Detecting, Defecting & Whistling in the Dark: The Films of Blake Edwards

This article was originally published in Velvet Light Trap no. 13 Fall 1974. It is published here with the kind permissions of the authors.

A woman enters a bar where she expects to meet and negotiate with her sister’s kidnapper. A man looks her over. Perhaps he is the man, but, strangely, he moves to another room. She, hesitatingly, follows. With a knowing smile, he glances over his shoulder. They leave together; he, confident he has picked up an attractive woman; she, confident, she has met her sister’s kidnapper. “Where should we go?” the man asks in the parking lot. “Can’t we do it here?” the woman replies and the man incredulously repeats, “Here?” Once inside the car, a still camera frames the couple as the situation turns from comedy into nightmare. The man asks her to sit a little closer. She replies that she only wants to attend to business. If that’s the way she wants it, it’s OK with him. He decides she is a prostitute rather than a pickup, but it makes no difference to him. Suddenly, realizing he wants to seduce her, she screams and leaps out of the car in the path of an oncoming truck. The man, stunned, stops the car to help her. Within seconds he finds himself surrounded by police with guns drawn.

A man and a woman finish breakfast in a beach house in an idyllic setting in Barbados. People around them sun themselves and swim; some men walka long the beach drinking beer. Suddenly, the beer drinkers burl their bottles into the beach house, bursting it into napalm flame. The woman goes into instant shock at her lover’s death. The background people—a waiter, a gardener—suddenly draw guns and a seeming war explodes where, only seconds before, all seemed calm and predictable.

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Both of these sequences contain gross misapprehensions, gross differences between what appears to happen and what actually happens. The first goes far beyond a simple mistaken identity. Neither person attempts to conceal his identity or intention; no attempt is needed. They live in a world in which accurate perception is nearly impossible and in which faulty perception leads to destruction—the world of Blake Edwards.

The woman in the first sequence, horrified at the failure of perception, leaps out of the car and is nearly killed. The man, utterly baffled, finds guns trained on him. Both, a moment before, felt they knew exactly what they were involved in. Without warning, they find themselves at the mercy of terrifying, overwhelming forces that, literally, come from the darkness.

Blake Edwards likes to construct his films around this type of situation, with his characters skating on ice melting over a huge pit. The first sequence comes from Experiment in Terror, made in 1962 at the beginning of Edwards’ maturity as a film artist, the second from The Tamarind Seed (1974). [1]

Experiment in Terror

T. S. Eliot said that John Webster saw “the skull beneath the skin.” Blake Edwards no only sees the skull, and accepts it, but half the time he laughs at it. He probably wonders why everyone else doesn’t as well. It is possibly indicative of the times, possibly of the skill with which Edwards constructs his films, that much of the time, they do. Andrew Sarris perceptively noted: “Blake Edwards is one writer-director who has got some of his biggest laughs out of jokes that are too gruesome for most horror films.” Sarris goes on to say that Edwards has “all the slick sentimentality of electronic music. The world he celebrates is cold, heartless, and inhuman, but the people in it manage to preserve a marginal integrity and individuality.” [2] Edwards paints a chaotic world inhabited by people attempting to live with some dignity according to standards that no longer, and perhaps never did, have any relevance. Their actions are misjudged, their motives unknown. In Darling Lili (1971), for example, the French army during World War I proudly awards the Legion of Honor to a German spy.

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Blake Edwards has been working in films since the mid-1940s. He can handle “little” films (eg., The Days of Wine and Roses, Experiment in Terror) and “big” ones (eg., The Great Race; What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?; Darling Lili) with equal skill. Few people would question his consistency of the projects to which he applies it. On the one hand, a handful of critics, like Peter Lloyd of Monogram, claim that “Blake Edwards is the finest director working in the American commercial cinema at the present time.” [3] On the other hand, many consider him a director of popular fluff, of Julie Andrews films. Even worse, he married her.

As was the case with John Ford in the 1950s, Edwards’ narrative skill, slickness, and use of popular but not critically successful actors tends to obscure the other facets of his work and its ever-growing maturity. For many people, his films are just too “commercial” to be taken seriously. Nevertheless, Edwards is the finest American director working at this time. He presents a vision so unique, so perceptive, so haunting and so complex that it frequently, as happens constantly within his films, is mistaken for something else. And he presents it with a virtuosity few directors can, or ever could, match.

