[NOTE: This post contains spoilers for the Watchmen graphic novel, and I’m assuming readers are familiar with its plot and characters.]
Remember a few years ago, when I said that I wanted to reread Watchmen, but this time with the Annotated Watchmen alongside? Well, the time has come at last. As expected, it’s producing a much more satisfying reading experience — even just rereading the graphic novel with an eye towards structure and symbolism is deeply rewarding, as opposed to the first time, when I was just reading for the plot. Now the project is spawning a few sub-projects of its own.
I thought it would be fun to pursue the references embedded in the annotations, so as to get a richer understanding of Watchmen‘s various layers of allusion. Here was the first one I saw, in reference to The Comedian’s secret(ish) identity as Edward Blake:
“Edward Blake is obviously a reference to Blake Edwards, the director of the Pink Panther comedies. And, no one’s spotted this, Rorschach’s methods of terrorism are all taken from Pink Panther movies.”
Are they, now? Are they really? Very well, I believe I’ll watch the Pink Panther movies. (That means the Sellers/Edwards Pink Panther movies, mind you. I’m sure Alan Moore wouldn’t want me to have to plow through Alan Arkin, Ted Wass, Roberto Benigni, Steve Martin [who I love, but come on — those are paycheck movies for him], or the truly execrable Trail of The Pink Panther, about which more later.)
Verdict: There’s something valid in the comment, but it’s quite overstated. I’ll buy that Edward Blake refers to Blake Edwards. And there are definitely some parallels between Rorschach’s behavior and one of the movies, The Return Of The Pink Panther. For instance, in the film, retired jewel thief Sir Charles Litton, aka “The Phantom” (played here by Christopher Plummer, taking over the David Niven role from the first movie) investigates a crime for which he’s being framed. In doing so, he pushes around a stoolie, abusing the man’s fingers just as Rorschach does to a low-level underworld type in chapter 1 of Watchmen. Well, not exactly “just as” — Litton’s victim is played for laughs as his hands are squeezed, whereas Rorschach’s target is clearly in agony as his bones snap. But still, the finger torture analogue is there.
There’s an even more blatant connection, though. In Return Of The Pink Panther, Edwards revists the running gag from the previous Inspector Clouseau movie (A Shot In The Dark), in which Clouseau has instructed his manservant Cato to attack him by surprise at any time, so as to keep the Inspector’s battle skills sharp. In Shot, Cato attacks Clouseau in the bedroom and in the bathtub, but in Return he steps up his game by leaping at Clouseau out of the freezer:
In chapter 3 of Watchmen, Moloch encounters a similarly unpleasant surprise:
So yeah, there are definitely parallels, and the “Edward Blake” thing seems like a clear enough reference that the parallels are unlikely to be coincidental. However, that’s about as far as it goes. You don’t see Cato following up on his freezer trick by leaving a “Behind you” note next time around. The Phantom doesn’t shoot anybody in the chest with a grappling hook gun. And Clouseau sure as hell never burns somebody with cooking fat or kills dogs with a cleaver, even if they bite.
Isn’t it odd, too, that while Edward Blake is supposedly The Comedian, it’s Rorschach who gets all the best gags? I mentioned in my last writeup that The Comedian is never funny, but what I didn’t notice is that Rorschach often is. And by “often”, I mean “seldom”, but a lot more often than most of the other characters. It’s Rorschach who actually tells a joke (albeit in his diary — the Pagliacci joke at the end of chapter 2.) He delivers many of his lines with bone-dry irony and sometimes even biting wit. (“Tall order.”) And he provides the biggest laugh in the book — indirectly, admittedly — by dropping Captain Carnage down an elevator shaft, a rather Clouseauesque fate for a villain to meet. His moral simplicity, along with his talent for verbal understatement and physical overstatement, make him the funniest character in Watchmen.
As for the Pink Panther movies themselves, well. One of the worst movies I’ve ever seen, to this day, is The Trail Of The Pink Panther. I didn’t actually walk out of the theater, but considering I was twelve years old when I saw it, I think it was the first movie I’d seen in my life that was bad enough to make me think, “This is a terrible movie,” as it unspooled. It was the first time I can recall thinking critically about a movie while watching it.
Trail is basically the movie equivalent of one of those clip shows that long-running television programs sometimes resort to when deadlines are plentiful but inspiration is not — a loose frame story provides excuses to show lots of highlight reels from previous episodes. Peter Sellers died fully 18 months before production began on the movie, and Edwards strings together a Sellers “performance” by using a bunch of deleted scenes from the fifth and last Pink Panther film, along with the funniest bits from the first four. They haul out the carcasses of Sellers’ major co-stars from the previous films to give talking-head interviews about Clouseau. David Niven was so weak that they actually chose to have his lines dubbed in by Rich Little in post-production.
The movie is so bad that Sellers’ widow in fact sued its producers, claiming that it had diminished her late husband’s reputation. The courts agreed, and awarded her over a million dollars. Still, watching all five Pink Panther movies in a row, I could see why the clip show approach must have appealed to Edwards. Every one of these movies is essentially a bunch of middling-to-great set pieces and jokes dangling from a plot that’s more or less beside the point. I saw these movies first in bits and pieces myself, watching over my parents’ shoulders growing up, and re-watching them now, it’s clear how much they were just vehicles for Peter Sellers to be funny. To watch them in sequence is to witness an actor and director zeroing in on a character’s comedic voice.
In the first, eponymous Pink Panther movie, Sellers isn’t even the lead. He’s a supporting character to David Niven’s roguish jewel thief, but Sellers steals the show so wonderfully as Clouseau that Edwards immediately sought another showcase for the character. He found it with A Shot In The Dark, originally a stage play with no connection to the Pink Panther universe whatsoever. Edwards rewrote the screenplay (along with a pre-Exorcist William Peter Blatty) around the Clouseau character, and Sellers hit another home run.
Lots of people cite Shot as the best Pink Panther movie, but I’d have to disagree. In my opinion, the one where the pieces all came together is the one to which Moore tips his hat: Return of The Pink Panther. That movie reprises the compelling characters and setting from the first movie, layers in the funniest elements of Shot (Cato, Dreyfus), and strips away some of the previous distractions — Clouseau as cuckold, Clouseau starry-eyed in love — to focus on the detective pursuing a case through one spectacular failure after another. They crib some costuming from the intervening Arkin movie, and Sellers perfects his outrageous ultra-French accent, complete with befuddled reactions from other characters. After the formula jells in Return, the subsequent films have the easy rhythm (and sometimes the tiredness) of recurring SNL sketches.
Sellers certainly nails all the physical comedy — I laughed out loud the first time he spun a globe and then tried to lean on it — but I found that my favorite parts were the more subtle verbal interchanges. The conversations where Clouseau, in his certainty, completely bewilders another character while not even realizing he’s doing so, are pure genius to me. And I adore him getting worked up and confronting a suspect with, “I submit, Inspector Ballon, that you arrived home, found Miguel with Maria Gambrelli, and killed him in a rit of fealous jage!” Once the films had fully codified the character, even his wardrobe was funny. Come to think of it, that trenchcoat-and-hat combination looks awfully familiar. Haven’t I seen it in something I read recently…?
Next Entry: There’s A Ship…