Grade: B/B-
Not rated (would be PG)

The British Film Institute called Mr. Topaze “essential viewing for all Sellers fans,” and I agree. For one thing, I Like Money, as this 1961 film was later retitled, was the first theatrical feature directed by comedian Peter Sellers . . . and also his last, because he was so stung by its failure and critics’ barbs.

It’s of interest for that fact alone, but more importantly, Mr. Topaze gives viewers an interesting glimpse into an evolving dynamic between Sellers and actor Herbert Lom that began with The Ladykillers (1955) and continued with this film, The Pink Panther (1963), and four more Inspector Clouseau comedies: A Shot in the Dark (1964), The Return of the Pink Panther (1975), The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976), and Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978). Fans of those detective comedies especially will enjoy seeing Sellers and Lom play off of each other in Mr. Topaze as a kind of warm-up for their later rivalry as Clouseau and Chief Inspector Charles Dreyfus.

Like Clouseau, Mr. Topaze is French, earnest, a little naïve and awkward, easily manipulated, slightly clumsy, seemingly feckless, and totally meek compared to most of the males he encounters. Topaze, whose prize possession seems to be a stuffed skunk he keeps on his desk, doesn’t have a commanding presence or one that inspires respect—not even among his students, who prank him without fear of repercussions. But he’s a genuinely nice guy with scruples, a dedicated teacher who loves his profession and hangs inspirational mottos all over his classroom—including one that cautions how money is a test of friendship. “I see you take my kindness for weakness,” he tells one of the pranksters. “I may look like a complete fool,” he says, “but I am not, I assure you.”

That’s debatable, of course. He leads the kind of quietly dull life that prompted James Thurber’s Walter Mitty to escape into fantasy. In love with the daughter of his school’s headmaster (Michael Gough), Topaze makes little headway, partly because of his personality and partly because of hers. As Ernestine (Billie Whitelaw, who looks a bit like Janet Leigh) tells her father after he learns that she got Topaze to grade a huge stack of her papers for her, “If I can find a man who’s fool enough to do my homework for me,” what’s the harm?

Students take advantage of him, Ernestine takes advantage of him, and after Topaze loses his teaching job it’s a shady city councilman (Lom as Castel Benac) who takes advantage of him, convincing Topaze to be his managing director for a company in Paris that he’s starting. Though we don’t get a great many details, it’s clear that the company is a front for crooked dealings. Benac wanted someone clueless to sign on as owner of the company and building—someone who would pass along all of the money but also unknowingly assume all of the risk. “He’s an idiot,” he tells his entertainer girlfriend (Nadia Gray as Miss Courtois). “I like him.”

But like Clouseau, Mr. Topaze isn’t quite as clueless as he would appear. The first half of the film depicts his teaching life, and families ought to find classroom details fascinating. But the second half is dominated by his character’s growth from small-town innocent to a progressively more aware (and self-aware) sophisticate, and that moves the focus into areas that will be of less interest to young family members. This is an understated film that has a meandering sense of pace.

Given Sellers’ previous farce- and slapstick-oriented work, as Roger Lewis explains in one of the essays included in a 20-page booklet, critics and audiences of the day “were not prepared for such a muted, subtle film.” Some today may not be either. British humor is notoriously dry, and there are really no hearty laugh-out-loud moments in Mr. Topaze. An understated tone is established early, as an opening sequence shot in the quaint small Loire Valley town of Blois on a wintry day, a hazy day that couldn’t have been more muted if the film had been manipulated afterwards in post-production. It conveys a quaintness and charm that perfectly situates Topaze in his provincial life. Gradually, as he becomes more aware, colors enter into the film more—especially in scenes with Benac and his girlfriend in their castle residence, surrounded by such trimmings as full suits of armor and swords on the wall mixed with the kind of furnishings you’d expect from people who wear smoking jackets and long flowing gowns on an everyday basis.

It’s the contrast between aristocratic chicanery and rustic simplicity and honesty that comes into play in this gentle farce, and if you approach the film as a modern-day fable, as a living illustration of several of those mottos that Topaze abides by, it will be a rewarding experience. If you expect belly laughs, though, you’re better off fast-forwarding to Lom and Sellers’ work together in the old Pink Panther films—and even those are more subtle than the Steve Martin remakes.

Entire family: No (high school and older)
Run time: 97 min. (Color)
Studio/Distributor: Film Movement
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 widescreen
Featured audio: LPCM 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: C+
Amazon link
Not rated (would be PG for some adult elements)

Language: 1/10—Nothing jumps out at you, but I may have missed something

Sex: 1/10—Chorus girls appear in skimpy outfits and one of them briefly walks buy in undergarments; there is also flirtation and several kisses

Violence: 1/10—A slingshot knocks off a priest’s hat and another projectile hits the blackboard; violence is threatened, not performed

Adult situations: 4/10—An extended backstage burlesque sequence leads to a gag where Topaze is pushed into the ladies’ dressing room and we hear screams; there is smoking (both with and without cigarette holders) and drinking

Takeaway: It’s a shame that Sellers swore off directing, because it would have been interesting to see him tackle one of the later Pink Panther films after the franchise had begun to show its age; as is, this film if fun to watch if for no other reason than Sellers’ and Lom’s interactions