My Cory (1957), Edwards’ first important film, opens with Tony Curtis standing on Sangamon Street in a bustling ghetto and vowing to get out of there someday. The credits follow and the remainder of the film documents his progress and its implications. In The Tamarind Seed (1974), Omar Sharif, having arisen within his society far above what Tony Curtis’ expectations would have been within his, still finds his environment unacceptable. He rejects his entire society and seeks another.

Both point to a common theme within Edwards’ work—an awareness of the suffocating nature of the environment and a seemingly doomed attempt to transcend it. While some of his characters periodically do transcend it, the vast majority do not, and those who do find no security in their transcendence. The skull always lies beneath the skin.

Two of the films for which Edwards is most famous are The Pink Panther (1964) and A Shot in the Dark (1964). Their use of his popular character, Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers), provides an interestingly antithetical approach to Edwards’ world view. In The Pink Panther, Clouseau, who has spent his entire career diligently, if incompetently, tracking “The Phantom”—an international jewel thief—goes, at the end of the film, to jail for the Phantom’s crimes, while the Phantom runs off with Clouseau’s wife. Edwards sees the world this way and accepts it. Concepts of justice simply have no relevance. Those with charm and skill succeed; those without do not and frequently suffer grossly.

A Shot in the Dark

However, in A Shot in the Dark exactly the opposite happens, and in the most perverse possible way. Clouseau, in moronically misreading the most blatant clues, becomes a true force of justice. He protests Maria Gambrelli’s innocence in the face of massive evidence to the contrary. She is, in fact, innocent, while nearly every other major character is involved in murder or blackmail. Through the most insane series of events, all of them are blown up at the end of the film, making the innocent, diligent Clouseau an effective agent of the law after all. He even gets the girl.

Showing justice accomplished through the most ridiculous sequence of events shows a world as absurd as one in which the man who seeks justice becomes its victim. The first might be called Edwards’ fantasy world; the second, his vision of the real one. The first is absurd because it could probably never happen; the second, because it usually does.

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The figure of the hero/detective is central to Edwards’ films. He represents the only force capable of, or even concerned with, establishing even the faintest, and certainly the most localized, sense of justice. Like Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Edwards’ detective accepts universal corruption without it being particularly bothered by it. [4] He never tries to make the world better for anything. He simply tries to make his own world a bit more palatable. Those who succeed in Edwards’ world do so by creating and defending their own small universe from the chaos and darkness around them. In Gunn, Peter Gunn does this through competence and style; Clouseau accidentally does it in A Shot in the Dark, but his fate in The Pink Panther reminds us that doom is always just around the corner.

In Gunn, the hero/detective seeks the killer of a criminal, Scarlatti, who once saved his life. He suspects the inheritor of Scarlatti’s syndicate, Fusco. As the film progresses, Gunn and Fusco come closer and closer to killing one another because each threatens the other’s world. When it turns out that Fusco did not kill Scarlatti, Gunn makes no attempt to see that Fusco suffers for his other and obvious crimes. He lets him be, let him recede into the dark, chaotic world beyond because he does not, at the moment, directly threaten him. Fusco, who has his own world to protect, does the same with Gunn.

Edwards generally depicts altruists as either insane, as the Commissioner in A Shot in the Dark, or evil, as Fergus Stephenson in The Tamarind Seed. His heroes have little sense of any higher morality. They act in their own interests; they do not attempt the impossible. When asked if Fusco can be stopped, Peter Gunn says, “Can you store Lake Michigan in your cellar?” In Edwards’ world, those who operate by objective rules are doomed. Edwards’ hero/detectives commit themselves to an issue, not to an abstract ideal.

Edwards’ professional detectives, men committed more to the ideal than to the issue, are generally well-intentioned, ineffectual men. Like Captain Pearson in The Carey Treatment or Jacobi in Gunn, they are men ill-fitted to do a hopeless task. At their worst they are Clouseau whose life is a pitiable series of blunders, whose only saving grace is his inability to perceive his own absurdity; at their best they are a curious, coldly competent, dehumanized group, like Ripley in Experiment in Terror or Loder in The Tamarind Seed, who seem, almost literally, to become their jobs and yet still blunder, often fatally.

