(On Cable TV, September 2018) I sometimes do other things while watching movies, but as The Great Race went on, I had to put those other things away and restart the film. There is an astonishing density of gags to its first few minutes (from the title sequence, even) that require undivided attention. While the first act of the film does set up expectations that the second half fails to meet, it does make The Great Race far more interesting than expected. Clearly made with a generous budget, this is a comedy that relies a lot on practical gags, built on a comic foundation that harkens back to silent-movie stereotypes. Making no excuses for its white-versus-black characters, the film features Tony Curtis as an impossibly virtuous hero, facing the comically dastardly antagonist played with gusto by Jack Lemmon in one of his most madcap comic performance. Meanwhile, Natalie Wood has never looked better as the romantic interest (seeing her parade in thigh-high black stockings unarguably works in the film’s favour) and both Peter Falk and Keenan Wynn are able seconds. The film’s visual gags are strong, and so is writer/director Blake Edwards’s willingness to go all-out of his comic set pieces: The legendary pie fight is amusing, but I prefer the Saloon brawl for its sense of mayhem. There is a compelling energy to the film’s first hour, as pleasantly stereotyped characters are introduced, numerous visual gags impress and the film’s sense of fun is firmly established. Alas, that rhythm lags a bit in the last hour, with an extended parody of The Prisoner of Zenda that falls flat more than it succeeds (although it does contain that pie fight sequence). Still, it’s a fun film and the practical nature of the vehicular gags makes for a change of pace from other comedies. I liked it quite a bit more than I expected.
(In French, On Cable TV, September 2018) The biggest surprise about The Pink Panther is that it turns out to be an ensemble bedroom romp with a limited role for Peter Sellers’s Inspecteur Clouzot—and, in fact, he gets played like a fool for the entire film, with a conclusion that doesn’t do the character much good. Sellers did such a striking job with the role that later instalments, starting with the follow-up A Shot in the Dark, would develop the Clouzot mythology in earnest. In the meantime, what we have here is a tangled mess of characters lusting for one another, with Clouzot unaware that his wife (the lovely Capucine) is carrying an affair with the master thief (the wonderful David Niven) that he’s chasing. Meanwhile, the gentleman thief is trying to seduce a princess (Claudia Carnivale!) who own the titular diamond, while his nephew is also trying to seduce Clouzot’s wife. It takes a diagram to figure it out, but fortunately the film is much easier to absorb as it gradually introduces its character as they converge on a European ski resort. Comedy director legend Blake Edwards slowly tightens the funny screws, culminating in a bedroom sequences in which characters hide under the bed and exit through windows while Clouzot remains blissfully unaware of how many pretenders his wife has within purring distance. It takes a while to get going and does end on a less jolly note, but the ski resort sequence of the film is a small success in creating a sexy comic atmosphere. Even out-of-nowhere moments, such as Fran Jeffries crooning an Italian song around a communal fireplace, are more charming than puzzling. Niven does stellar work here as an impeccable gentleman thief, but Sellers was simply spectacular enough that the series would therefore focus on him. So it goes—plans never unfold exactly as everyone thinks they will, especially in the Pink Panther universe.