‘A Shot in The Dark’ or — A Masterpiece… Fact!

I didn’t see ‘The Exorcist’ (1973) until I was in my thirties but when I did it turned out I’d been a William Peter Blatty fan since I was a kid and that was down to two specific movies — ‘The Ninth Configuration’ (1980) and, more importantly, ‘A Shot in The Dark’ (1964) a film that not only made me pay attention to comedy writing but made me want to be a comedy writer. This movie has a lot to answer for.

It’s the sequel to Blake Edward’s ‘The Pink Panther’ (1963), a crime comedy starring David Niven where the biggest heist is Peter Sellers stealing the film as Inspector Clouseau from under everyone’s noses to the point we forget David Niven is actually in the film at all. Using the scaffolding of a French play ‘A Shot in The Dark’ is a murder mystery but, in truth, more an excuse to hang some very funny scenes and jokes on.

Revisiting the film what struck me, despite knowing it inside out, is I keep forgetting how quickly in the series Herbert Lom’s Dreyfuss cracks up and goes completely insane. I thought it maybe gradually built-up over a few films, but no, he’s a murderous, nervous wreck from the get-go.

It’s also striking just how much else of the franchise’s template, elements, motifs are fully laid down here too. They’re not as developed on as the latter films would do but it’s this feeling of restraint, of just enough silliness, that makes ‘ASiTD’ the most satisfying and robust of the entries. A good example are the Kato fights. Sure, they’re not the most elaborate, extended or hysterical but the fact that they function more as physical punctuation marks, staccato bursts of explosive violence actually gives them greater impact. They’re also satisfyingly cruel and never outstay their welcome.

Not only that but Francois is present, so are Clouseau’s pissed-off neighbours and the phone-bound Commissioner meaning The Pink Panther as we know it has now arrived. Or, considering the way Clouseau is given destructive free reign after the confines of the previous film, should that be unleashed?

Yet what’s also refreshing is that they don’t lean TOO heavily into Clouseau’s accent and idiocy. Yes, his voice is exaggerated as hell but not to the point of mangling language beyond recognition. This makes a big difference, possibly best illustrated with my favourite line from the movie when, whilst arguing with George Sanders over billiards, Clouseau accuses Sanders of killing Maria Gambrelli in “a rit of fealous jage”. Clouseau comes up with this inspired triple Spoonerism (and you don’t come across those often; a rare and exotic sighting) not because of his trouble with pronunciation but because Clouseau himself is in a rit of fleaous jage and apoplectic. It’s a wonderfully written line which doesn’t diminish the character to make the line work.

Other wonderful gags include “Give me ten men like Clouseau and I could destroy the world”, Dreyfuss stabbing himself with a letter-opener, Dreyfuss cracking up, a sublime fourth wall break and, of course, Clouseau constantly getting taken to jail in a police van, siren wailing, in what might be the funniest and best running joke in cinema — the timing of it whenever it occurs is perfection.

So re-watching ‘ASiTD’ a couple of night’s back was an undiminished joy although I did find myself wondering how much, and precisely what, Blatty brought to this script (he co-wrote it with Blake Edwards and improv from Sellers)? After all, if it’s a sizable amount then it means he not only helped to define horror for a generation but comedy too. And I think I found some highly tenuous examples.

Firstly, the gag when Clouseau closes his office door on Graham Starks’ LaJoy only to reopen it a second later to find LaJoy has vanished, completely. Any comedy writer could write something like that but could you not also imagine it in ‘The Exorcist III’, just not played for a laugh?

Secondly, that aforementioned triple Spoonerism. Does it not seem plausible it was thought up by someone with three words in his name and who possibly delighted in swapping them around into all possible permutations as a child? Tenuous yes, but they are still facts and, as a great detective once said, behind facts lay the whole fabric of deductive truth.

‘A Shot in The Dark’ is not just my favourite Pink Panther movie but it’s also one of my favourite comedies full-stop (and Blake Edwards is a director I can have big issues with). It’s just so nicely constructed, incredibly funny, beautifully acted whilst putting down the groundwork for some of the most influential comedies ever made. It also has a fantastic theme tune.

It might be a shot in the dark but the film hits its target with utter, and delightful, precision.

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Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.

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Colin Edwards

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.