aka I Like Money
D: Peter Sellers / 97m
Cast: Peter Sellers, Nadia Gray, Herbert Lom, Leo McKern, Michael Gough, Billie Whitelaw, John Neville, Martita Hunt, John Le Mesurier, Joan Sims
Rarely seen since its release in 1961, Mr. Topaze has the distinction of being the first (and only) full-length feature directed by Peter Sellers. Adapted from the stage play by Marcel Pagnol (and already filmed on seven previous occasions, twice by Pagnol himself), Mr. Topaze has come to be regarded as Sellers’ “forgotten” movie, and unless there’s a print waiting to be found in someone’s attic, the only known existing copy is in the hands of the British Film Institute’s National Archive.
It’s an amiable drama with humorous flourishes, and tells the story of a school teacher called Albert Topaze (Sellers). He’s an honest man, known for his integrity, but he’s also incredibly mild-mannered, content to teach his pupils but with few if any social interests. He does harbour a romantic attraction for Ernestine (Whitelaw), another teacher, but she’s also the daughter of the headmaster, Muche (McKern), a circumstance that keeps him from wooing her except in the most awkward and unsatisfactory ways. It’s only when his friend and fellow teacher, Tamise (Gough), persuades him to be more manly and seize the day that Topaze reveals his love to a delighted Ernestine. But he’s still too afraid of Muche to approach him for her hand in marriage.
Before he can muster enough courage to speak to Muche, a more serious matter arises. A baroness (Hunt), the grandmother of one of his pupils, arrives at the school to complain about her grandson being bottom of the class. She believes Topaze has made a mistake on her grandson’s report, and wants Topaze to change it. Topaze stands by his markings which leads to the Baroness withdrawing all her grandsons from the school, the revelation that Topaze is in love with Ernestine, and his being fired by Muche.
But help is at hand, in the form of crooked businessman Castel Benac (Lom) and his mistress, musical comedy actress Suzy Courtois (Gray). Realising that his honesty and naïvete are the perfect attributes they need to help them with a crooked deal they have planned, Benac and Suzy convince Topaze to accept the role of Managing Director in a company that will facilitate the deal; and if anything goes wrong then he’ll take the fall. A visit from a business rival (Neville) of Benac’s reveals the truth but Topaze allows himself to be persuaded by Suzy to remain on board. Topaze goes along with Benac’s deception, even when he discovers the extent to which he’s been used. And this discovery leaves Topaze having to make a very difficult choice…
As mentioned above, Mr. Topaze is an amiable drama with humorous flourishes. It’s a movie that starts off quietly with Topaze and his pupils walking through the streets of Paris, and remains at an equally steady pace for the rest of the movie; sometimes it borders on being stately. But Sellers has made a good choice here because Topaze is a man of reflection, not a doer but a prevaricator, and to move things along at a more industrious pace would have altered the tone and feel of the movie as a whole. (A faster paced movie would have thrust proceedings into the style of a farce, and while that might not have been a bad thing, it’s not the kind of story Sellers is trying to tell.)
By focusing on Topaze’s introspective demeanour, and establishing his integrity, Sellers is free to make him the calm at the centre of the storm of emotions and drama that go on around him. From McKern’s antic turn as the obsequious and grandiose headmaster, to Gough’s effusive best friend, to Whitelaw’s pouting love interest, and to Lom’s blustering businessman, almost all the characters around Topaze are more animated than he is and by extension, more aware of the world around them. As he learns that he’s been duped, Sellers sidesteps the temptation to make Topaze as emotive as everyone else, instead relying on weary resignation to indicate Topaze’s disappointment and anger; after all, what difference will it make?
Sellers’ melancholy turn as Topaze wasn’t well received in 1961, with critics and audiences alike unwilling to accept him in a role that wasn’t as overly comedic as they were used to, but Sellers pitches the part perfectly, and even though it should be the other peformances that grab the attention, the viewer’s eye is always drawn to the former Goon. In fact, such is the strength of his performance that when he’s not on screen the movie seems to miss him; when he returns the movie also seems to heave a sigh of relief.
But while Sellers the actor is on fine form, Sellers the director doesn’t always make the most of Pierre Rouve’s screenplay. Rouve downplays the satirical elements needed once Topaze meets up with Benac, and the course of his disillusionment is played with only scant regard for the sad inevitability of it all. Sellers is on shaky ground during this part of the movie, as the plot takes centre stage, leaving his character development to drift along with the narrative. Benac and Suzy make for more interesting and compelling characters, and the ease with which Topaze’s protestations are overcome smacks of expediency rather than any natural development of either the storyline or the character. It all ends with an uncomfortable meeting between Topaze and Tamise that poorly illustrates Pagnol’s idea that there are no truly honest men in the world.
Seen from a distance of forty-five years, Mr. Topaze is an intriguing movie to watch, thanks largely to Sellers’ immaculate performance, but also due to its entirely unexpected nature (just the year before he’d appeared in The Millionairess and Two Way Stretch, playing characters that were more typical of his career up ’til then). Sadly it seems that the response to Mr. Topaze was disappointing enough for him to return to the type of roles audiences liked him for (although Stanley Kubrick was clever enough to cast him in Lolita (1962) as the parasitic Clare Quilty). And one short movie aside – I Say I Say I Say (1964) – he never directed again. A shame then, as on this evidence, and with some carefully chosen projects provided for him, Sellers could have been just as well regarded for his directorial prowess as his acting prowess.
Rating: 7/10 – better than contemporary audiences and reviewers described on its release, Mr. Topaze is a bittersweet drama that offers some simple cinematic pleasures along with a raft of enjoyable performances (McKern is particularly effective); that it feels a little slipshod once Topaze’s integrity starts to wear away is unfortunate and stops the movie from being as polished and cohesive as its first “half”, but this is still a movie worth tracking down if you can*.
Alas, there is no trailer available at present for Mr. Topaze.
*Mr. Topaze is available to view on the British Film Institute’s BFI Player, though in a version that runs just eighty-four minutes, which suggests that there is a reel missing from their print.