Film Review: Peter Seller’s Directorial Debut “Mr. Topaze” (1961)

mr topaze / i love money - movie poster one sheetIn the digital age, it’s hard to imagine a film being lost and there being no prints or copies available. And yet, it turns out that there are thousands of films from throughout cinematic history that are missing in action. In fact The Film Foundation estimates that half of all American films made before 1950 and over 90% of films made before 1929 are lost forever. That’s why it’s great that Film Movement is involved in film preservation and keeps releasing otherwise lost cinematic classics from various eras.

The uneven British comedy gem Mr. Topaze (released in the United States as I Like Money for no obvious reason) is one of those otherwise lost films. Film Movement and its restoration partners painstakingly reconstructed, corrected significant color fade problems and remastered the sound of the film, all based on a deteriorating 35mm print from Peter Sellers’ personal film library. Turns out that the film had a very poor critical and commercial reception and rather vanished into obscurity immediately after its 1961 release.

Just beginning to hit his stride as a comedic actor, Mr. Topaze not only stars Peter Sellers in the title role, but marks the only film he ever directed. And there’s a lot to like in this comedy, not the least of which is Sellers working out his subsequent comic persona in the role of the meek grade school teacher Topaze. It’s also notable for being his first pairing with the great Herbert Lom (in this film Lom plays scheming politician Castel Benac, later he would play Chief Inspector Dreyfus, comic foil to Sellers’ most famous role as the bumbling detective Inspector Clouseau). Character actor Leo McKern also offers a fun performance as the school headmaster and Billie Whitelaw is delightful as the headmaster’s lovely, but scheming daughter Ernestine.

In fact, everyone in this film is working an angle, with the single exception of Tamise (Michael Gough in an early role) who remains a simple, honest and enthusiastic teacher who loves his work, even though it keeps him poor.

A short way into the film, bumbling Albert Topaze (Sellers) loses his teaching position at his beloved Parisian school. He’s just too honest to adjust a grade of his inattentive pupil Gaston (interestingly, played by Peter’s actual son Michael Sellers). Worse, Topaze has just professed his undying love for Ernestine – after much encouragement from his friend Tamise in a scene that’s both sweet and funny – when her father, Headmaster Muche (McKern) fires him. Awkward.

Young Gaston lives with his wealthy Aunt Suzy Courtois (Nadia Gray) and her paramour Benac (Lom). All their money comes from Lom’s schemes and the bribes he receives as a corrupt Paris City Councilor. When Benac realizes he’s being blackmailed during a tense snooker game (shades of one of the most riotous scenes in the later A Shot in the Dark), Courtois suggests that they hire Mr. Topaze as their front man to take the heat off Castel. After all, Topaze is simple, earnest and honest to a fault so who would ever believe he could be involved in any corruption?

mr topaze - publicity still photo - 1961 movie film herbert lom peter sellers
Castel Benac (Lom) and Albert Topaze (Sellers) from “Mr. Topaze”

Most films have a hero’s journey typified by good person tempted by evil choices, making bad decisions, realizing the error of their ways and finding redemption in the end. Surprisingly, that’s not the journey of Mr. Topaze and the ending might well surprise you, even up to the very last scene. It’s Sellers’ sly commentary on the corrupting influence of money in 1960’s England and likely one reason it was so poorly received by critics when released.

There’s a lot to like in Mr. Topaze and at times Sellers seems to be channeling the meek, charismatic and extraordinarily likeable everyman that Alec Guinness played so well in his early movies (see The Man in the White Suit, for example). At times he looks like Guinness too. There’s also a sporadic echo of the best Ealing Studio Brit comedies in the film, particularly the juxtaposition of overt musical snippets to specific events.

But it is a bit rough in the edit, the story is a bit hard to follow, and particularly in the first act with Whitelaw (the fellow teacher Ernestine), the film’s style is overly melodramatic, which takes away from the otherwise easy, relaxed flow of the narrative. Is Mr. Topaze a great work that’s been rediscovered decades later? Not really. But it is an enjoyable film nonetheless and a great chance to see Peter Sellers in the early days of his comedic journey on film.

Dad At The Movies Note: This is eminently watchable with younger ones, who will love the many scenes of classroom chaos in the earlier portion of the film. Once the politics and money shenanigans get involved, however, they might become completely befuddled.

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