Released barely a month after his death (to cash in on a funereal back-draft?), this Peter Sellers comedy has an undeservedly lousy rep. He made far worse. Something of a take-off from Christopher Lee’s largely forgotten Fu Manchu pics in the ‘60s (from the Sax Rohmer books* - see our poster), it’s spotty as hell, but often enough gosh darn funny, too. Sellers cycled thru three directors before hiring himself to complete it, yet the film has a unified, rather handsome style thanks to Jean Tournier’s rich cinematography and from a ‘Pomp & Hilarity’ production design from the superb Alexandre Trauner. (He’s tweaking Ken Adams’ classic James Bond sets, like MOONRAKER which Tournier had just shot.) Befitting Sellers’ fragile physical condition, most of the typically broad comedy is played on the dry/sedate side, with a welcome touch of wistful mortality to Sellers’ work as a Scotland Yard detective brought out-of-retirement. (The silly plot has Fu Manchu, also played by Sellers, sending minions around the world to steal ingredients for a youth elixir.) Sid Caesar is a bust as an FBI agent (his Italian mob shtick somehow more politically-incorrect than Sellers' 'Oriental' villain), but everyone else (David Tomlinson, Steve Franken, John Le Mesurier) get enough funny bits to make their mark. (Helen Mirren tap dances!) And while the finale is a dud (so too the opening diamond robbery via mechanical tarantula), the credit sequence is cool enough to make up for a lot.
ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Sellers actually had a second posthumous lead when Blake Edwards tried to keep his PINK PANTHER franchise alive by cobbling outtakes into the unfortunate TRAIL OF THE PINK PANTHER/’82; then used that as set-up for the Sellers-less CURSE OF THE . . . /’83 which had Ted Wass as a cluelessly unfunny Clouseau-like klutz. (It does include an inspired one-take gag involving wind, rain, an automated glass door & an umbrella.) Elsewhere, Alan Arkin, Roberto Benigni & Steve Martin all came to grief in the part. Sellers was indeed irreplaceable, even in second-tier stuff like this.
DOUBLE-BILL: *The five Christopher Lee Fu Manchu films (not seen here) are available as a DVD set. OR: The delicious (and very non-PC) fun & horror of Hollywood ‘Orientals’ Boris Karloff & Mryna Loy in THE MASK OF FU MANCHU/’32. (See below.)