Mr. Topaze: Insufficient Fun, by David Bax
Mr. Topaze, the only feature film on which Peter Sellers is credited as director, was re-titled I Like Money for its initial U.S. release. While that’s a boring title, it takes its name from the film’s highlight, a musical number sung by Nadia Gray. That doesn’t happen until over an hour in and it’s the rare moment in the film that shows a spark of life.
Sellers stars as Mr. Topaze, a principled but effete French schoolteacher. He loses that job, though, when he refuses to change the grade of a student whose family is one of the school’s biggest donors. It’s more an act of obliviousness to the way the world works than of sacrifice, though. Topaze’s obtuseness makes him the perfect patsy, then, for a corrupt politician, Castel Benac (Herbert Lom), to install as the figurehead of his Parisian business/money laundering front. Topaze is smart, though, and once he finally realizes what’s going on, he manipulates his position to his own great advantage.
Sellers seeks to contrast Topaze’s proletarian-style modesty and Benac’s lush excess in a glorious widescreen frame. But the CinemaScope logo at the beginning promises an ornate and immersive world that, sadly, Mr. Topaze fails to deliver.
It doesn’t help that the film seems not to have been well-preserved. Film Movement is releasing a new 2K restoration via virtual cinemas starting Friday and the source element is reportedly “the lone surviving 35mm print.” As is often the case with distribution prints, much of the color has faded. It’s also worth noting that the audio mix seems to have the dialogue too low. Perhaps that’s an inherent issue, though, as it matches Sellers’ overall tepid approach.
In Seller’s hands, what ought to be a sharp satire about the seductive power of wealth instead becomes a flat, anti-capitalist polemic. With Topaze looking for all the world like Leon Trotsky and plastering his classroom with proverbs about the evils of money, it’s clear what he represents at first. But that’s just empty sloganeering, it seems, once he actually understands “how the wheels go round.” Wise to the futility of trying to beat ’em (the chief of police is already on Benac’s payroll), he decides instead to join ’em. Not seeming to realize he’s working from a comedic script, Sellers depicts this as prosaic tragedy, wringing no satiric snap from lines like, “If the world were properly organized, I’d be in prison right now.”
There’s no argument to be made that the restoration and preservation of the only film directed by one of the great comedic talents in the history of cinema is anything but worthwhile. It’s good that Mr. Topaze has survived but, with its nonstop, undynamic limpness, it still seems to be comatose.