Edwards’ heroes, without any higher or abstract morality to worry about, subjugate all to the preservation of their own private worlds, justifying any means by the ends. Dr Carey, in The Carey Treatment, investigating a botched abortion to hep an unjustly accused friend, asks the brother (a medical student) of the victim why he did not perform the abortion himself. The brother answers, “She was my sister!” Carey replies, “I’d do it for mine.” At one point in the film Carey takes an innocent girl for a ride in which he endangers his own and her life by recklessly speeding in an attempt to scare her into giving him information. Later, in another attempt to obtain more information, he injects a harmless solution into a drug addict that she thinks will kill her. He coldly tells her that, as a doctor, he literally controls her life and death. As he does this, the professional detective, Captain Pearion, stands by—extremely uncomfortable. Like Clouseau, Carey’s justification is that he happens to be right. Also like Clouseau, he does not especially care.

The first time we see Clouseau in A Shot in the Dark he pulls up before a large house and gets out of his car, falling immediately into a fountain. Anyone can make a mistake, but a pattern of such incompetence points to an inability to deal with the most basic human functions. Later, he gathers all the evidence against Maria Gambrelli: she has a motive for the killing, has no alibi, and, in fact, was found on the scene holding the murder weapon. From this, Clouseau concludes she is innocent. This, understandably, upsets his superior, the Commissioner. As the film progresses, the strain on the Commissioner becomes more obvious—he becomes visibly nervous; he accidentally chops off his thumb; he stabs himself. His psychiatrist asks him why he does not fire Clouseau from the case. He answers with the ultimate question, “What if he is right?”

If Clouseau is right, the Commissioner would be ruined. Not only that, the entire basis around which he structured his life would be invalidated. Clouseau presents not only a threat to the issue at hand, he presents an ontological threat. The Commissioner, in a hopeless attempt to preserve himself, tries to kill Clouseau, killing four innocent people in the process—more than were originally involved in the murder. Later he sets a bomb in Clouseau’s car that succeeds in killing most of the cast except, of course, Clouseau. The last time we see him he has atavistically degenerated into a crawling beast, yelping, “I hate you, Clouseau” and gnawing at Clouseau’s leg.

Ultimately, the Commissioner can not accept a challenge to his world view. He has one set way of perceiving evidence and admits no other. He can not adapt. Clouseau, on the other hand, has no faith in anything and constantly adapts. When he says, “I believe everything and I believe nothing. I suspect everyone and I suspect no one”, he presents himself as adaptable to anything. When he picks up the murder weapon with a pen, he says, “This pen has been fired recently” and, at that point, is quite willing to believe that the pen and not the gun had been fired. When Maria, seeing his clothes are soaking wet, warns that he will catch pneumonia and die, he replies, “Yes, I probably will. It’s all part of life’s rich pageant, you know.” He is even prepared to accept his own death as just another thing, part of “life’s rich pageant.”

Although Clouseau barely understands anything, he adapts to everything—which makes him the perfect survivor in a chaotic world. Unlike the Commissioner who cannot survive a challenge to his world view, Clouseau will never go mad or destroy himself because he has nothing so important among his beliefs worth sacrificing his very existence for. He feels drawn to Maria Gambrelli and, consequently, believes her innocent. He operates on that premise. Were she found guilty, or dead, he would move on, without being too upset—simply adapting to it as part of the scheme of things.

Perhaps the greatest fault in an Edwardian world is the inability to adapt. Edwards seems to agree with Loder in The Tamarind Seed who, in a seriously presented parallel to Clouseau’s sentiment, says he has learned three things in life: “No one is to be trusted, nothing is to be believed, and anyone is capable of doing anything.” Edwards’ characters inhabit a world so furiously chaotic, affected by forces so diverse and so foreign, that they must be able, on the spur of the moment, to grossly readjust their world view. For this reason the detective metaphor operates centrally not only in the films in which detectives actually appear, but in most of Edwards’ films.

A detective examines evidence to solve a mystery. He must do so as objectively as possible and must be receptive to any interpretation. He must adapt to the evidence. For Edwards, this approach should not only apply to the mystery at hand, but to the detective’s life—as well as to that of the other characters and, ultimately, to the audience. Edwards’ films deal with people in the dark, people who must adjust and readjust to the evidence they perceive from the unknown around them. Everyone must be a detective.

