Color, 1961, 97 mins. 1 sec.
Directed by Peter Sellers
Starring Peter Sellers, Nadia Gray, Herbert Lom, Leo McKern, Martita Hunt, Michael Gough, Billie Whitelaw
BFI (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK RB/R2 HD/PAL), Kino Lorber (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9)
Though obviously best known as one of Britain's greatest comedians and a popular leading man in numerous Blake Edwards comedies, Peter Sellers also had a small but interesting career as a director-- albeit with only one full feature to his credit. After contributing (with a "devised by" credit) to Richard Lester's 1959 slapstick short, The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film, Sellers decided to try his hand at a complete film as both the star and director of an unexpected project: Mr. Topaze, an adaptation of the 1928 play Topaze by Marcel Pagnol (who had directed his own screen adaptations twice in 1936 and 1951). Though it wouldn't be inaccurate to call this a comedy (which is how it was sold to the public), the story's contemplative and rather bleak view of the corrupting influence of money on mankind is a
So scrupulously honest that it's his defining personality trait, Auguste Topaze (Sellers) is a provincial French teacher who ends up losing his job when he refuses to hand out an unearned passing grade to the grandson of a baroness (Bunny Lake Is Missing's Hunt) who's one of the town's wealthiest and most influential citizens. Feeling adrift, he mainly confides in his equally upstanding best friend, fellow teacher Tamise (Gough), and becomes a private tutor. In the process he catches the eye of stage actress Suzy (Maniac's Gray) to work as a front man for her corrupt businessman and council leader boyfriend, Castel (Lom). In the process Topaze finds his morality being slowly chipped away with a visibly drastic effect on his world view.
Despite its literary pedigree and strong roster of actors (particularly the chance to see Sellers and Lom together in between The Ladykillers and A Shot in the Dark), Mr. Topaze failed to win over audiences and critics at the time in the U.K. and fared no better in the U.S. under the title I Like Money (derived from a song in the film). It's true that Sellers isn't all that adventurous as a director and relies heavily on long, static master shots for most of the running time, but it's also a frequently beautiful film with a fairy tale atmosphere at times that contrasts nicely with the increasingly cynical nature of the story itself. The cast is also in good form with Lom in particular excelling at playing a shifty, arrogant European as only he could. Unfortunately the film's poor fortunes led to its withdrawal (reportedly at Sellers' behest), and nearly every copy was destroyed during the purge with only a single print surviving in the hands of the British Film Institute.
In 2019, the BFI brought the film back into circulation in a dual-format Blu-ray / DVD edition that also serves as a virtual celebration of Sellers' early career. The print has obviously suffered from some fading over the years with the original richness of the color scheme sadly lost to the ages, though efforts have obviously been made to present it as impeccably as possible. Given the extreme rarity of the film, this is more than satisfying and quite a welcome rescue for a title that was nearly extinct altogether. The LPCM English mono track (with optional English SDH subtitles) is also quite good considering the effects of time on the source element. The film can also be played with an audio option for "Peter Sellers at the NFT" from 1960, which runs for the whole length of the feature as the "national treasure" star entertains a very amused crowd with comic tidbits and tales from the films he'd appeared in to that point. The earliest of the bonus video features, Let's Go Crazy (33m21s) from 1951, is essentially a string of comedy and musical variety acts featuring Sellers (with a teeny tiny mustache and doing an on and off Groucho Marx impression) and fellow The Goon Show star Spike Milligan, while the aforementioned The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (11m14s), also featuring Milligan along with Leo McKern, is presented in its entirety as well. 1967's "Film Star: Peter Sellers" (37m10s) is a casual profile of the actor in conversation at home (including a look at his archery routine) that climaxes in a peculiar song routine with his then-wife Britt Ekland, while a "Maurice Woodruff Interview" (19m9s) is a raw chat from 1967 with Sellers' go-to psychic including an opening prediction about David Frost and a strangely intimate one for Hayley Mills. According to the packaging this was conducted by Bernard Braden from an unbroadcast episode of Now and Then which also applies to a "John Boulting Interview" (21m9s) from the same year with the influential British film industry producer-director chatting about the state of the industry at the time. An interview with McKern's daughter, Abigail (20m15s), is a fascinating account of her childhood growing up in the heyday of the Goons and the "laddy" friendships her dad enjoyed, while "The Poetry of Realism" (13m16s) is a video essay on Pagnol by Kat Ellinger about the satirical origin play and Pagnol's ascendancy in the French theatrical and cinematic worlds around the turn of the sound era. A substantial image gallery (6m29s) features a wealth of promotional stills, while the first pressingly only comes with an insert booklet including liner notes by the BFI's Vic Pratt, talent bios of Lom and Gray, and full film credits.
Reviewed on June 4, 2019.