TOPKAPI —–delightful heist lark from 1964 deftly breezes a choice cast, a light touch and a beautifully paced dose of suspense into an intoxicating exotic locale. Reviews glowed, industry peers awarded a richly deserved Oscar to one of the actors, and hep audiences helped it gross $7,000,000 in the States, 42nd place for the year, with no doubt a good deal more pulled in Europe. Witty and pretty, it’s a personality showcase, a smartly conceived caper and a nostalgic time capsule. *
Sly and sensual thief ‘Elizabeth Lipp’ (Melina Mercouri) focuses her abundant supply of lust on a priceless treasure in Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace Museum, the emerald-studded dagger of the Ottoman Sultan Mahmud I. Her roguish occasional lover ‘Walter Harper’ (Maximilian Schell), an upscale jewel nabber, brains a Swiss-precise plan to burgle the bauble, with a unique crew that includes a jolly gadget whiz, a short-fused strongman and a mute acrobat. A small-time clod of a patsy they use is turned by the Turkish police, who think a terrorist plot is being hatched. Why and Who resolved, How and When riposte.
ELIZABETH: “Do you mind that I am a nymphomaniac?” WALTER: “It’s your most endearing quality.” ELIZABETH: “Don’t waste it – use it.”
Produced & directed by American blacklist exile Jules Dassin, who guided Mercouri to her Academy Award nomination for Never On Sunday (they married in 1966). Dassin had directed the 1955 Rififi, ritually described as the benchmark for caper films. It was a straight noir drama, whereas this a tease from the first psychedelic frame to the jolly final credits, backed up by Manos Hadjidakis’ irresistibly flirtatious theme music, a distillation of pure joy. **
Dassin goes his famous 32-minute heist scene in Rififi, eight minutes better, eschewing any music behind the pin-drop silent mechanics of the motley crew staging their swipe, a ripoff you root for thanks to the droll script and charismatic cast. Mercouri purrs sex like a voracious and famished panther, eyes bold and twinkling with some secret naughty wisdom, all the more engaging when you know that during the production she was recovering from tuberculosis. Schell’s intensity and focus is expected; it’s a pleasure to see him playing lighter material with the same assurance. The decoy tinkerer ‘Cedric Page’ is another ripe turn from Robert Morley, and wily old pro Akim Tamiroff gets to indulge in well-roasted ham playing a sloppy, drunken cook.
In a movie about theft, the prize for scene-stealing goes to Peter Ustinov, as fall guy ‘Arthur Simon Simpson’. Caught between his innate avarice and the chopping block, trying to salvage a morsel of dignity from a circle of hungry hawks, Simpson’s one of Ustinov’s coups. He walked off with his second Supporting Actor Oscar to go with the one he’d taken as another morals-shirker in Spartacus. He had a few more piquant things to say in Spartacus, but the pathetic boob Simpson is more affable than the obsequious Roman from the epic (let alone his psychotic Nero from Quo Vadis).
The screenplay by Monja Danischewsky was based off Eric Ambler’s 1962 book “The Light Of Day.” Ambler did a sequel five years later, continuing the Simpson character’s mischief in “Dirty Story.” Besides soaking in bygone and eternal Istanbul, enjoy the segments filmed in Kavala, Greece, as Topkapi charms past in 120 minutes, a jewel indeed.
With Jess Hahn, Gilles Ségal, Titos Vandis, Ege Ernart and Joe Dassin (the director’s handsome son, who became a popular singer in France).
* ‘International’ was the rage that year, and while the ‘British Invasion’ accounted for most of the imports, France offered That Man From Rio and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Italy sent Marriage Italian Style, Blood And Black Lace, The Last Man On Earth and A Fistful Of Dollars, while Japan contributed The Woman In The Dunes, Kwaidan, and—let’s not be snooty— Godzilla Vs. The Thing! But talk about Rule Britannia!: Dr.Strangelove, Becket, Guns At Batasi, The Chalk Garden, Woman Of Straw, The Yellow Rolls Royce, Seance On A Wet Afternoon, The Pumpkin Eater, First Men “In” The Moon, King and Country, A Hard Days Night, Zulu and Goldfinger. “Positively shocking…”
** The great Manos Hadjidakis composed the Oscar-winning tune for Never On Sunday, a the stirring march for The 300 Spartans and the memory-calling background for America America. “Éntekhno” is a sound to live by.
Sultan Mahmud I—‘The Hunchback’ (presumably not called that to his face, only behind his hunch)—had six Consorts (Queens, to you mortals) and four Ikbals (consorts on tap). Like a good Caliph, when not dallying with his trophies, he waged numerous wars against Persians, Russians and Austrians, and composed poetry when spare time found him contemplating whether a 400-room harem was too modest. The drain on the treasury for slippers alone must have cost a lot of apologetic heads.