When, after a good deal of inconclusive work had been done in pre-production for A Shot in the Dark, the Mirisch Company turned to Edwards for help. He remembers telling them that, “…if they wanted me to save them, I’d have to take something with which I was familiar to begin with. I was familiar with the character of Clouseau. I needed a detective.” [5] The operative question in Edwards’ mind was, “How far can I go now in terms of Inspector Clouseau?” [6] The distance he went was to show, in an unbearably funny film, a world so absurd that only a character equally absurd can cope with it. He went so far as to create a character perfectly consistent with this world view.

Clouseau takes this absurdity seriously, for example, when he mistakes a pen for a gun or picks up a billiard bridge instead of a cue and, when his error is pointed out, says, “Ah yes, the bridge cue.” The adjustments he constantly makes to what is, rather than to what should be, evidence his absurdity but also keep him going. In a much more serious context, Peter Gunn survives because he can adjust to the fact that Daisy Jane, and not Fusco, killed Scarlatti. He makes a further and far more massive adaptation when he learns that Daisy Jane is not only not innocent, she is not even a woman but a transvestite. This requires the most primal ability to adapt, the awareness that your perceptions can misinform you about a matter so basic as the sexual identity of a person you have known for a considerable time.

Edwards goes even further at the end of The Tamarind Seed when all evidence leads Judith Sarrow (Julie Andrews) to believe that Sverdlov (Omar Sharif) has died in her presence. The film has already shown her make two painful readjustments: the first to the death of her husband; the second to the end of an affair. Deeply, almost irrevocably, scarred by Sverdlov’s death, she suddenly learns he is alive.

To think that someone is dead when he is alive is an even more serious mistake than to think someone is a woman when he is a man. To survive each of these shocks and accept them indicates an ability to overcome perceptual monism. Clouseau hired his house boy to attack him without warning and, consequently, accepted such attacks as part of “life’s rich pageant.” Edwards’ other characters also must learn to accept the intrusion of forces from beyond that shake the very foundations of their perceptions—no matter what the price—and begin anew. As far back as Mr Cory, the hero pursues a goal he ultimately finds worthless, in this case the girl, Abigail. He successfully adjusts to a new goal, her sister Janet.

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In 1971, Edwards discussed making a film about an athlete’s political defection set against the background of the Munich Olympics: “Only this is a real switch, the American switches over to the Communist side.” [7] That film has not been made, but in The Tamarind Seed, Edwards does deal with defection—from East to West. However, he seems less concerned with the political than with the personal dynamics of defection. It has become a major metaphor in his recent films.

In The Tamarind Seed, Sverdlov is a successful Russian agent who falls in love with Judith Sarrow while his government plots against him. Since his wife participates in the plot, it involves not only his public but his private life. To save himself, he defects to the West. He is, in the Edwardian world, a paragon of perception and adaptability. He has no false illusions of personal or social security. When his wife and co-workers act in such a way that he perceives betrayal, he, without bitterness, accepts it and moves on and saves himself. Sverdlov holds out no hope for any objective morality and smiles at Judith Sarrow for doing so. She believes everyone has a conscience and says that even he knows when he has done something wrong. He replies, “I know when I’ve made a mistake. There’s a difference.” He sees the tamarind seed of the title as a symbol of objective justice. He doesn’t believe in it, but because of his realization of the necessity to adapt to any possibility, he admits that it might exist. He will never be caught in the dilemma of the Commissioner shuddering, “What if he’s right?”

Edwards’ characters must affirm themselves, must try to make their momentary stand in the chaos around them. While they expect nothing, they realise some momentary satisfaction is possible. While nothing is constant, even true love can be a reality. Mathew Arnold provided a perfect paradigm for the terrors and illusions of such a world, the need to adapt to it and its potential for hope in the ending of his poem “Dover Beach”.

Ah, love, let is be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help from pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

The tamarind seed, then, represents a hope of fulfillment in such a world—one among innumerable possibilities.

