MR. TOPAZE (1961) re-release

June 11, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is the only feature film to have Peter Sellers credited as a director, and it was released in 1961. Retitled “I Like Money” for its United States release, it seems that regardless of the title or continent, the film can only be labeled a box office flop and disappointment to viewers and critics alike. Considered “long lost” and unseen for decades, the only surviving 35mm print has been restored by the British Film Institute, so that new generations can be disappointed … or perhaps appreciate it from a ‘history of cinema’ perspective (which I certainly do).

Peter Sellers directs himself, as he stars as Albert Topaze, a provincial schoolteacher of the highest integrity. We get a good feel for Topaze in the scenes playing under the opening credits. He’s a dedicated teacher, but not one the students respect. Topaze has a crush on fellow teacher Ernestine (played beautifully by Billie Whitelaw, whom you’ll recall as the nanny in THE OMEN, 1976). The obstacle here is that Ernestine is the daughter of the bellowing Headmaster Muche (Leo McKern, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS, 1966), Topaze’s demanding boss. Topaze’s loyal friend and landlord is Tamise (Michael Gough, BATMAN, 1989), another fellow teacher.

Topaze is a timid fellow, though of the highest moral principles. When the Baroness (fiery Martita Hunt) flashes what today we would call entitlement by demanding Topaze change her grandson’s grade or be fired, Topaze finds himself out of work. It’s here where scheming Suzy (Nadia Gray, forever a part of cinematic lore thanks to her unforgettable cameo in LA DOLCE VITA, 1960) and Castel Benac (Herbert Lom, Sellers’ memorable co-star in the “Pink Panther” franchise and THE LADYKILLERS, 1955), entice Topaze into their shady business … hoping to fend off legal inquiries given the reputation for honesty Topaze brings to the enterprise.

Can money corrupt even the most upstanding character? The story comes from renowned French writer Marcel Pagnol and his 1933 play with Raymond Massey in the lead. Pagnol also wrote the novels “Jean De Florette” and “Manon of the Spring”, the sources of two excellent films from director Claude Berri. There have been at least three other film versions of ‘Topaze’, two 1933 projects including one starring John Barrymore and directed by Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast, and a 1951 version directed by Pagnol himself with Fernandel in the lead.

Mr. Sellers is in fine form here, and in the first half he displays some of the physical comedic traits that defined his Inspector Jacques Couseau in the ‘Pink Panther’ series a couple of years later, and this film was released three years prior to the all-time classic DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB. It seems the real issue with the movie, and why it was so poorly received, is that Sellers plays such a challenging character. Initially Topaze is a sympathetic, likable man and he transitions to one we have little interest in – one to whom viewers simply can’t relate.

Still, despite the obstacles within the story, it’s fascinating to go back almost 60 years and discover a previously unseen Sellers project that features not just the stellar cast listed above, but also John Neville (THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN or for fans of “The X-Files”, he known as “the well-manicured man”), British film veteran John Le Mesurier as a blackmailer, and the only film acting gig for Michael Sellers, the son of Peter (he plays young Gaston).

Nadia Gray sizzles in singing “I Like Money”, a song written by Herbert Kretzmer, and Herbert Lom gets an instant classic line, “He’s an idiot. I like him.” Is this a comedy? Certainly the first 20 minutes bring laughs, but by the end, those laughs seem quite distant. Watching a man lose his soul and his friends is painful. Can money buy happiness? Topaze has his answer, but as viewers we aren’t so sure he’s correct.

Available June 12, 2020 via Film Movement’s Virtual Cinema

watch the trailer: