Film Preview: MR.TOPAZE (directed by Peter Sellers) (Virtual Exclusive Engagement by American Cinematheque)

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by Tony Frankel on June 2, 2020

in Film,Theater-Los Angeles


The comedy opens exclusively at American Cinematheque
via Film Movement’s Virtual Cinema on June 12, 2020, for two weeks

Peter Sellers directs himself in the 1961 British comedy Mr. Topaze, an old role previously played by John Barrymore (Topaze, 1933). The future Inspector Clouseau, Sellers, plays an upright French school teacher fired when he refuses to make a bad pupil’s marks look better. But Mr. Topaze soon takes to a life of crime when he is hired by crooked government official Castel Benac (Herbert Lom), who runs a bent financial business. Benac’s musical-comedy actress-mistress Suzy (Nadia Gray) persuades him to hire Mr Topaze as the business front man, and he becomes another greedy, bent financier.

Seller’s first and only credited directorial feature, Mr. Topaze displays the British comic genius at the peak of his powers alongside his future Pink Panther nemesis and The Ladykillers co-star Lom. The stellar supporting cast includes Billie Whitelaw and Michael Gough (who would get a late career offering as Alfred the Butler in Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989). Believed to be “lost” for years, Mr. Topaze was digitally restored from the lone surviving 35mm print in the BFI archives at the request of the British public.

Mr. Topaze is actually based on the play Topaz by the French auteur, Marcel Pagnol. This was surprisingly the 8th film version of Pagnol’s play and for the most part sticks closely to the original work. His plays deal with provincial life (and Provençal life, his home turf). Pagnol’s most notable works were the duo La Gloire de mon père and Le Château de ma mère as well as the Marius trilogy of films that he directed himself in the early 1930s — these remain among French cinema’s most beloved films. Pagnol also directed two film versions of Topaz.

Released in the U.S. as I Like Money, the copy I saw long ago showed the Eastmancolor as bleached out, so this will be an extra-special treat. It did not do well on release, but not because it’s a lousy film. Actually, the performances are amazing and it is lightheartedly enjoyable, but audiences just didn’t seem interested in Sellers the crook, and wanted to see Sellers the new romancer of The Millionairess in which he played an Indian doctor amorously entangled with a wealthy heiress (Sophia Loren).

Vic Pratt of BFI said, “Sellers took the failure of Mr. Topaze deeply to heart. He never directed — officially, at least — again. He told people he was no longer interested. Yet he didn’t want to forget the experience: soon after it flopped, Sellers took delivery of a 16mm reduction print of the film. Safely stowed away, the cans neatly Dymo-labelled, it would reside in his personal film collection for the rest of his life. What’s more (as the tape repairs on his copy would suggest) he did run it for himself, more than once, on his projector.”

The print was donated, after Seller’s death, to the BFI National Archive collection, where it is now preserved.

MR. TOPAZE (1961)
Directed by: Peter Sellers
Written by: Pierre Rouve, Based on the play Topaze by Marcel Pagnol
Produced by: Pierre Rouve, Dimitri de Grunwald
Cast: Peter Sellers, Nadia Gray, Herbert Lom, Leo McKern, Martita Hunt,
John Neville, Billie Whitelaw, Michael Gough
Director of Photography: John Wilcox
Editor: Geoffrey Foot
Genre: Comedy
RT: 97 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Audio: Mono
In color
Distributed by Film Movement
for more virtual programming, visit American Cinematheque

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