The film was selected in 2010 to be preserved by the Library of Congress as part of its National Film Registry, being deemed "culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant."
As a child in Lugash, Princess Dala receives a gift from her father, the Maharajah: the "Pink Panther," the largest diamond in the world. This huge pink gem has an unusual flaw: looking deeply into the stone, one perceives a tiny discoloration resembling a leaping panther. 20 years later, Dala has been forced into exile following her father's death and the subsequent military takeover of her country. The new government declares her precious diamond the property of the people and petitions the World Court to determine ownership. Dala, however, refuses to relinquish it.
Dala (Claudia Cardinale) goes on holiday at an exclusive ski resort in Cortina d'Ampezzo. Also staying there is English playboy Sir Charles Lytton (David Niven)—who leads a secret life as a jewel thief called "The Phantom"—and has his eyes on the Pink Panther. His charming American nephew George (Robert Wagner) arrives at the resort unexpectedly. George is really a playboy drowning in gambling debts, but poses as a recent college graduate about to enter the Peace Corps so his uncle continues to support his lavish lifestyle.
On the Phantom's trail is French police detective, Inspector Jacques Clouseau (Peter Sellers). The Inspector doesn't realize his wife Simone (Capucine) is the paramour of Sir Charles and acts as a fence for the Phantom. Meanwhile, Simone dodges her amorous husband while trying to avoid her lover's playboy nephew who has decided to make the seductive older woman his latest conquest. Sir Charles has grown enamored of Dala and is ambivalent about carrying out the heist. The night before their departure, George accidentally learns of his uncle's criminal activities.
During a costume party at Dala's villa in Rome, Sir Charles and his nephew separately attempt to steal the diamond, only to find the jewel already missing from the safe. The Inspector discovers both men at the crime scene. They escape during the confusion of the evening's climactic fireworks display. A frantic car chase through the streets of Rome ensues. Sir Charles and George are both arrested after all the vehicles collide with one another in the town square.
Later, Simone informs Dala that Sir Charles wished to call off the theft and asks her to help in his defense. Dala then reveals that it was she herself who stole the diamond to avoid turning it over to the new government of her homeland after the World Court ruled in their favor. However, the Princess is also smitten with Sir Charles and has a plan to save him from prison. At the trial, the defense calls as their sole witness a surprised Inspector Clouseau. The barrister (John Le Mesurier) asks a series of questions that suggest Clouseau himself could be The Phantom. An unnerved Clouseau pulls out his handkerchief to wipe the perspiration from his brow, and the jewel drops from it. Great commotion follows while the Inspector faints.
As Clouseau is taken away to prison, he is mobbed by a throng of enamored women. Watching from a distance, Simone expresses regret, but Sir Charles reassures her that when the Phantom strikes again, Clouseau will be exonerated. Sir Charles invites George to join them on the Phantom's next heist in South America. Meanwhile, on the way to prison, the Roman police express their envy that Clouseau is now desired by so many women. They ask him with obvious admiration how he committed all of those crimes, Clouseau considers his newfound fame and replies, "Well, you know . . . it wasn't easy." The film ends with the cartoon Pink Panther as a traffic warden run over by the police car escorting Clouseau to prison. He gets back up, holding a 'The End' title card.
The film was "conceived as a sophisticated comedy about a charming, urbane jewel thief, Sir Charles Lytton". Peter Ustinov was "originally cast as Clouseau, with Ava Gardner as his faithless wife in league with Lytton". After Gardner backed out (the Associated Press reported in November 1962 it was because The Mirisch Company wouldn't meet all her demands), Ustinov also left the project, and Blake Edwards then chose Sellers to replace Ustinov. Janet Leigh turned down the lead female role, as it meant being away from the United States for too long.
The film was initially intended as a vehicle for Niven, as evidenced by his top billing. As Edwards shot the film, employing multiple takes of improvised scenes—it became clear that Sellers, originally considered a supporting actor, was stealing the scenes and thus resulted in his continuation throughout the film's sequels. When presenting at a subsequent Oscar Awards ceremony, Niven requested his walk-on music be changed from the "Pink Panther" theme, stating, "That was not really my film."
The film was shot in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Rome and Rocca di Papa; Paris, France; and Los Angeles, USA, using the Technirama process in an aspect ratio of 2.20:1. According to the DVD commentary by Blake Edwards, the chase scene at the piazza (filmed at Piazza della Repubblica in Rocca di Papa) was an homage to a similar sequence 26 minutes into Alfred Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent (1940).
Fran Jeffries sang the song called "Meglio Stasera (It Had Better Be Tonight)" while she danced provocatively around a fireplace.
The movie was a popular hit, earning estimated North American rentals of $6 million.
Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote, 'Seldom has any comedian seemed to work so persistently and hard at trying to be violently funny with weak material"; he called the script a "basically unoriginal and largely witless piece of farce carpentry that has to be pushed and heaved at stoutly in order to keep on the move." Variety was much more positive, calling the film "intensely funny" and "Sellers' razor-sharp timing ... superlative."
In a 2004 review of The Pink Panther Film Collection, a DVD collection that included The Pink Panther, The A.V. Club wrote:
Because the later movies were identified so closely with Clouseau, it's easy to forget that he was merely one in an ensemble at first, sharing screen time with Niven, Capucine, Robert Wagner, and Claudia Cardinale. If not for Sellers' hilarious pratfalls, "The Pink Panther" could be mistaken for a luxuriant caper movie like Topkapi ... which is precisely what makes the movie so funny. It acts as the straight man, while Sellers gets to play mischief-maker.
The film received 90% on the popular review site Rotten Tomatoes.
The American Film Institute listed The Pink Panther as No. 20 in its 100 Years of Film Scores.
The soundtrack album was released on RCA Victor, and consisted of music written by Henry Mancini, performed by his orchestra. In 2001, the soundtrack album was awarded a Grammy Hall of Fame Award. In 2005, the score was listed at #20 on AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores.
The cover art uses the image of the cartoon Pink Panther character and incorporates Mod visual elements such as the star above the "I" in the title; this sets the tone for the music on the album. The record itself, meanwhile, is light hot pink in color, matching the shade of the Pink Panther's fur.
The distinctive tenor saxophone of Plas Johnson is heard on the main title theme music.