Trail of the Pink Panther

Trail of the Pink Panther (Blake Edwards, 1982, UK/USA, 97 mins)

He is not here; but far away

The noise of life begins again,

And ghastly through the drizzling rain

On the bald street breaks the blank day.

– Alfred, Lord Tennyson

“I’ve become more generous in my forgiving and forgetting. I wish he were still here, with all his craziness, and I wish he were well. I’m not sure that I wish to make another film with him, but I wish for those times.”

– Blake Edwards (1)

Unlike the popular and commercial successes of the ’60s and ’70s Panthers (The Pink Panther [1963], The Return of the Pink Panther [1974], The Pink Panther Strikes Again [1976], Revenge of the Pink Panther [1978]), Trail of the Pink Panther (1982) was a terrible box-office and critical failure. In addition, it suffered suppression and legal battles over its employment of outtakes from previous Panther films. Trail is made up of unused footage from the previous films and some new footage. It is repetitive in part, it has obvious continuity problems and it demands a certain amount of toleration from the viewer. Despite these obvious flaws, demands and failures, it does not deserve its overlooked and underrated status; it is special in other kinds of ways. Trail sits somewhat uniquely amongst the Panthers as a turning point in dealing with the loss of its central character, Peter Sellers. It also holds special interest in regard to Blake Edwards’ work as a whole – especially towards a more personal shift in the ’80s. Trail is surprisingly postmodern in its ‘found’ interests, its lack of solidity, its discontinuity and its self-reflexivity. Most of all, it is unusual in that its principle performer is not physically present – Peter Sellers died two years before the film was made and yet he stars in the film. He figures in past clips and in cartoon form. The film has the ring of death and it embodies many of the associated feelings concerned with grief – denial, shock and yearning. These are present in Trial in all sorts of intriguingly personal and public ways.

Trail‘s lack of a physical referent and its attempt to re-capture that referent in various shadow forms places grief and comedy in an analogous relationship. Trail is a longing for those ‘high’ moments in comedy where, through collaboration, everything works. In his later acting career, Peter Sellers was ill and difficult to work with; he died two years before Trail. The working relationship between Edwards and Sellers consisted of both good and bad times. Edwards likens the good times as “being like a narcotic – they were so heady, they were so good, that you couldn’t forget them, you were hooked.” (2) Trail is less dedicated to Sellers, than it is to his unique role as Clouseau: to his comic persona. The opening dedication reads: “To Peter… The one and only Clouseau”. Sellers has ‘star’ billing, and even though he disappears halfway through the film’s narrative, he figures in other characters’ memories. He lives in flashback form partly through youthful re-enactment and old photographs, but mainly through clips of the early Panthers. In the final scene, he is not replaced by another actor, instead, as he turns to face the viewer in his familiar trench-coat and hat, his face is not that of a physical person: his head is none other than the cartoon Pink Panther.

Trail has not been totally overlooked; it has been written about by the major appreciators of Edwards’ work, Peter Lehman and William Luhr, in their book Returning to the Scene: Blake Edwards Volume 2. They devote a chapter to both Trail and Curse of the Pink Panther (1983); they speak of these two films in terms of absence and presence and the unusual way they resist the concept of ‘sequel’. They recognise Trail‘s unique place in saying that, “structurally, conceptually, and practically, this is one of the most unusual, indeed bizarre, films in Hollywood history.” (3) Trail is indeed bizarre and it can be regarded in many different ways.

Trail can be viewed as both a personal and public confrontation with loss. The film involves its audience in the first stage of the grieving process which is denial: the inability to let go of a loved one, a character, whose imprint is firmly stamped in popular memory. Subsequently, the film does not bury Clouseau and neither does it work condescendingly as a memorandum; instead, it insists that Clouseau is still alive. A central principle of the Panther comedies is a disbelief in fact: Clouseau is forever dealing with the facts, a system of rationality both enforced and inverted in the films. Trail takes this principle of the Panther comedies as a way of confronting loss. Noone in the film believes that Clouseau is dead. Even Commissioner Dreyfus (Herbert Lom), who so dearly wants to believe Clouseau is dead, relapses into psychosis by the end of the film with the haunting fact that Clouseau could still be alive. Marie Jouvet (Joanna Lumley), the television journalist who investigates Clouseau’s death, broadcasts to the public that she believes he is still alive. David Niven, as Sir Charles Litton, was seriously ill at the time and fighting a terminal disease. (4) In reply to questions concerning Clouseau’s death, Niven gives these otherwise superficial lines a strange kind of personal resonance:

“.. he epitomized the 11th Commandment: Thou shalt never give up” “Men like Clouseau never die….we need their humour.”

Trail‘s fiction is unusual in that it doubles as an account of its characters’ working experience with Clouseau. The film’s self-reflexive narrative, its folding in upon itself, allows for this kind of retrospection. A search for the famous jewel thief stops halfway through the film when Clouseau disappears on a plane trip; one never discovers what happens to him or if the incident occurred at all. The story of a detective investigation turns into an investigation about the life of a detective; the film becomes its own mystery about the disappearance of its central character. Mid-way, Jouvet begins a series of interviews with those who worked closely with Clouseau. A film based mainly on past film clips, representing the present, becomes a recollection of a past film world; one that is taking place in the present tense of the film. Amongst those interviewed by Jouvet are the well-known and ageing faces of those from previous Panther films: Lom, Niven, Capucine, Burt Kwouk and Graham Stark. Their roles carry a ghost-like transparency, one that relates to their working life with Sellers as Clouseau. For instance, Dreyfus speaks a certain truth when he says in his interview that he has worked with Clouseau for about twenty years. A sort of documentary occurs within a fiction.but not quite. Trail is a fictional world about a fictional character; solidity is never found.

