Chromophobia

Well, I figured Peter Sellers’ only film as director would be of SOME interest. The fact that, after the film flopped, he tried to destroy every copy, made it more intriguing. I’m not sure how he was able to do this — why would Twentieth Century Fox pass up the TV sales money, however little it might be? What about the royalties due the cast? Anyway, the BFI fortunately has preserved a print and made it available.

It’s a role, from Marcel Pagnol’s source play, that Louis Jouvet (in his debut), John Barrymore, Alexandre Arnaudy (don’t know who he is) and Fernandel had previously played on film. Only the geniuses seem to have succeeded in the part, and indeed Sellers, an undisputed genius, fails.

The performances are all good — the colour pallette is exceptional — Don Ashton (KWAI) designed it exquisitely and John Wilcox shot it — he was Freddie Francis’s operator and then shot a lot of FF’s films as director. Sellers’ camera direction is very plain — it befits a man who claimed to have no personality.

Sellers’ role is probably the problem — he has to play a nice, honest, innocent man, which worked for him in THE MILLIONAIRESS but there’s no Loren here to take up the slack. And, of course, THE MILLIONAIRESS was never really that exciting. Bosley Crowther for once in his life got it more or less right when he said that Sellers was boring in the role: he starts off OK, it’s intriguing to see him try this, he’s rather lovable, but as his problems mount, the film loses impetus, which is hard to understand. I may have to see the Jouvet again to find out what makes it so electrifying in the right hands.

The muted colour schemes probably don’t help, gorgeous though they are. Sellers had not yet, it seems, acquired his superstitious dread of green, which is allowed to creep in a couple of times, but mostly the film sticks with shades of brown, with a kind of strong tea hue being the richest shade on offer:

I like brown, when used with sensitivity. This is quite a lot of brown to consume at one sitting, admittedly. Sellers’ chromophobia may be his strongest stylistic quality as filmmaker.

A dialled-down central performance, a subdued colour scheme, a flat directorial style, a tricky play. And I wonder if Sellers’ cast and crew felt the transition from innocence to corruption take place in their director as the shoot went on?

It is nice to see Billie Whitelaw in a sex-bomb role, but Whitelaw is not Loren. She doesn’t have a lot of screen time, but she realizes she can go to town with the little she has: she makes an arresting cartoon character. Also revelatory: John Neville, in the best bit of work I’ve seen from him in his younger days, Michael Gough, having a huge amount of fun. Leo McKern is fun and Herbert Lom always a joy. Nadja Tiller is, I guess, the only surviving cast member and she’s excellent. She deserves more attention from film lovers.

At home with the Loms

The play had a checkered history, and you can see why — Raymond Massey did it and it died like a dog, progressively as it went on (a prog dog). The alternative title, I LIKE MONEY, makes it naked: it’s the story of an idealist who becomes an amoral, mercenary swine, and likes it. Sellers always had a strong sympathy for the theme of THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN — “people will do anything for money.” This movie affirms that, and suggests that dishonesty brings wealth and therefore happiness, but Sellers, exerting his mise-en-scene a bit for the last moments before fade-out, does show himself in extreme long shot, alone, stretching his arms in a show of satisfaction that rings a little hollow… the castle is placed at the side (outside the TV safe zone, though), reminding us of the hero’s material wealth, but this is definitely the last shot of a tragedy.

Hollowness, as well as chromophobia, may be a signature element of the Sellers style.

MR. TOPAZE stars Gustave Flournoy; Nadia Rokovsky, Number 8; Henry Fengriffen; Klang; Miss Havisham; Alfred Pennyworth; Sister Thornhill; Violet Kray; Lady Ruff-Diamond; Hieronymus Karl Frederick Baron von Munchausen; Religious Sandwich Man; and Nevil Shanks.

7 Responses to “Chromophobia”

  1. Balthus used to make paintings with a patina on them. Then they would age in a curiously doubled way. This film has a similar look.

  2. David Ehrenstein Says:

    I rather enjoyed this. But then I like almost all of Sellers. He was brilliant but bat-shit crazy and wildly self-destructive. I hope I’m not alone in recalling that he once proposed marriage to Liza Minnelli — but then realizing that he was heterosexual thought better of it and cancelled. In some ways “Being There” is the real Sellers — an empty vessel waiting to be filled.

  3. Preston Johnson Says:

    Have you seen the Barrymore version? I did a museum screening of it in 92, for a series on Selznick’a RKO years (1931-33). Remember the story being kinda similar to The Blue Angel but, esp, w/ Barrymore’s performance, much more tongue in cheek, lighter, fun.

  4. The color scheme reminds me a little of The Horse’s Mouth, from a few years earlier; despite being about a painter, I still have a very strong *brown* memory of the film.

    Arnaudy was Pagnol’s choice for his first film version of Topaze; I tried to find clips of his performance when I watched the Jouvet version a while ago, with no success, but there are a few now on Youtube.


  5. He’s pretty extreme! Sellers doesn’t bring nearly that level of eccentricity to it, surprisingly enough.

  6. The Barrymore TOPAZE is by Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast, and a great film! It also has a sad happy ending, though by the looks of it Sellers is going for a more overt desolation than d’Arrast does.

  7. I liked the Barrymore, as I recall, liked the Jouvet maybe more? But it’s been years and they’re both a bit blurry in memory. The Jouvet is directed by Louis J. Gasnier of Reefer Madness ill-fame, but he was pretty competent from his early Max Linder days up until ’33 or so.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: