The Pink Panther’s Women Perform the Real Heist

The Pink Panther (1963)

The Pink Panther (1964) | photo: MGM

A fabulous diamond. An innocent princess. A dashing thief. A loyal wife. And a bumbling inspector. This cast of characters might greet us in any ensemble heist movie, and is all too apparent in Blake Edwards’s The Pink Panther (1963). 

The Pink Panther franchise centers mostly around slapstick comedy capers, spawning 11 films with similar storylines and recurring characters (though I’d argue that the two most recent reboots, in 2006 and 2009, cannot be considered canon). A contemporaneous review from the New York Times called the 1963 film’s script “a basically unoriginal and largely witless piece of farce carpentry that has to be pushed and heaved at stoutly in order to keep on the move.” 

To the reviewer’s credit, there are some elements of this judgment that hold up today. A car chase scene goes on for much too long and starts to feel awkward. Multiple fumbles on ski slopes can be seen coming from a mile away. The physical comedy of Inspector Jacques Clouseau’s character starts to feel repetitive and predictable. And yet, though the image of Inspector Clouseau’s mustache might loom largest in popular memory, it’s actually the film’s female characters that are the most compelling in this colorful ensemble—ultimately, they puppeteer the farcical men around them.

Much about the original Pink Panther makes it a case of mistaken identity. In many ways, it’s a pastiche of heist films that preceded it (The Asphalt Jungle, The Armored Car Robbery, To Catch a Thief)

While director Edwards and his characters operate within the luxurious worlds of Indian palaces, Italian ski resorts, and Parisian cobbled streets, there’s more than a nod (intentional or not) to the Cockney charm of Ealing Studios. This is not a film that demands to be taken seriously—in fact, quite the opposite, it demands not to be taken seriously.  

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The centerpiece of the film is the Pink Panther diamond, so called due to the elusive animal shape said to be visible when the diamond is closely inspected. Already in this framework, we have a feminine-coded object around which the plot revolves. The priceless gem belongs to Princess Dala, played by Italian actor Claudia Cardinale in brownface—Dala is ostensibly of South Asian heritage as alluded to in the film’s opening flashback scene, in which her father bestows the diamond upon her. Dala’s claim to the diamond is disputed, as she has been exiled from her country following a military takeover, and there’s a brief mention of “returning the diamond to the people.” In some ways, this underdeveloped subplot is very reminiscent of the topical conversations around the real-life Koh-i-Noor diamond, currently in the possession of the British Royal Family.  

Each character’s actions, and the majority of the dialogue, is motivated by the diamond. David Niven plays Sir Charles Lytton, a dashing British gent with a penchant for lifting jewels; Robert Wagner charms as his nephew, George, a cheeky American skating through life on his uncle’s dime; and Capucine portrays the luminous Simone Clouseau, living a dual life as a wife to Jacques and a lover to Charles—and accessory to his heists. And, of course, there’s the accident-prone, shambolic Inspector Clouseau played by Peter Sellers (a role originally intended for Peter Ustinov). The film’s action largely takes place in the impossibly glamorous and exclusive ski resort, Cortina d’Ampezzo, where all kinds of capers ensue—ski accidents, bed-hopping, dognapping, an almighty car crash, and a line dance to an incredibly catchy Italian song

We’re introduced to the film’s three main characters early on. Their storylines will converge, and in the end, just as in the beginning, it is the Lytton men and Simone who walk away from the film’s chaotic events triumphant, unscathed and unpunished for their misdeeds. 

In the opening sequence, we peer over the shoulder of the unidentified thief (whom we’ll later come to learn is Sir Charles), leaving his calling card behind in an empty safe: a white glove with an embroidered ‘P’ for Phantom. Shimmying his way down a rope dangling from the side of the building, he’s greeted by a getaway driver, with the police in hot pursuit. 

Another early scene takes us to Paris, where a surreptitious meeting between a woman, Simone, and a suspicious-looking man is interrupted by a police car.  In what might be the chicest quick change in the history of cinema, Simone rushes into an elevator, switches one pair of pumps for another, reverses her jacket, and tucks her hair into a satin turban. By the time her elevator reaches the top, she’s an entirely different person, evading the frantic police officers while managing to look like she’s just walked off the set of a Vogue photoshoot. (What else could we expect though, given that the wardrobe for her character was designed and supplied by Yves Saint Laurent?) This stylish opening sets the tone for Simone’s character throughout the film—she adapts and shapeshifts, responding to her environment but always pursuing her own needs.

