When she was a little girl, Princess Dala (Claudia Cardinale) was given the gift of the Pink Panther Diamond by her father. The large, rose-coloured jewel was so-called because if its distinctive flaw, which resembled a big cat pouncing, but when she grows up, the Princess finds she is being forced to part with it as rebels in her home country are demanding its return. However, they are not the only people who want to get their hands on the precious stone, as a notorious thief known only as The Phantom is also after it - but who is he?
Legend has it that when Peter Sellers went on his first date with Britt Ekland he took her to see The Pink Panther as if to say, see, this is why I'm a celebrity. Certainly the rest of the world knew what he meant, as this film transformed him from a British star into an international one, with everyone who saw it agreeing it was he who stole the show right from under the noses of his more famous co-stars. It was in this that he played his signature role, that of Inspector Jacques Clouseau, the man who is determined to catch The Phantom.
And who is the Phantom? Why, he's top-billed David Niven as Raffles-style gentleman thief Sir Charles Lytton, who you wouldn't think needed the money, so presumably he steals for the thrill of it. As you soon discover, the main problem with this film is that director and co-writer Blake Edwards is patently only interested in the antics of Sellers, so the other characters are noticeably underwritten, Nivens's Sir Charles included. The result of this is that those other stars coast on their charms, which in the case of the suave Niven are pretty substantial.
But not quite enough to stop you becoming restless when Clouseau is offscreen. In this one, he is a married man and his wife, Simone (Capucine), is actually the accomplice of The Phantom, a fact he is entirely unaware of even to the end of the film. For the sequels we must conclude that he was divorced without ever being aware of the reason why! There is a sense, as there was with the later films in this series, that Edwards was falling back too much on the unwritten rule that if in doubt, have Sellers trip over something, but at least here the routines seem fresh.
There is another star, and he is Robert Wagner as George, Sir Charles' nephew who he has been putting through college, or so he thinks. Actually, George has been living the high life on his uncle's money, and is also something of a rogue so that when he arrives at the ski lodge in Switzerland along with the other characters, he is planning to steal the Princess's diamond and blame it on The Phantom. What plays out is less a caper comedy of the kind there were a rash of at this time, and more of a bedroom farce with pretensions to class. The cast undoubtedly help with this glamorous appearance, with Cardinale especially beautiful, but you come away sure that this is Sellers' film all over. His creation endures where the rest of the film has faded, although Henry Mancini's music remains a joy.