4 out of 5 stars

In a grand mansion, seven suspects sit in silence as a detective stands before them. Millionaires, cooks, maids, and butlers anxiously await the verdict in a classic murder mystery finale. Then, the ever-reliable (though some might say bumbling) Inspector Jacques Clouseau (Peter Sellers) fixes his gaze on each suspect in turn. “One of you…” he declares, “…. is a murderer!” The lights abruptly plunge the room into darkness. Panic erupts. A killer lurks amongst them—perhaps even more than one.

The plot of A Shot in the Dark follows a familiar path for the murder mystery genre. Late one night, four shots ring out in a darkened bedroom. Inspector Clouseau is immediately dispatched to investigate. The prime suspect is the beautiful Maria Gambrelli (Elke Sommer). However, Clouseau is unconvinced of her guilt—blinded by love or perhaps the only perceptive detective in the entire Parisian police force, it’s hard to say. One thing is certain: as bodies continue to pile up, the murderer will stop at nothing to escape justice.

Blake Edwards’ farce is arguably the funniest entry in the murder mystery canon. It’s a film that incorporates all the twists, turns, and dramatic revelations of a straight-faced mystery thriller, while simultaneously sending up the entire genre. Edwards masterfully utilises the on-screen talent, transforming a play into a cinematically hilarious police procedural with ease, simultaneously reaching the pinnacle of the franchise.

The film’s technical brilliance and stylistic acuity can be identified in the opening scene. A man furtively sneaks out of the mansion into another building—and he is not the only one up to no good. Other silhouettes appear to be moving about on tiptoe, attempting to escape notice. Henry Mancini’s “The Shadows of Paris” accompanies this opening and provides the audience with all we need to know about the scene unfolding: illicit affairs are occurring under the cover of night.

Gina Carroll’s haunting singing voice as a lovesick mistress imbues this sequence—and the film as a whole—with an air of passion. Indeed, the sexual politics that pervade the film serve as the foundation for the entire narrative. Because of this, the opening is a superb hook for the viewer to become immediately embroiled in the action. It certainly helps that Edwards and cinematographer Christopher Challis shoot this introductory sequence in patient long takes; this extended prologue feels reminiscent of Hitchcock’s opening shot in Rear Window (1954), with the threat of murder lurking nearby.

The magnificent staging ensures that we, as the viewers, feel present in their immoral dalliances, as though we are complicit in the extramarital affairs on display. Of course, we cannot look away. If anything, we lean in closer to gauge who is doing what. Edwards seems to have a keen understanding that the intimate details of strangers’ private lives inherently fascinate us. Why? Perhaps it is because it is the dramatisation of our base impulses, our shadow selves which we dare not reveal in the cold light of day.

These dark desires become even darker betrayals within shadowy corridors. They act as a fascinating MacGuffin: a cohesive plot is born from deceitful manipulations, spiralling into an avalanche of amoral behaviour. This amounts to a shrewd juxtaposition of human nature—our cold, calculating minds organising passionate trysts to satisfy the heart’s longings. As a result, such surreptitious behaviour demands our attention.

All tension dissipates instantly upon Inspector Jacques Clouseau’s arrival. Just Clouseau’s deadpan, determined expression in a taxi approaching the mansion is enough to shift the genre in a completely different direction. As Clouseau steps out of the taxi and immediately falls into the adjacent fountain, we realise we’re watching a comedic take on And Then There Were None (1945). All the suspects remain serious, but our traditionally insightful detective has transmogrified into a bumbling, yet endearing, idiot.

It’s a wonderful combination of genres. While A Shot in the Dark could just as easily have become a Shakespearean tragedy—-something referenced by two of our principal villains—it stands tall as one of the funniest films of the 1960s. Edwards abandons the ‘comedy of errors’ formula he utilised so brilliantly in The Pink Panther (1963), lacking the ensemble cast necessary for a successful foray into this territory. Instead, the comedy is more slapstick-oriented, resting squarely on Sellers’ shoulders.

Much of the film’s humour revolves around Clouseau’s troublesome lack of coordination. It’s arguable whether all the physical comedy works. There’s certainly much more slapstick than in the original film—no doubt a result of Clouseau being promoted from a side character to the main protagonist—and occasionally it seems a little too predictable. Of course, for the most part, Clouseau’s untreated dyspraxia and unjustified belief in his martial arts ability remains deeply funny; Peter Sellers pulled off the role so well that everyone has since forgotten about the ensemble cast. Thereafter, there was only ever Inspector Jacques Clouseau.

It would be unfair to say that Peter Sellers only relied on slapstick. Sellers’ bizarre intonations, quizzical facial expressions, and sporadic movements all contribute to an aura of complex idiocy. We can’t help but think there’s more to this character than meets the eye. It’s probably the result of the character work Sellers invested in Clouseau, which undoubtedly aided his improvisations during filming. His improvisational ability was so prodigious that George Sanders made anyone who broke character in laughter put £5 in a kitty, which amassed over £200 during production.

