Mr. Topaze, or I Like Money as it’s sometimes retitled, represents the one and only time that Peter Sellers directed a film solo in his sadly shorter than anybody would have hoped career. He did also direct a large chunk of his final film, The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu, but was uncredited on the final film (he is credited on IMDb etc.) It’s arguable that, other than a handful of projects, Sellers was always the “auteur” of his films due to the extent of his improvisation in dialogue and physical comedy set-pieces.
At the point of directing Mr. Topaze, Sellers was nearing the peak of his powers as a film actor. He had made it on The Goon Show, he was making big waves in film work with The Ladykillers and I’m All Right Jack, and his George Martin-produced comedy album was a bit hit. However, it was still a couple of years before he would become an international star by making Lolita, The Pink Panther and Dr. Strangelove almost back to back. It would seem natural for Sellers to think he could direct a feature: in 1959, he had collaborated with Richard Lester on The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film, which was basically a bunch of friends doing silly things and filming it. However, it showed the way for a lot of the invention humour and cutting that Lester would later use in A Hard Day’s Night (the disc for Mr. Topaze includes The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film as a bonus.)
Here Sellers plays a French schoolteacher (the Mr. Topaze of the title) who is constantly being taken advantage of by his pupils, and even more so by their parents. A fundamentally honest person, he gets sacked after he refuses to change the grade of an aristocrat’s son. He then ends up becoming the cover for a government’s crooked business operations, and may have to sacrifice his own morality for a fortune.
It’s a curious oddity in perhaps the greatest British comedic actor’s career. Unfortunately, in the end it’s frankly a bit boring and not very funny. It’s too lightweight to go down into the darker side of Topaze’s character, but not lightweight enough to be a breezy, amusing Peter Sellers dramedy. Reportedly Sellers was incredibly embarrassed by the failure of the film and tried to get rid of every print in circulation, but luckily (or maybe unluckily for some) it survived and was restored by the BFI. Sellers did assemble an excellent cast, and viewers will recognise a much younger Michael Gough and John Neville, amongst others.
The disc includes short films with Sellers, and archival interviews with Sellers and others. The daughter of Leo McKern is newly interviewed, and Kat Ellinger supplies a video essay on the source author of Mr. Topaze, Marcel Pagnol. The first pressing includes a booklet.