"Fonzie syndrome" or the supporting character that becomes more popular than intended is the phenomenon usually associated with television. There are, however, instances of such characters making such breakouts at big screen. Probably the best known example is Jacques Clouseau, inspector of French Sûreté, known as the protagonist of the long lasting and popular Pink Panther series of films. He first appeared as side character in The Pink Panther, 1963 crime comedy directed by Blake Edwards.
The title of the film refers to precious pink diamond, owned by the Shah of fictitious Oriental country of Lugash. The Shah has given the diamond to his daughter, Princess Dala (played by Claudia Cardinale). Following the coup, she is exiled and involved in potential litigation over the diamond demanded by new government. She arrives in popular Italian ski resort of Cortina d'Ampezzo. There she meets rich British playboy Sir Charles Lytton (played by David Niven), unaware that he is actually "The Phantom", the infamous cat burglar specialised in theft of jewellery. As Lytton plots to steal the Pink Panther, resort is also visited by Jacques Clouseau (played by Peter Sellers), French police inspector determined to finally catch elusive "The Phantom" in the act. His failure to apprehend "The Phantom" could be easily explained with his wife Simone (played by Capucine) being Lytton's secret lover, confederate and fence. As she joins her husband and lover in Cortina, Lytton's plans are further complicated with an arrival of his young American nephew George (played by Robert Wagner), who has his own plans with the Pink Panther.
The Pink Panther is in its essence light-hearted, undemanding piece of cinema entertainment that uses formula which was quite effective in early 1960s. It combines international star ensemble cast, exotic locations, upper class setting and mild comedy based on sexual innuendos. Some elements that made this film more successful than others are likeable and catchy musical score by Edwards' old collaborator Henry Mancini, as well as ingenious animated opening title that feature the character of actual Pink Panther, which would later serve as basis of cartoon television series of its own. But the most important ingredient of The Pink Panther is Peter Sellers in the role of Clouseau. Brought on the set as a replacement for Peter Ustinov, he did wonders with a relatively undeveloped and clichéd character and turned him into formidable source of almost everything which is funny in this film. Clouseau is clumsy, inept and creates chaos and destruction with almost everything he touches, but those scenes, which turn the film towards the slapstick, make him stand out as the most memorable character instead of Lytton, who was supposed to be the protagonist (and even planned to have film series of his own). While very entertaining and successful as launching pad for an iconic film series, The Pink Panther has its problems. It is slightly overlong, with musical number in the middle looking slightly out of place, and the character of George, introduced with an obvious intent to bring US cinema audience, could have been left on the cutting room floor. But it is nevertheless a very good start for the series and character that would over the next decade and half become better with each new instalment.
RATING: 6/10 (++)
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