Albert Topaze (Peter Sellers) is a lowly schoolteacher in Paris, who is taken advantage of by his pupils and staff alike, but prides himself on his good nature nonetheless. Those pupils tend to act up in his class, and though he admonishes them they never really pay him heed because they are well aware he is more of a mouse than a lion. The headmaster (Leo McKern) is a stern sort, which places Topaze in a difficult position, since he is in love with his boss's daughter, Ernestine (Billie Whitelaw), but even she simply puts up with his attentions by flirting with him to ensure he does her work for her, marking her pupils' essays. What he needs is to wake up to the fact he is a doormat...
If Peter Sellers had had his way, nobody would have seen this film, an adaptation of Marcel Pagnol's nineteen-thirties play. This was thanks to a decidedly lukewarm reception it received from critics and audiences alike, which coming at the point when his popularity in Britain could not have been more enormous, was a real douse of cold water in the star's face. Making things worse, this was his pet project, a chance to prove he could play the serious drama as well as the comedy since the material contained opportunities for both, but what he had failed to count on was the progression of the sweet main character to a chillier man of the world was difficult to warm to for audiences.
It had always been a play that enjoyed a mixed reception at best, since the usual way for that kind of story would be for the cold man of the world to thaw and become a nice guy before the curtain fell, thus leaving the viewers secure in the knowledge that all was right in the world and even the most hostile of folks can tap into their inner nice guy. Yet Pagnol had arranged this in the opposite direction, so that even if his jokes had been hilarious, which they were not, it was difficult to truly appreciate Topaze's rise up the social ranks from his neglected and exploited status to the one doing the exploiting in a way that spelled fun and laughter. The whole thing was rather sour and dour.
Thus when it looked as if his film was going to flop, Sellers made it his mission to destroy every print he could find in a sadly all-too-typical fit of pique, his now well-known petulance to the fore: “If you don't like this thing I've made just for you, I shall take it away and nobody shall see it ever again!”, that sort of reaction. In truth, there was nothing particularly wrong with what Sellers did with the text, he put in his customary adept performance and had picked a solid cast to support him, with McKern blustering for all he was worth as the crooked headmaster, Michael Gough as Topaze's only friend, the teacher who is foolish enough to believe his pal is a noble man, Herbert Lom as the businessman using Topaze as his patsy, and Nadia Gray as Lom's wife, a singer who performs a George Martin-penned effort I Like Money (the film's alternate title).
Even in the bit parts you had talents like John Neville and Joan Sims, so there was no dearth of ability here, which meant you had to look to the source to understand where this went wrong. It is far from amusing to see the hero so downtrodden, as everyone except Gough's rather pathetic fellow tutor was pretty abominable, sensing Topaze's weakness and eagerness to please as the ideal personality to make the most of without doing him any good whatsoever. The scene where a Baroness (Martita Hunt) arrives at the school to demand he change her waster grandson's grades to something more beneficial summed it up, and that he loses his job because he has integrity would have been more satisfying had that integrity proved to his advantage later in the story. But it doesn't, all he learns is to get one over on everyone else, and by the conclusion, despite his success, he is as alone as he was at the beginning. Hilarious, right? Er, no. It was full of interest, especially for Sellers' legions of fans, but not really enjoyable.
[This has been released on Blu-ray and DVD by the BFI, and here are the loads of extras:
Let's Go Crazy (1951, 33 mins): a nightclub-set madcap variety show featuring Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan
The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1960, 11 mins): Richard Lester and Peter Sellers' Goonish comic short, featuring Sellers, Spike Milligan and Leo McKern
Film Star: Peter Sellers (1967, 37 mins): a profile of the actor and comedian
Maurice Woodruff Interview (1967, 19 mins): Peter Sellers' favourite clairvoyant interviewed by Bernard Braden for a TV series, Now and Then that was never made
John Boulting Interview (1967, 21 mins): the director discusses his relationship with Sellers in an unbroadcast Now and Then interview with Bernard Braden
Peter Sellers at the NFT (1960, 97 mins, audio only): the actor addresses an enthusiastic throng of fans
Abigail McKern Interview (2019, 20 mins): the daughter of Leo McKern discusses the great actor's life and career
The Poetry of Realism (2019, 13 mins): journalist Kast Ellinger's video essay on Marcel Pagnol, the writer of the film's theatrical source, Topaze
**FIRST PRESSING ONLY** Fully illustrated booklet with new writing on the film by BFI's Vic Pratt and full film credits.]