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Review: ‘Mr. Topaze,’ Peter Sellers’ directing debut, emerges from the star’s vault

Peter Sellers in the 1961 movie "Mr. Topaze."
(Film Movement)

Is “directorial debut” the right term for an actor stepping behind the camera for the first time if said film is ultimately just a one-off, and not the start of a new track of artistic note, à la the careers of Ida Lupino, Clint Eastwood and Jordan Peele? Would “directorial toe dip” be more precise?

In the case of British comedy legend Peter Sellers, whose versatile performance mastery gave his star turns an authorial tinge even when the director was a Stanley Kubrick or Blake Edwards, it’s perhaps surprising he didn’t go the way of Chaplin, Keaton, Tati and Lewis and forge his own auteurist path.

But he gave it a shot once, when his movie career was achieving real lift-off — after U.K. hits “I’m Alright Jack” and “The Mouse That Roared” but before the iconic twofer of Clouseau and Strangelove. The tale of an upstanding provincial French schoolteacher corrupted by money, “Mr. Topaze” was, even in 1961, the umpteenth film version of Marcel Pagnol’s 1928 morality play. Yet it also provided a fitting seriocomic role for someone whose chameleonic character gifts had already proven to be a piquant blend of the eccentric and the engaging.

But when Sellers’ low-key “Mr. Topaze” and its portrait of curdled honesty went nowhere with audiences, it effectively disappeared — physically and figuratively — into the ego-bruised artist’s personal vault, eventually left to languish in the British Film Institute archive after his death. Now a 2K restoration — spurred by fan support — has given this singular dabble from a troubled craftsman’s oeuvre a new, scrubbed-as-much-as-possible light, and while it never achieves the status of hidden laugh riot or ignored gem, it’s far from a failed experiment. Its abiding bittersweetness, in fact — more than its flashes of familiarly dithering humor — is what has become this “lost” curio’s chief preservative.

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The nostalgic air of gentle behavioral comedy captured in long widescreen takes is what guides us into the bearded, bespectacled title character’s world of high-minded integrity regarding the moral education of misbehaving boys, and his idealized romantic yearning for flirtatious fellow teacher Ernestine (Billie Whitelaw). She is also, inconveniently, the daughter of the appearance-minded headmaster Muche (Leo McKern). Topaze augments his meager income giving private lessons to the nephew of a well-to-do performer named Suzy (Nadia Gray, who at one point sings the amusing ditty “I Like Money,” cowritten by George Martin, and also the film’s original U.S. release title).

Topaze’s rectitude proves his undoing, however, when he refuses to accommodate his social-climbing boss in altering the poor marks of a haughty baroness’ grandson, then gets outed for his attraction to Ernestine. Unceremoniously fired, the vulnerable Topaze becomes the perfect pawn for Suzy’s lover, a rich Parisian councillor (Herbert Lom) who needs a respectable and money-naive frontman for his crooked business dealings.

As the movie wends its way from a happy stickler’s classroom purity to big bad world lessons learned the hard way, “Mr. Topaze” seems to parallel what Sellers himself surely wrestled with as he steered the leap from free-spirited goofball to sophisticated leading man. That personal connection is ever-present in Sellers’ sturdy, unsentimental portrayal of a country mouse forced to transform, fully aware of what he’s losing and gaining in the process.

As a director, Sellers is less confident with the rudiments of pacing and story than he is with letting the talents of his fine cast — from Whitelaw’s wily effervescence to McKern’s toadying bluster — command the frame (a generosity he didn’t always show costars later as a power-wielding marquee name). Particularly entertaining are the early signs of how effective Czech-born stalwart Lom would be as a foil for Sellers — namely an already perfected knack for twitchy comic perturbance three years out from unveiling Inspector Dreyfus in “A Shot in the Dark.”

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What stands out, unsurprisingly, is Sellers himself — if not his behind-the-scenes navigation, then what obviously mattered most to the ascending star: burnishing his versatility by adding Pagnol’s threadbare, dignified pedant with a blind spot to a growing repertoire of memorably amusing/hapless characters.

'Mr. Topaze'

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes

Playing: American Cinematheque virtual screenings


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