Saturday, October 31, 2020

Blu-ray debut for a quiet delight: Peter Sellers' only effort as director, MR. TOPAZE from 1961

What a genuine surprise is the first -- and only -- movie directed by world-famous comedian, Peter Sellers. Released in 1961, MR. TOPAZE, in which Sellers also takes the leading role, is based on the popular theatrical play by Marcel Pagnol, and along with Sellers, it boasts a cast of some Britain's finest actors, as well as a story and dialog that does them all justice. Further, it offers one of Sellers' most quiet and lovely performances -- so very different from much of that over-the-top work for which the actor now seems best remembered.

Mr. Sellers, shown above and below, plays the title role of a French schoolmaster so supremely honest (and equally poor) that he seems to sabotage any and every effort to make his way in a world of hypocritical con-men (and women), in which honesty is far from the best policy. Ah, yes: the world as we've always known it (yet remain rather loathe to admit it). Sellers' performance could not be bettered -- utterly real without ever pushing a moment beyond what it needs -- and the screenplay (by Pierre Rouve, from the great Pagnol's play) proves old-fashioned in the very best sense. It is smart but not cynical, honest (in a way that neither our hero nor his adversaries can understand), and low-key-yet-compelling in a manner that very little drama these days can manage. 

Just wait for the final few lines of dialog between Topaze and his best friend Tamise (played by the wonderful Michael Gough, at left, above, in one of his rare kindly screen performances). These lines are perfection: subdued, witty, wise, exacting and infintely sad -- Pagnol at his most marvelous.

The entire supporting cast is both well-chosen and scrupulously on-point -- from Martita Hunt (above) as a wealthy Baroness who expects Topaze to alter her grandchild's grades to Leo McKern (below), as the sleazy headmaster who demands that those grades be "adjusted." The scene between these three is exquisitely written and acted.

Herbert Lom (below, left) and Romanian actress Nadia Gray (below, right) play the villains of the piece, with Lom his usual caddishly amusing self and Ms Gray offering up a great little musical number midway along all about money (she's a famous showgirl, you see) that is as smart and entertaining as it is apt. 

Billie Whitelaw
 (below) plays Topaze's conniving love interest, the headmaster's daughter, and what seems like the entire roster of A-plus British support (from John Le Mesurier to Joan Sims and John Neville) fill out the additional cast.

As a director Sellers may not be a groundbreaker but he does just what is needed to bring Mr. Topaze to fine, exacting life. And as for Sellers as an actor, you can have Dr. Strangelove, Lolita, even Being There. This is the way I prefer to remember the guy (and to remember the work of Marcel Pagnol, too).

From Film Movement Classics and running 97 minutes, Mr. Topaze hit the street this past week on Blu-ray (in a so-so transfer of a 2K restoration, but let's be grateful for what we have), on DVD and, like most of these little-seen movies with which Film Movement continues to grace us, is available via streaming, too. Extras with the Blu-ray include a 24-page booklet about the film and its restoration by BFI Curator Vic Pratt, a video essay by Kat Ellinger on Marcel Pagnol, and an interview with Leo McKern's daughter Abigail about her father's life and career. Click here for more information on how to find and view this lovely little film.

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