With the untimely death of Peter Sellers in 1980, his long-time collaborator, writer/director Blake Edwards decided to create a "tribute" to his iconic star of their "Pink Panther" series by filming not just one, but two sequels simultaneously. The decision was not without controversy as virtually everyone in the film industry was aware of the fact that the two men had long ago come to loathe each other but continued to work together because of the success of the "Panther" franchise. The first sequel, "Trail of the Pink Panther" was a cut-and-paste job incorporating clips from Sellers' original films as Inspector Jacques Clouseau along with unseen outtakes that were cobbled together to form a plot in which Clouseau goes inexplicably missing in the second half of the film (only because Edwards had run out of outtakes.) The film sets the premise for the second sequel, "Curse of the Pink Panther" (1983) which was designed to introduce a suitable replacement for the Sellers/Clouseau persona in the form of a new character. Edwards originally approached then red-hot Dudley Moore, who declined to be tied to a film franchise. He then went in the opposite direction and hired Ted Wass, a veteran of the TV sitcom "Soap", to take on the challenge of establishing himself as Sellers' successor. It was a tall order especially for a young actor who had never made a feature film and who was completely ignorant of the process. Still, it represented an offer he couldn't refuse. The script picks up where "Trail" leaves off with the world galvanized by the authorities' attempts to find what happened to "the world's greatest detective". Leading the frantic investigation is French Inspector Dreyfus (Herbert Lom), Clouseau's long-suffering boss and a klutz in his own right. Dreyfus is secretly thrilled that Clouseau has gone missing and may be dead but he's forced to oversee the search efforts. In a scene that seems inspired by "Our Man Flint", he utilizes a computer to come up with the name of the sleuth who is most qualified to take on the mission. Through a quirk, the resulting answer puzzles everyone: it turns out to be Clifton Sleigh (Ted Wass), an inept New York City police officer who, like Clouseau, has gained a reputation for efficiency despite his constant bumbling. Sleigh's own harried boss is thrilled to send him packing off to Paris to take on the investigation. Sleigh's first meeting with Dreyfus quickly crushes the latter's hopes that he might finally be working in alliance with a capable detective. The simple act of crossing room and shaking Dreyfus's hand results in Sleigh stumbling and knocking the French lawman out of a window, resulting in being hospitalized, as he had so often been due to Clouseau's ineptness. Lom's comic timing was always a major asset to the series and he's in top form here.
The story then finds Sleigh on hunt across exotic European locations in search of Clouseau. It's a journey that rapidly becomes wearying despite Edwards' attempts to liven the proceedings with frequent scenes of slapstick humor. Sleigh meets up with Cato (Burt Kwouk), Sellers' longtime man servant, who has now established their apartment as a museum in honor of his employer, replete with wax figurines representing Clouseau's greatest disguises. The scene seems more like another desperate gimmick on the part of Edwards to summon the presence of Sellers, even if its in the form of a wax model. Along the way, Sleigh also encounters characters from the early "Panther" films including those played by David Niven, Robert Wagner and Capucine (all of whom filmed their reunion scenes for "Trail" with the understanding that some of the footage would be utilized in "Curse"). The assemblage of these notable stars is one of the few inspired aspects of "Curse" and it's a joy to see them together, even though the ailing Niven had to be re-voiced by impressionist Rich Little, who did a very commendable job of it. A gangster played by Robert Loggia is introduced into the convoluted plot that takes on an "everything-but-the-kitchen sink" aspect and another character from Clouseau's past, Prof. Balls makes a couple of brief appearances to little effect despite the fact that the role is played once again by the great comedic second banana Harvey Korman. The proceedings drag on through flat and completely predictable sight gags, some of which go on interminably (i.e Sleigh in drag as an undercover cop in New York and later using a blow-up sex doll in an attempt to convince bystanders she is his girlfriend. There's also a seemingly endless fight scene in which Sleigh takes on the baddies with the help of a sexy female martial arts expert). What is most shocking about "Curse" is how the timing is off on almost every comedic set-up, which is rather surprising given the fact that Edwards originated the series and professed to care about it immensely. It would be easy to blame Ted Wass for the film's failure but in reality the young star gamely performs his required duties with admirable skill. However, he's hampered by a poorly-developed character and Edwards seemed convinced that the mere intention to name him as Sellers' successor would immediately win over audiences. However, Wass's Sgt. Sleigh is merely a klutz with none of the fabled eccentricities of his predecessor. The fact that he wears over-sized eyeglasses that make him look remarkably like Christopher Reeve's Clark Kent only adds to his burden. The film only comes alive in the final act with an extended and clever cameo appearance by Roger Moore (amusingly billed as "Turk Thrust II", a reference to Bryan Forbes' screen credit in "A Shot in the Dark"), who was simultaneously filming the James Bond movie "Octopussy" on another sound stage at Pinewood Studios. Moore's deft comedic timing steals the entire latter part of the film and left this viewer pondering that, had he been the star of the production, the movie might not have been so ill-fated. It must be said, however, that the film does boast one other positive aspect: the traditional, wonderfully animated opening credits that make it all the more apparent how frustrating movies seem today in the sense that they usually eschew opening credits all together. An entire art form is vanishing from the industry in the urge to "cut to the chase" and get immediately into the story.
Blake Edwards originally envisioned that the Ted Wass series of "Panther" films would be moved to New York City, partly to accommodate MGM's insistence that the franchise become more budget-oriented. The unpromising prospects that scenario afforded were circumvented by the failure of the movie. But the problems didn't end there. Edwards accused MGM of intentionally low-balling the film's release and not marketing it aggressively enough. The suit was settled out of court in 1988. The title "Curse of the Pink Panther"s seemed eerily prophetic for all concerned.
The Kino Lorber Blu-ray features a new interview with Ted Wass, who
candidly discusses the opportunities and challenges that the film
afforded him. He speaks highly of Edwards but also says that the
director was pretty much tone-deaf when it came to Wass's legitimate
concerns that his character was under-developed and that some of the
endless gags seemed less-than-inspired. Wass takes a positive view of
the experience and says he had been signed to a six-picture deal but no
reference is made to why that deal fell apart, namely, the complete flop
of "Curse" at the boxoffice. One suspects he must have addressed the
film's failure in the interview but if he did, those comments don't
appear. Nevertheless, it's an enjoyable bonus extra- and don't feel
sorry for Wass. The failure of "Curse" didn't inhibit his career. He
went on to become an in-demand director of top sitcoms, a status he
enjoys today. There is also a most welcome gallery of "Panther" film
trailers that are highly enjoyable to watch back-to-back (one of them
misidentifies Clouseau's first name as "Andre"!) In all, an impressive
release of an unimpressive film.
(Trivia note: the French news reporter seen early in the film was played by Patti Davis, daughter of then-President Ronald Reagan.)