “rather likes” the bumbling fool, which is to say that he would like the truth of the matter to be clouded under incompetence. George Sanders, with his elegant stature, retains his deadpan throughout all of Sellers’ pratfalls. Maria, as comedic convention would dictate, isn’t quite bright enough to see what a poor advocate she has. Clouseau’s assistant Hercule (Graham Stark) is quietly bemused but never seems to mind all that much. Other servants, presented with Clouseau’s sopping hat (after he falls into the fountain), silently pass it back to him beneath the lower edge of the frame when they exit the room. But Dreyfus is put through the wringer, constantly batted back and forth as to who will take charge of the case, watching Maria and Clouseau ping-ponging between prison and murder scenes, seeing everything get fouled up again and again. Even taking into account his mishaps with a guillotine-themed cigar cutter and a letter opener, Dreyfus’ transformation from harried authority figure to black-gloved assassin is quite a stretch, but an entertaining one. Clouseau, against all reason, keeps persevering, so drastic actions must be taken.
The film ends with its most effective parody of the infallible detective hero. Clouseau invites all the suspects to meet in the living room, with the promise that his deductive powers will unmask the true killer. Of course, he’s completely unaware of just how complex the web of deceit is. He plans to resort to subterfuge, ordering Hercule to shut off the power on the chance that the guilty party will flee under cover of darkness. Before this even happens, the floodgates open, with Ballon, his wife and the staff all pointing fingers at each other for the various murders and blackmailing. Clouseau can only take an exasperated glance directly at the camera as he tries to keep up. The now fully insane Dreyfus, with his fifth thwarted assassination attempt on Clouseau, takes care of the fleeing miscreants.
Although some of its jokes are silly to the point of boredom, A Shot in the Dark is still probably the peak of its franchise, making room for actual suspense and meaningful character interactions. Some of the later films have their moments, and it’s interesting to observe the franchise shift from a parody of The Thin Man-style chamber mysteries (sharing with that series a title that began as a specific reference before being subsumed into a brand) into globetrotting James Bond spoofs. Coming back to this film after those can be a minor shock — seeing Sellers with one foot on the ground, and seeing Lom’s Dreyfus as a relatively normal man driven to the brink. The two actors don’t even directly interact all that much in the film. They build up their opposing characters independently, and the quality of their work is more than sufficient to the task. It’s significant that in the franchise’s animated title sequences, Clouseau is the hapless figure, tormented in pursuit of the Pink Panther. Comedy has an affinity for the loser, the schlub. Clouseau is not that. He’s one of the winners of the world, so it’s left to Dreyfus to offer the needed perspective on him. This state of affairs is topsy-turvy and yet somehow right.