"Trail of the Pink Panther" can be recommended only to moviegoers so indiscriminately fond of the "Panther" series and starved for belly laughs that they consider it a privilege to watch director Blake Edwards sort through his old footage and sweep up after himself. If your indulgence is less than open-ended, this lame attempt to scrape a "new" feature out of a filmmaking backlog is likely to seem more deplorable than diverting.
Although dedicated to the late Peter Sellers, "the one and only Inspector Clouseau," the movie is not organized or presented as a straightforward memorial anthology. In fact, it's a structural shambles. Sellers died before a new Panther vehicle could be prepared, the sixth in which he would have starred as the bumbling Clouseau (few recall that Alan Arkin flopped in the role back in the late '60s). However, he did leave a treasury of slapstick sequences, plus an even greater inventory of material discarded from the finished films for one reason or another.
"If Peter and I had an idea for a scene," Edwards has commented, "we would film it." Given this prodigal method, the outtakes were bound to accumulate. But Edwards has collected and exploited them more systematically than most directors care to, customarily making the talk-show circuit when each new film appeared with a selection of outtakes serving as humorous promotional teasers. It would have been more honest and possibly satisfying if Edwards had chosen to narrate a collection of memorable sequences from his association with Sellers. Playing it straight would certainly have spared him the suspicion of mercenary sleaziness inspired by the blatant failure of "Trail of the Pink Panther" to pass itself off as a fresh addition to the series.
The five or six prolonged slapstick sequences highlighting Sellers himself dwindle away after about 40 minutes, so that the alleged object of the tribute becomes an object of neglect during much of the listless running time. When he suddenly reappears in the footage gleaned for the end credits, you're reminded even more starkly of how much his absence diminished the last half of the picture.
In half-hearted pursuit of a mystery plot, Edwards has assembled several of the surviving cast members from the "Panther" farces -- Herbert Lom as Drefus, Burt Kwouk as Cato, Graham Stark as Hercule, Capucine as the ex-Madame Clouseau and an alarmingly frail-voiced and saggy-fleshed David Niven as the original Sir Charles Litton. The pretext of the film is that the Pink Panther has been stolen again, propelling Clouseau into renewed catastrophic action. Then we're told that Clouseau has mysteriously disappeared on a plane flight, prompting a TV reporter (Joanne Lumley) to pay calls on people who knew him. Her character sets up clips from "The Pink Panther" that include scenes with Niven and Capucine. In addition, she has a pointless encounter with Robert Loggia as a gangster and is in some laborious new footage with Richard Mulligan as Clouseau's senile father.
One of the oddities of Edwards' haphazard arrangement is that he inserts most of the Sellers material in reverse chronological order, so we seem to watch the star getting younger as the clips sputter along. Edwards' deceits make it impossible for either the old or new footage to have any integrity. He also imposes a saccharine appreciation of Clouseau on poor Niven, a speech that is obviously Edwards' self-congratulatory indulgence rather than a sentiment suited to the character of Sir Charles: "Men like Clouseau are indestructible: They help preserve our sense of humor . . . He was a fool, but he epitomized the 11th Commandment: Thou Shalt Never Give Up."
Having patted himself on the back for confusing this nest-fouling scavenger hunt with a loving tribute, Edwards evidently moved on to some sort of fictional elaboration of the series in a comedy due for release next summer, "Curse of the Pink Panther." A more appropriate title for "Trail" might have been "Cursed by the Pink Panther."