Clouseau, notably, does not feature in the three scenes of this opening sequence, nor is he really involved in the convoluted love quadrangle that develops between Simone, Charles, George and Dala. The fact that the film was originally conceptualized around Niven’s character gives important context to these choices. It is Niven who receives top billing, and who seems to occupy the most screen time; yet it’s Sellers who is set up for the belly laughs, and who lands the film’s final scene. But perhaps neither of them are the figures we should pay most attention to. 

Let’s return to that Times review. In just one paragraph, the reviewer uses the following words and phrases to describe Capucine and Claudia Cardinale’s performances: lazy, frosty, clotheshorse, utterly mirthless, dour, sluggish, limpid, listless, painful, pathetic. The reviewer places some blame on Edwards’s direction (or lack of it), and has no shortage of negative adjectives to describe the performances of the two women.

The only bright spot in the film noted by the scathing Times review was Sellers, credited for his resolute commitment to the bit. And yet with audiences, the film was a popular hit, establishing the Clouseau character as an enduring phenomenon well into the 21st century. This signals more misconceptions over identity in the film’s external universe as well as within it: David Niven thought he was going to be the star of The Pink Panther, while Peter Sellers eventually became the star instead. Yet I would argue that, in fact, Capucine and Claudia Cardinale are the real stars who have been overlooked here. Their performances, and characters, really steal the show. Their actions are steeped in self-preservation, misread multiple times over by the men in their lives.

Dala and Simone are visual and emotional foils for each other. The princess favors bright colors, prints and saris, and conveys a sense of vulnerability and naivety, sheltered from the world—first by her father, then by her bodyguard, and then seemingly duped by Charles. Simone’s sleek, monochromatic looks (much more expensive than a normal housekeeping budget would allow, of course) match her practical thinking—reflective of her ability to plot her way out of seemingly impossible situations—and her role as Charles’s advisor. Yet both women are similar in their ability to control the men, and the madness, of the film.

At one point, Simone enters Charles’s bedroom through the connecting doors that link their adjoining rooms; in the dark, she climbs into bed with George, whom she has mistaken for his uncle and who has made himself at home in his uncle’s room. It’s yet another case of mistaken identity, by a character whose identity is so often misjudged by others. In her role as Jacques’ wife, Capucine plays Simone on the surface as virtuous, doting and loyal, acquiescent to her husband’s every folly. And in her role as Charles’ lover, she plays Simone as cunning, sharp, and practical. Ultimately though, the undertones of Capucine’s performance demonstrate a clear exasperation at the idiocy of the men around her. 

As with many heist films, the climax of The Pink Panther takes place at a glitzy event—this time a party hosted by the garrulous Angela Dunning, in honor of Dala. It’s here that we see this theme of mistaken, confused, concealed identities at its fullest and most literal force: it’s a costume party, and everyone is wearing masks—apart from Simone and Dala.

The symbolism of Simone and Dala being maskless betrays the fact that they are the only two characters in the film who truly see and understand each other’s identities and motivations. Dala’s superficial air of innocence is subverted by the fact that she fakes the theft of her diamond in an effort of self-preservation, hoodwinking Charles, George and Clouseau in the process. It’s fitting then that Simone, in her role as Charles’s accomplice rather than Clouseau’s wife, meets Dala for a tête-à-tête to concoct a plan—the two women join forces to save themselves first, then the hapless men around them. 

There always has to be a fall guy, and here, it’s the clueless Clouseau. The final moments of the film setting up Jacques Clouseau as the Phantom in a courtroom present us with the ultimate mistaken identity of the film—one which Clouseau seems to actually accept and resign himself to in its final scene. An innocent fool is framed for the wrongdoings of those around him, including his wife. 

Yet we don’t really come away from the film feeling a huge sense of injustice or as if there’s a sole villain responsible. The Pink Panther follows heist films of the genre in showing us the perpetrators’ (in this case, pretty much every other lead character other than Clouseau) perspectives. In doing so, there’s a building sense of sympathy for Simone and Dala’s points of view. The princess walks away with her diamond returned, apparently endeavoring to protect it from the “rebels” calling for its return. 

Simone drives off into the distance, abandoning her jinxed husband in exchange for two mercenary men, sitting in the center of their trio. Perhaps then, this is the film’s final misdirection. We close with a frame of Clouseau, sandwiched between two police officers, playing for laughs. But really, the most captivating aspect of The Pink Panther lies with its two female leads, their identities partially obscured, elusive, and just beyond our reach—much like the mirage of the eponymous diamond.