Edwards doesn’t depend solely on Sellers’ superb turn as Clouseau for laughs, however. Much like in the first film—which was made only three months before production started on this work—Edwards uses props to hilarious effect. Every time Clouseau is arrested for possessing the wrong licence, an item hangs out the back of the police wagon. Additionally, pool cues, a globe, a cigar cutter, and a letter opener all present themselves as challenging objects for those handling them.

Perhaps the most memorable prop in the film is the ominous black, leather-gloved hand that appears during various murders throughout the movie. Edwards beautifully balances both comedy and menace in these moments, paying homage to the iconography of the murder mystery genre, yet never allowing the film to become grim. Dario Argento would later make the black-gloved hand famous in his giallo films, so it’s reasonable to assume he drew inspiration from Edwards’ directing.

It’s also interesting watching a film like A Shot in the Dark, which features nudity, murder, and an overarching theme of sex, knowing it was made during the Hays Code era. After the phenomenal success of Some Like It Hot (1959), the authoritarian censorship system was gradually crumbling; Edwards’ brazen disregard for the Code’s rules and regulations is demonstrable.

As if to provoke the censors, A Shot in the Dark features a lengthy sequence at a nudist colony, even though the Hays Code expressly forbade “any licentious or suggestive nudity.” The stifling system also advised filmmakers to “be careful” of featuring scenes that depicted the “technique of committing murder by whatever method”—which is flagrantly disregarded on at least four occasions during Clouseau’s night on the town—or sequences involving “first-night scenes” or “man and woman in bed together.”

Perhaps the censors were too busy battling Sidney Lumet, whose decision to feature exposed breasts in his new film The Pawnbrokers (1964) led to a lengthy creative dispute, one which the director would eventually win. Needless to say, Edwards gleefully ignored all of these restrictions, creating a much more risqué film than the previous entry. Clouseau’s ludicrous sex scene with Gambrelli is steamy before it’s hilarious, while the sequence at the nudist colony palpably embraces the fun, free-loving aura of the 1960s. Couple all of this with the fact that the Hays Code implored filmmakers to represent law enforcers appropriately, and you have a very funny, very blatant slap in the censors’ face.

While Sellers is the star of the show, the other performers also turn in delightful performances. Elke Sommer plays Maria Gambrelli to perfection and, rather coincidentally, would go on to star in a remake of René Clair’s murder mystery, And Then There Were None (1974). Her lover, Benjamin Ballon, is played by George Sanders with unflappable panache; Sanders imbues his millionaire philanderer with an austere disdain.

Tracy Reed, who previously starred with Peter Sellers in Dr Strangelove (1964), serves as the disgruntled wife, Dominique Ballon, to hilarious effect, although her part is unfortunately small. Meanwhile, Burt Kwouk makes his first appearance as the loyal Cato, providing some of the funnier moments in the film.

Arguably, it is Herbert Lom who shines brightest in the supporting cast. His fear that Inspector Clouseau is threatening to set the science of criminal investigation back a thousand years leads him to develop tics that manifest with increasing intensity. “I used to have a perfectly good eye!” he laments, twitching uncontrollably. As the thought of Clouseau’s ineptitude tarnishing his career becomes unbearable, his subsequent nervous breakdown becomes a rather underrated performance.

Undoubtedly, filmmakers have drawn much inspiration from Edwards’ sequel since its release, though few have come close to perfecting the comedic film noir as he did. Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) tackles the genre in much the same way, although the laughs are fewer. Meanwhile, the 21st-century Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston vehicle Murder Mystery (2020) includes far more adventure but lacks the intelligence of Edwards’ film.

It’s a shame that the collaboration between Edwards and Sellers didn’t produce more during this period. Their on-set arguments became legendary, with both men swearing they would never work together again after filming finished. Of course, they would renege on this promise and deliver similar comedic gems in The Party (1968) and three other Pink Panther outings in the mid-1970s.

But few of their collaborations—-or indeed many other comedies—feel quite as enjoyable, charming, or hilarious as A Shot in the Dark. It captures the zeitgeist of the 1960s in a story brimming with sex and laughter. It’s a pity that modern comedies can’t quite match this film’s energy and spirit, but perhaps they will again—who knows? As Clouseau would ponderously intone: “It’s all part of life’s rich pageant, you know?”

UK • USA | 1964 | 102 MINUTES | 2.35:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH • SPANISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Blake Edwards.
writers: Blake Edwards & William Peter Blatty (based on the plays ‘L’Idiote’ by Marcel Achard & ‘A Shot in the Dark’ by Harry Kurnitz).
starring: Peter Sellers, Elke Sommer, Herbert Lom, George Sanders, Graham Stark, André Maranne, Burt Kwouk & Tracy Reed.