Sunday, February 12, 2006

A Shot in the Dark (1964) Opening Credits

A Shot in the Dark (United Artists, 1964) 
Dir.: Blake Edwards
Cinema 4 Pylon Rating: 8/9
Opening Credits (DePatie-Freleng Enterprises/George Dunning and Associates)
Dir.: George Dunning (uncredited)
Cel Bloc Rating: 8/9

The screen goes black after the flash of four unseen and senses-jarring gunshots blast out, the aftermath of a brief pre-credits sequence filmed with live actors in the film we are watching.

But before we can start unraveling the mystery behind the gunshots, the screen fades into a dark blue wash as a sneaking, animated figure creeps to the center of our vision, to the beat of an ominous bass line played on the soundtrack. It is a three-hatted, scowling figure, with a trinity of faces entirely cast in shadow, though it only seems to be walking on a single pair of legs. Wearing a single, large, brown trenchcoat, the three-faced figure looks first one way and then the other suspiciously, then opens its coat up to reveal a credit reading "The Mirisch Corporation,” with a red background featuring stylized yellow lettering.

Closing the jacket, a hand lifts the first hat, where the word "Presents" pops up in the space between head and hat; the second hat is lifted and the word "A" pops up in similar fashion. There is a pause as the third head seems to wish not to lift its hat, but the other two faces scowl it into submission, and when the hat is doffed, a large bomb appears on top of the third head, with the fuse already lit. The figure ducks all three heads down into its trenchcoat and the bomb explodes. When the smoke clears, the screen is red, and filled with letters announcing "A Blake Edwards Production".

The screen goes dark blue again, and a solitary figure strikes a match, revealing the word "Starring,” and then another dark figure flicks a nearby light switch, which turns on two different hanging lamps which show the names "Peter Sellers" and "Elke Sommer" within their glare. He turns off the lights, but a single lightbulb, with the word "IN" trapped within its glass, suddenly drops down over his head, encasing him in its glow, and allowing a floating gun to shoot him through the heart. He drops to the ground as if dead as the gun disappears, and the title "A SHOT IN THE DARK” inside a white stripe, with a bullseye appearing where the "O" is placed, zips into view over his head.

So begin the opening credits of A Shot in the Dark, the second of the popular Pink Panther series of films starring (usually) Peter Sellers as the sublimely obtuse and klutzy Inspector Clouseau, who crashes through the world blindly but still manages to get the job done and come out the hero of the day despite himself. A Shot in the Dark came out a mere three months after the original Pink Panther movie premiered, not by any cynical marketing scheme, but almost purely by accident and sheer happenstance. Sellers was filming an adaptation of a stage play, but wanted to pull out of the seemingly doomed production; Blake Edwards was brought in to calm Sellers down, then Edwards and William Peter Blatty (who would eventually create The Exorcist novel and screenplay) reconfigured the story into one that featured Inspector Clouseau prominently, as he and Sellers had a great time filming the recently completed and soon to be released first film. Thus, this film was shot even before the public was aware of Sellers' soon to be most popular character.

Unlike the original Pink Panther movie, which not only opened the series but also introduced to the world the titular cartoon creation clad in pink fur and known for his sophisticated cool, A Shot in the Dark showcases instead an animated version of the Clouseau character. Eventually, DePatie-Freleng Enterprises would give the Inspector a cartoon series of his own, such as they were soon to do with the Pink Panther (the first Panther cartoon, The Pink Phink, would premiere in December of 1964, and also win an Oscar), but the cartoon version of Clouseau would undergo a drastic revision from the scraggly version shown in the these credits.

As the title “A SHOT IN THE DARK” arrives onscreen, so does the Inspector, who, fittingly enough, does go about inspecting the body of the "dead" man. But the man is only faking, and sits up and shoots the Inspector in the face. He turns to the camera with a charred face, as the smoke from the blast fills the screen. A hand is then seen dialing a phone from inside the phone receiver (!); the Inspector picks up the phone and gets shot in the face again. He pulls out his own pistol and shoots into the receiver, but the bullet comes out of the other end and into his own face. He follows a lead to a phone box, but disembodied sets of can-can dancers' legs cause him to leap into a cab and chase them; the cab stretches out about the screen in various angles of yellow streaks, with several film credits written upon them.

