Have you ever noticed how many people seem to like Inspector Clouseau movies but hate The Pink Panther? I'll often hear, online and in person, from someone who grew up watching RETURN OF THE REVENGE OF THE PINK PANTHER STRIKES AGAIN WHILE HE'S ON THE TRAIL OF A CURSE, and then sees The Pink Panther and says, basically, "It sucks because it's not like the other Inspector Clouseau movies." Of course it isn't. That's why it's so good.
The Pink Panther benefits from being neither 100% slapstick nor 100% Clouseau. a beautiful-looking, sophisticated combination of caper film, romantic comedy and slapstick, and surprisingly dark and morally ambiguous. (The only decent human being in the movie is Clouseau, and he’s cheated, ridiculed, humiliated and finally… well, I won’t give away the ending.) And in the Hollywood of the early '60s, when films were often visually impoverished and looked like bad TV no matter how much money was spent on them, Edwards' sense of style and his beautiful widescreen compositions (I think this was his first film in 'Scope, and all but one or two of his subsequent movies used the 'Scope format) must have been a breath of fresh air. Edwards was also one of the first “film-geek” directors, a director who filled his movies with tributes to a bygone era of Hollywood: Panther obviously borrows elements from Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise, and one gag is (as Edwards points out on the DVD commentary) lifted from Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent. As a director whose career started just after the studio system fell apart, Edwards’ best work always shows a certain nostalgia for the “Golden Age” he just missed out on participating in.
In its mix of comedy styles, its combination of lowbrow and highbrow elements, and its basic heartlessness, Panther feels very different from earlier Hollywood studio comedies (this despite the many references to older movies). And yet it has a lot to tell about what was going on in Hollywood in the early ‘60s, and particularly about how Hollywood was adjusting to two major recent developments: the collapse of the Production Code in the mid-‘50s, and the collapse of the studio system around the same time.
There are things in The Pink Panther that couldn't have happened under strict enforcement of the Production Code: crime goes unpunished, virtue goes unrewarded, and adultery is condoned. And yet it's essentially a family picture in the way that it would not have been had it been made even five years later: sex is implied but never shown, the Don Juan jewel thief, Sir Charles Litton, never actually gets to sleep with Claudia Cardinale’s Princess Dala (in the great Code-era tradition, she passes out drunk before anything can actually happen), and while the whole movie celebrates immorality, or at least amorality, it doesn’t contain anything that’s Not For the Squeamish. (That's something you don't see much of any more, which is "adult" movies made for squeamish adults -- someone should consider tapping into that market again.) It’s the missing link between the button-down Code era and the anything-goes atmosphere of the late ‘60s onward.
The other thing about Pink Panther is that even though it is an American movie - American director, American producer, American cinematographer - it was made almost entirely in Europe; the interiors, as Edwards mentions in his commentary, were all shot in Cinecitta Studios in Rome. With the end of the studio system, American moviemakers could no longer count on the great in-house studio technicians and facilities; a lot of movies started to come out of Hollywood that were frankly amateurish-looking. The result was that directors who wanted to make a movie with outstanding set design or special effects had to pack up and go to Europe, as Edwards did with Panther, and as Robert Wise did the same year when he made The Haunting in England. Within a few years, more and more American directors would be producing films in England (Star Wars is an obvious example), in part because it was cheaper but in part because it was European studios that were keeping alive the traditions of technical excellence and “movie magic,” while American-made movies increasingly looked like they had come out of a defective Photomat.