Darling Lili, one of Edwards’ most important films, begins with a shot of Lili (Julie Andrews) singing in darkness. A spotlight shines on her face which we see in longshot. She sings a song entitled “Whistling Away the Dark” while she whirls about. The entire scene is photographed in an immensely complex, uninterrupted shot. Situated behind the singer/dancer, the camera reveals the brightly coloured spotlights of the stage and behind that a wall of impenetreable darkness. The space Lili inhabits seems secure and privileged. The continuous movement of the camera further enhances this feeling of a privileged aesthetic space—beautiful and separate.

Darling Lili

Suddenly the lights come up to reveal a large audience in a lavish music hall. This introduces a new space separate from the aesthetic stage space. At this point, Edwards intercuts spatially disorientating shots which confuse the viewer: a large dirigible drifting ominously out of the night; a submarine rising from the ocean’s black depths. In the music hall, the sound of sirens cause panic. Not only has the security of interior space in the theatre been a fragile illusion, but so has the spatial distinction between the stage and audience. Realising what is happening, Lili adapts quickly and sings songs that will inspire all present (now including performers as well as audience) to confidence and unity. Significantly, members of the audience come up on stage and join her.

When Lili entertains troops later in the film, Edwards’ camera surveys the terrain (it is an outdoor concert) before finally coming to rest on a long shot of her singing. Suddenly, an out-of-control wheelchair rushes past her. The camera remains perfectly still during this absurd intrusion as the patient, leg in a cast thrust ludicrously out, crashes in and out of the frame. [8] As if this is not enough, Major Larrabee (Rock Hudson) charges past in hot pursuit. The film continually undermines the sense of a closed aesthetic space suggested in the opening shot. During one of Lili’s acts in the music hall involving a swing, Edwards unites, in one shot, stage space, backstage space and audience space as his camera follows Lili. Finally, in the last scene of the film, Edwards virtually repeats the opening shot, this time with several important variations. The once isolated pure space is now peopled with characters Lili has encountered during the film, including her lost love, Major Larrabee.

In this film, Edwards merges the theme of creativity in art with that of creativity in private life. As Lili adapts and re-orders the aesthetic space, so she adapts and re-orders her private life to the most incredible series of events—culminating in her political defection from Germany (she has been serving as a double agent) to France.

Like Darling Lili, many of Edwards’ films begin with remarkable images of darkness. In Gunn, a boat full of disguised murderers ominously takes shape in the dark; in Experiment in Terror, a kidnapper appears out of the night; in Wild Rovers, cowboys appear from the darkness as the opening rays of sunlight appear to sweep them along; in A Shot in the Dark, an entire household is seen in a devious interplay of adultery which ends in a murder—the flash of a gun momentarily breaking the darkness. The ways in which his characters act in that darkness supply the basic concerns of Blake Edwards’ films.

[1] In The Tamarind Seed, when a casual beach scene explodes into kaleidoscopic violence in a matter of seconds, the news media report it as an accidental house fire, not a napalm murder, as part of a universal attempt to reimpose the veneer of normality.
[2] Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema (New York: Dutton, 1968), p. 92.
[3] Peter Lloyd, “The American Cinema: An Outlook”, Monogram 1 (April 1971) p. 13.
[4] Raymond Chandler believed that “murder will out”, but only if some enormously dedicated individual puts his mind to it, a figure such as his detective, Philip Marlowe. Marlowe operates with a dim sense that he, by preserving his own integrity, helps preserve some higher, if moribund, law. Consequently, although Marlowe generally works for hire, he refuses cases he finds morally distasteful and withdraws from them of he learns they transgress some objective law he considers more important.
[5] Jean-Francois Hauduroy, “Sophisticated Naturalism: Interview with Blake Edwards”, Cahiers du cinema in English, No. 3 (No. 175, February 1966), p. 26.
[6] ibid., p. 26.
[7] Stuart Byron, “Blake Edwards: Confessions of a Cult Figure”, The Village Voice, August 1971, p. 62.
[8] A favourite Edwardian technique is to show, from a stationary camera position, people rushing in and out of the frame for any number of reasons. In A Shot in the Dark, Edwards shows a demure audience listening to a classical concert. Suddenly Clouseau comes in from one side of the frame, rushes across the room and falls out of the window on the other side of the frame. The camera never moves. Those in the frame haven’t the faintest idea where he has come from or gone, or why. The stationary camera gives the audience the sense of the futility of even trying to guess what is going on, or mine its complexity.