Classic Film Review: Peter Sellers lost, now restored as “Mr. Topaz”

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The problem with “Mr. Topaz” is underlined, under-scored and trumpeted at approximately one hour in to this “lost” Peter Sellers comedy. That’s when Sellers’ “Pink Panther” foil, Herbert Lom bursts on the screen, jolts the lethargic back to life and hints at the years of glorious toe-to-toe moments that would begin the second time they teamed up on screen.

He “sets up” Sellers’ simple, righteous French school teacher (the title role) as a front for some shady businesses he runs. He bowls Sellers over with his bluff presence, his (faux) French charm, his “My dear Topaz” reassurances.

And when someone (John Le Mesurier) shows up to threaten Topaz with exposure, ruin and prison, it is the oily menace of Castel Benac (Blom) who sizes him up and deals with the problem.

“Tell me, is this your first go at blackmail?” he purrs.

This legendary 1961 bomb was Sellers’ first and (supposedly) only go at directing a feature film. He was nearing the peak of his stardom, fresh off the success of “The Millionairess,” on his way to “Lolita” and “Doctor Strangelove.” And the myth about it was that Sellers retrieved every copy of this 20th Century Fox (which released it as “I Like Money” in the US) Cinemascope/Eastmancolor bust and burned them, so great was his shame.

Well, he didn’t get them all. The British Film Institute held onto it, and restored it for BluRay last year, and now it’s here for Sellers completists to pore over and debate.

He may have been playing another incorruptible, honest man (as in “The Millionairess”). But he was his own worst enemy, too distracted as director and star to find the laughs, too vain to notice there weren’t any.

Mr. Topaz is a provincial French school teacher between the wars, happy enough in his work with the pranking little boys in his charge, hopeful that the flirtations of a fellow teacher (Billie Whitelaw, who went on to do “Frenzy,” “Start the Revolution Without Me” and “Hot Fuzz”) aren’t just because she wants him to grade her papers for her.

She’s the daughter of the greedy, imperious headmaster (Leo McKern), which makes it unlikely that there’ll ever be wedding bells. Not that Topaz’s pal Tamise (Michael Gough, Batman’s butler when Michael Keaton wore the cowl) lets him give up.

There are lengthy scenes where Tamise bucks up Topaz, tells him “that’s what women) want — a man.” He reassures him that he’s handsome — “You know, from certain angles, you look positively leonine!”

And Sellers, as Topaz, eats this up even as these laughless scenes drag on for an hour. Encounters with the wealthy nightclub and musical theater singing “aunt” (Nadia Gray) of a little boy Topaz tutors (Michael Sellers, Peter’s little boy), debates with Tamise about the righteousness of teaching small children, all delay us from getting to the movie’s point.

Which is tempting and testing the naive idealist with corruption. Children “shield us from all the greed and selfishness in the world.” When temptation arises, Topaz declares “There is no profit in ill-gotten gains!”

Original playwright and screenwriter Marcel Pagnol must’ve been a communist. I jest. Because somebody has to.

The weakest Sellers films always showcased him as guarded, too dignified to do that pompous-man-made-the-fool thing he mastered as Inspector Clouseau. That wasn’t the only trick up his sleeve, as “Being There,” “The Party” and “After the Fox” proved. But the formerly fat funnyman let his “I’m a dashing ladykiller” delusions get in the way of the fun in many a film he didn’t feel challenged him.

He hired McKern (“The Mouse that Roared,” “Help!”), John Neville (“Baron Munchausen”), Lom and Whitelaw and got barely a laugh out of any of them.

Sellers comes off as earnest, committed but lost trying to figure out how to shape this thing into a funny parable, so lost he can’t tell he’s boring us to death with an hour of establishing Topaz is a teacher of “unimpeachable integrity” before he gets to anything even remotely promising.

Since he only got to make 50 or so movies, and only directed one (he’s credited for directing some of his final film, “The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu”), that’s the tragedy of “Mr. Topaz.” We want every Sellers film to be “The Ladykillers” or “The Mouse That Roared” or “The World of Henry Orient.” And too often they weren’t, even though the paydays were growing.

“I Like Money” — the American title seems to suit, now — is for Sellers completists only.

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MPAA Rating: unrated

Cast: Peter Sellers, Nadia Gray, Leo McKern, Herbert Lom,Billie Whitelaw, Michael Gough and John Neville.

Credits: Directed by Peter Sellers script by Pierre Rouve, based on the play and later screenplay by Marcel Pagnol. A Film Movement Plus streaming release.

Running time: 1:37

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