After a series of poster credits are shown, the Inspector himself puts up a “Wanted: Dead or Alive” poster with a stern criminal pictured on it; the criminal himself then arrives to plaster a different poster over the previous one, this one sporting simply a pair of crazed-looking eyes. The Inspector sees the eyes, pulls out a pen, and then draws a mouth to complete the face, which comes alive in a monstrous fashion and attacks the Inspector. He runs offscreen, and the poster pulls back with the Inspector’s underwear hanging from its teeth. The underwear, in the comical style, has a buttoned flap in the seat, and we see another series of credits revealed on them.

The Inspector lights a match in the dark, and we see the credit for the color process as the Inspector is shown standing amidst a large and sloppy collection of paint cans. The screen goes dark again, only to light up with the flash of several paparazzi cameras, revealing both a startled Inspector, and the credit for the cinematographer. The Inspector splits into two; the double does a tap dance but then the Inspector pulls his double apart to find nothing but a hat, under which a gorilla then appears, causing the Inspector to shatter into white, frightened pieces to the ground.

The intrepid criminologist next opens a series of constantly shifting and knocking doors, finding nothing until he pulls on one that splats into his face. He falls to the ground, but so does the door, which opens to leave a bomb; the bomb explodes into a massive bouquet of flowers, the soundtrack changes to the love theme from A Shot in the Dark, a gorgeously seductive melody called Shadows of Paris, (which we had just heard in the opening sequence that led into the fatal gunshots that reveal the animated credits). With the flourish of flowery beauty, the credits for the music of the genius composer Henry Mancini appear. Next, a giant handprint portraying the screenwriting credits shoots the Inspector in the face with its index finger not once, but twice.

There is a shriek in the dark -- illustrated indeed by such a sound and the writing of the word "shriek" on the screen -- and the Inspector runs to the rescue. He enters a doorway, only to run out a split second later pursued by a completely nude (though modestly covered) woman. She reenters the film frame wearing a trenchcoat with the Inspector hot on her heels, blowing his whistle while wearing only a barrel, since the trenchcoat she now bears is his (it does make you wonder why he had no other clothes on underneath it). A gunshot rings out, smashing the barrel to pieces, but the Inspector is wearing a single fig leaf over his private area. The fig leaf, too, is shot frighteningly off, and the Inspector covers himself with his hands. Reclothing himself, he runs to the final screen, where a large bomb appears, but when it explodes, it is only with an array of colors and the credits for producer and director Blake Edwards, which rain down under a series of parachutes.

The credits disappear, and a tremendously fat bird floats down from above on a final, tiny parachute. The obese bird lands in front of the Inspector, drops a large egg at his feet, and leaves the screen. The egg, punctuated with the final beats of the Mancini theme song, creates a massive explosion, the brunt of which hits the Inspector's face, leaving him covered in eggy ghastliness. The film A Shot in the Dark then continues on into its comic mystery, this time in live action…

Colorful. Flashy. Brilliant. George Dunning, the future director of the Beatles' classic animated film, Yellow Submarine, does wonders with a simple concept and runs with it, coming up with inventive gags throughout the brief two-minute credit sequence.

Cartoon credit intros really came into vogue in the 60's, partially due to the success of the Panther sequences (though the Panther never appears even once in this one); it is actually shocking to me that more films don't do them, but it might be a blessing that they don't, for when they are done badly, they can leave an audience completely cold going into the remainder of the film. And sometimes, an animated opening doesn’t really match the film that follows, either in spirit or in aesthetic. Here, after an intriguing though intentionally confusing intro, the credits are a perfect appetizer for the slapstick antics in the body of the film: you warm up with a few chuckles in the credits, and then once Sellers makes his first appearance and ends up soaking wet in a fountain within ten seconds of arriving on screen, you are set up for another ninety minutes of endless sight gags.

Ever since I first saw this movie as a kid, such a scenario pretty much defines heaven for me...



And in case you haven't seen it (though this does not open with the gunshots)...

[This article was revised and updated with new photos on 1/27/2015. The three-headed figure is known as The Brothers Matzoriley -- according to animation historian Jerry Beck. They will reappear in the first theatrical cartoon of The Inspector series, The Great De Gaulle Stone Operation (1965).]

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