Peter Sellers died in late 1980, just as he was on the verge of getting another Clouseau flick off the ground. The film was to be titled Romance of the Pink Panther, and this time Sellers was writing the film, with Blake Edwards nowhere in sight. Upon Sellers' death, UA offered the film (which was originally to be helmed by Sidney Poitier, then later Clive Donner) back to Edwards. Rumor has it that the studio wanted Dudley Moore to replace Sellers. Moore and Edwards passed on the same grounds: that no actor could possibly replace could Sellers. A sensible move. Unfortunately, Edwards had other ideas....
This is the result.
There's seldom been a film that's felt as simply, utterly wrong as Trail of the Pink Panther. With this film, Edwards attempted to make an "all new" Panther escapade using deleted footage of Sellers from the previous three Panthers, with brand new scenes filmed around him to make it appear as if Sellers was really involved. For a little while, it almost works (the joins are at times seamless) despite itself. But then you see a sequence lifted wholesale from "Strikes Again" (Clouseau's mishap with a bag of groceries) and things go rapidly downhill. The Sellers footage is of course very amusing, but it's painfully obvious which Panther films the scenes were cut from (especially the "Strikes Again" footage, where a number of that film's supporting characters suddenly appear for no good plot reason) and the flimsy plot does all manner of convulsions to fit the scenes in.
Then, 40 minutes in, Clouseau vanishes, his plane having "disappeared". Suddenly, what plot there was (which was nothing hot anyway) evaporates and the film wanders into would-be Citizen Kane territory. From here on Joanna Lumley (quite lovely with a French accent) wanders in as a TV reporter determined to track down Clouseau. With her arrival, the pace grinds to a halt and so do the laughs. It's certainly nice to see some of the early Panther notables again (David Niven, Graham Stark, Capucine) along with an amusing contribution from Richard Mulligan as Clouseau's even battier father, but even this doesn't really work, outside of padding the film to a releasable running time.
Even worse is that Niven, who was gravely ill at the time, is dubbed by C-Grade impressionist Rich Little. Little can be hilarious impersonating celebrities (his Howard Cosell on Futurama is a blast) but his attempt to seriously imitate Niven is just painful, with his own accent frequently creeping in. It only gives Niven's scenes a bizarre, otherworldly quality, in a film that already feels mighty creepy. Little is also roped in to imitate the voice of Harvey Korman (more successfully) and Sellers (excruciating), which only makes things stranger.
This second half of the film mixes Lumley's interviews with Clouseau's contemporaries with heavy doses of flashback footage (from earlier Panthers), all of it so much better that the new stuff. Even when it attempts to be funny on its own, Edwards resorts to stealing these gags (as opposed to the footage) from earlier triumphs. Witness Dreyfus's barely concealed laughter during his attempt to eulogise his former nemesis...And then remember that he did the exact same thing in "Revenge"...
If there is one shining light in this misbegotten dud, its the peerless Herbert Lom. He's a truly underrated comic presence who manages to rise above the material with all his facial ticks, pratfalls and explosions of rage.
The final shot of the film, with Clouseau standing on a cliff face, looking out to sea (only to get pooped on by a seagull) manages to sum up the whole enterprise. It's a blatant stand-in (how could it be anything but?) and when he does speak (cursing the "swine seagull") it's clearly Little's voice doing a bad Sellers impression. Having passed on "Romance" because he believed no one could replace Peter Sellers, Blake Edwards only went on to prove his point.... In an even less dignified way!
Maybe the final comment should go to Edwards and his dedication at the beginning of this misguided, shambolic but possibly well-intentioned fiasco..."To Peter. The One and Only Inspector Clouseau"