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Peter Sellers
Peter Sellers, Nadia Gray, Herbert Lom
Writing Credits:
Pierre Rouve

A poor but proud French teacher gets fired after refusing to modify the grades of a rich student.

Rated NR.

Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
English LPCM Monaural
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 97 min.
Price: $29.95
Release Date: 10/27/2020

Let’s Go Crazy Short Film
• “The Poetry of Realism” Video Essay
• Interview with Actor’s Daughter Abigail McKern
• Trailers
• Booklet


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Mr. Topaze [Blu-Ray] (1961)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 16, 2020)

As the old showbiz cliché goes, all actors really want to direct, and in 1961, Peter Sellers made that dream a reality with Mr. Topaze. This movie became his first and last feature behind the camera.

Sort of, as apparently Sellers directed at least part of 1981’s The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu, a flop that he created during his waning days. Sellers died weeks before that film’s release.

On the other hand, Topaze found Sellers in his prime, not long before he’d appear in classics like Lolita and Dr. Strangelove. Sellers’ long-running Pink Panther series also would launch a fairly short period after Topaze.

Set in a small French town, Albert Topaze (Sellers) works as a school teacher. When asked to change a grade for a student, Topaze refuses and subsequently loses his job.

This leaves the impoverished Topaze in a bind, but he soon gets a new opportunity. Actor Suzy Courtois (Nadia Gray) gets her corrupt politician lover Castel Benac (Herbert Lom) to hire Topaze.

Suzy does this due to Topaze’s inherent honesty, as she figures Benac can exploit him. This leads Topaze down an unexpected path that tests his ethics.

Given his history, one might expect Sellers to make Topaze another of his broad comedic creations. That doesn’t occur, as instead, Sellers delivers a performance largely devoid of his usual antics.

Not that Sellers plays Topaze totally straight, as he adds comic flourishes to the role at times. Still, this feels like a “statement of intent”, as it seems like Sellers wanted to demonstrate that he could do more than just play the clown.

And that was true, as Sellers ably demonstrated in his Oscar nominated turn in 1979’s Being There. Though an understated character, the chameleonic Sellers gave him a certain impression that worked.

Though a role with much more inner life than the simpleminded Chance, Topaze oddly seems less interesting. Topaze never turns into an especially compelling presence, and Sellers’ decision to tamp down any signs of personality beyond vague nobility and anxious romanticism render our lead as a bore.

It doesn’t help that Topaze brings a pretty dull story as well. Essentially it splits into two movies, as it takes literally half the film for Topaze to lose his job.

That means the first 45 minutes or so progresses awfully slowly, as we don’t really find enough character and thematic development to occupy that time. Sure, Sellers uses the space to expand matters in a decent manner, but these sections seem padded, as we don’t get enough useful content to require so much cinematic real estate.

In the second half, we abandon Topaze for a surprising amount of time to meet Suzy and Castel. Again, some of this proves necessary, but a better made film would dawdle less and not lose track of the lead for so long.

Sellers seems oddly reluctant to embrace the basic comedy inherent here. While he doesn’t play the film as a somber drama, he nonetheless seems to neuter the movie, like he can’t decide whether to indulge his loony side or go from a fully serious tale.

This leaves Topaze in a weird tonal netherworld, as it does neither drama nor comedy well. Without a commitment in either direction, the film feels muddled.

Topaze also suffers from a basic lack of real purpose. Topaze never becomes an interesting enough character to maintain our interest, and the story beats don’t carry the narrative.

All of these factors leave Topaze as a bit of a dud. It’s an interesting historical curiosity but not an entertaining film.

The Disc Grades: Picture C-/ Audio C-/ Bonus C

Mr. Topaze appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. Due to flawed elements, this became a blah presentation.

According to this set’s booklet, the best available print suffered from color-related issues, with a “magenta push”. While the transfer balanced these as best as possible, the end result wound up with a dull palette.

Indeed, Topaze occasionally felt nearly monochromatic, as the hues leaned heavily toward a bland brown sensibility. Though a few slightly more vivid tones emerged at times, the colors still seemed flat and drained. The characters came with yellow complexions that made them look like they had jaundice.

Sharpness seemed erratic but generally positive. Though the movie could go somewhat soft at times, it usually manifested reasonably good accuracy.

No issues with jagged edges or moiré effects occurred, and I saw no edge haloes. Grain leaned toward the heavy side, and that could give the movie more of a gauzy feel than usual.

Print flaws also became a distraction, as occasional signs of nicks, lines and marks occurred. Though never dominant, these popped up with some frequency.

Blacks were decent – albeit more than a little inky – and shadows seemed acceptable, though a day for night shot looked rather thick. Though this might represent the best that could be done with a problematic source, the film nonetheless looked pretty iffy.

Similar thoughts greeted the mediocre LPCM monaural soundtrack of Topaze, as never came across with strong fidelity. Speech remained intelligible, but the lines showed more than a little edginess and roughness.

Music offered fairly decent clarity, but effects displayed some distortion ala the dialogue. Occasional pops marred the mix as well. Even for its era, this became a less than impressive mix.

A few extras round out the set, and we open with a 1951 short film entitled Let’s Go Crazy. It goes for 33 minutes, 15 seconds and features Peter Sellers in no fewer than five different roles.

One of Sellers’ earliest screen appearances, Crazy offers sketches co-written by Sellers and fellow Goon Spike Milligan. A mix of comedy and music, it seems like something more from the 1930s than the 1950s and it rarely actually entertains, but it offers an interesting view of a young Sellers.

The Poetry of Realism runs 13 minutes, 18 seconds and provides a “video essay” from film critic Kat Denninger. She gives notes about playwright Marcel Pagnol and his work, with an emphasis on aspects of Topaze. This becomes a semi-dry but still informative piece.

Next we get an interview with actor Leo McKern’s daughter Abigail. In this 20-minute, 16-second chat, the younger McKern discusses her father’s career and related domains.

Though Abigail touches on some good stories, the overall result seems rambling. She just rushes through too much too quickly for this to become a particularly coherent discussion.

In addition to the film’s trailer, we find promos for Film Movement releases The Belles of St. Trinian’s and School for Scoundrels.

The package also provides a booklet. It mixes photos, credits and essays from BFI curator Vic Pratt and Sellers biographer Roger Lewis. The booklet becomes a good addition to the set.

Peter Sellers’ directorial debut, Mr. Topaze occupies a unique place in movie history. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make it a good movie, as it feels slow and disjointed. The Blu-ray comes with flawed picture and audio as well as few bonus features. I’m glad I watched Topaze given its place as Sellers’ only formal directorial effort, but the movie itself doesn’t work.

Viewer Film Ratings: 2 Stars Number of Votes: 1
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