Trail does not replace the irreplaceable. If Clouseau is replaced at all, it is more like transformation than replacement. The part of a weak male, a figure of ineptitude is transformed into a capable and strong woman. Sexual transformation and confusion have long been of concern to Edwards: most prominently in Gunn (1967) through to Victor/Victoria (1982) and then reaching its peak with Switch (1991). In Trail, Jouvet becomes a kind of Clouseau-detective in her investigation into Clouseau’s death. She speaks in a French accent and she torments Dreyfus, she commands the men she interviews with subtle send-up and intelligence. In one scene she seems to take the place of Clouseau, wearing a trench-coat, she breaks into Clouseau’s apartment and the inevitable fight with Cato takes place. The fight ends not in the usual mayhem, but with Jouvet hitting Cato over the head with a frypan: a well-known comic image of female retribution.

Both sexual transformation and death are major concerns of Edwards. In particular, Edwards’ films of the ’80s onward are very personal films and, in all sorts of bizarre ways, death is central to many of them. In the first third of S.O.B. (1981), the central character tries numerous attempts to kill himself; he is shot dead two-thirds of the way through the film and he is both dead and physically present for the last third. The Man Who Loved Women (1983) begins with the central character’s funeral, proceeds in flashback and ends with that same funeral. With Switch, the central male character dies at the beginning of the film, he lives through the film as a woman and he finally ends up sexually undecided in heaven. Trail is, perhaps, the most unusual of these later Edwards’ films in that it doesn’t announce a death, only a disappearance. Unlike the other films, there is no funeral and there is no dead body. The audience is not simply invited to watch a film, they are also invited to become involved in the process of coming to terms with death: death is an undercurrent, a knowable both denied and addressed. An audience know that an actual death has occurred, and this invites a viewing position which is at once intolerable and intriguing.

The analogy between comedy and the grieving process persists in the Panthers to follow. Curse was filmed at the same time as Trail and was released the following year; it moves away from Clouseau as the central character and yet it continues to assert that Clouseau is still alive. Unlike Trail, Curse plays in more various and overt ways with pseudo-replacement, it takes great comic liberty in the fact that it cannot replace Clouseau. The central character of Curse is Clifton Sleigh (Ted Wass) and he is found through a computer as a close match to Clouseau. Even though Sleigh has similar traits to Clouseau, he is far from the original: he has another name and another nationality. Moreover, the replacement of Clouseau is a joke on film replacements. After the removal of his plastic surgery bandages, Clouseau has been transformed into Roger Moore. Moore, however, is a replacement of a replacement; he is someone who, as Lehman and Luhr point out, “made a career out of replacing series stars”. (5) This shock of another, this further remove from originality, serves to reinforce that the Sellers’ Clouseau is irreplaceable.

The idea of replacing Clouseau is no less problematic and continues to be unresolved ten years later on. Son of the Pink Panther (1993) allows for the passing of time, some natural progression and, as with grief, some healing – Clouseau is no longer presumed alive and his character assumes the natural replacement by a son. Nevertheless, Jacques, the son (Roberto Benigni), who speaks and bumbles like Clouseau, is no less reassuring as a replacement of the original. More oddly, the film ends as a kind of cloning of Clouseaus: there is a discovery that the son has an undisclosed twin sister who speaks and acts like Clouseau. Much to Dreyfus’ horror, the Clouseaus of the world will not only live on, but they are also duplicating in their various forms. Like Trail, Son refers back to a film world laced with certain truths. Dreyfus recalls how he knew of a Jacques who died about ten years ago. This date corresponds not to Sellers’ death, not to ‘real’ life, but to the Curse: the last Panther made when Sellers, as Clouseau, is presumed to be alive.

Trail marks the beginning of a bizarre tale in which the principle performer has gone. Unlike a nostalgic tribute to a person’s lifetime achievements, Trail actively gives credit to Sellers’ unique comic role as Clouseau. Transience and intangibility contribute to an engagement with grief. As with the initial stages of grief, Trail denies death in its refusal to replace its star. At the same time, it attempts to work out ways of how to continue. A space is left no matter who comes along. Trail dwells in that space; it does not attempt to smooth things over, to give time or to deny longing. This film does not deserve its largely overlooked status, rather it deserves to be looked at more closely: Trail speaks not only for the loss of Clouseau, but also for a dying generation of Hollywood performers – something longed for, something lost but still living through and regenerating in the cinema.

Endnotes

  1. Blake Edwards in Michael Starr, “Interview with Blake Edwards”, Peter Sellers: a Film History. Jefferson N.C.: McFarland & Co, 1991, pp.225-244, p.242
  2. Starr, p.233
  3. Peter Lehman and William Luhr, “Trail of the Pink Panther and Curse of the Pink Panther”, Returning to the Scene: Blake Edwards Vol. 2, Athens: Ohio U.P. 1989, pp.158-181, p.171
  4. There is a very moving account of Niven’s fight with a terminal illness and his last working days on both Trail and Curse in Sheridan Morley. The Other Side of the Moon: The Life of David Niven, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson Ltd., 1985, pp.275-281
  5. Lehman and Luhr, p.176

About The Author

June Werrett is a postgraduate student in Cinema Studies at La Trobe University, Melbourne. She has recently completed a PhD thesis on satire in the films of Blake Edwards and Robert Altman.