Having had items stolen from me in the past, I’m not at all a fan of thievery as a *proper* lifestyle choice (grrr!). That said, it’s hard to pass up a good (fake) crime caper and Jules Dassin’s wonderful, amusing 1964 film Topkapi has been a favorite of mine for decades ever since I saw it as a kid. There’s just something magical about Dassin’s work here. It was his first color film and boy, does he blow the doors out right from the near seizure-inducing start (you’ll probably wince/squint a few times with all those color filters and such coming at you full tilt), and it’s also a film that gets you grinning from start to finish.
It’s more or less the flip the switch to comic tone version of Dassin’s bleak but brilliant 1955 film Rififi with a more varied cast and an even better lengthy heist scene. It’s also a film that’s since inspired a few directors to steal liberally from it (to varied effects), but that’s another discussion for another day. Here, you get Melina Mercouri, smoky voice and all as the lovely Elizabeth Lipp, who has the grand idea to steal a jeweled dagger from Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. She seeks out an ex-lover (Maximilian Schell) who just so happens to be a thief of some renown and the pair plan out their caper with the intent to use nothing but amateurs unknown to any authorities who come sniffing around after the crime has been committed.
(Thanks, Movieclips Trailer Vault!)
Their hand-picked team consists of Cedric Page (Robert Morley), a master of creating mechanical objects, a mute acrobat named Giulio (Gilles Ségal), Hans, a strong-armed brute (Jess Hahn) and a surprise bonus in the form of Arthur Simon Simpson (Peter Ustinov), a guy who makes his living trying unsuccessfully to peddle fake antiques to tourists. Simpson is roped in initially to simply drive a car into Turkey with equipment for the theft hidden in a few places. But the police catch him and try to use him as a means of gathering info on what they believe are terrorists plotting some sort of attack. Simpson tries to play a few angles, tossing those following him hastily scrawled notes in crumpled cigarette packs while trying to figure out what’s going on out of his own curiosity.
In full travelogue mode, the film dances around its gorgeous version of Istanbul as the crew sets up the heist while setting up the local authorities trying to keep an eye on them. Lots of heavy mileage is given to Lipp’s somewhat hedonistic ways (she’s a totally unabashed mature sexpot unafraid of what anyone thinks of her), but the film also has fun with a few tons of oiled up beefcake in a key scene where the team manages to sneak away from the cops and go commit their crime of the century. Simpson is literally roped in as an accomplice, as his weight and size is needed for a key part of the theft. He’s also got a fear of heights he has to deal with, but we kind of know he’ll be okay.
The theft of the dagger is a total edge of the seat masterpiece of suspense (as well as suspension) where you may find yourself holding your breath a few times when it looks as if things are going to go south fast. Dassin’s work is flawless in its execution and this is one of those films that no matter how many times I see it, that scene keeps me hooked in from start to finish. Of course, paying attention to the smallest details is what not only what helps the thieves, but the folks trying to apprehend them. Let’s just say it’s no surprise when the ending kicks in, but you get the sense that Miss Lipp isn’t done with the capers at all.
One of the odder things about the film is it’s a bit of a casting clash that works despite the performance quirks. In a way, the diverse cast’s international backgrounds makes for a fun balancing of each actor’s style in playing his or her character. It’s an ensemble cast that’s full of great faces and voices all commanding you to sit and watch them work. Ustinov ended up winning an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor despite being a major part of every scene he’s in. In a way, he’s the film’s Everyman trying to get by but caught up in circumstances that spiral out of his control. That said, unlike Dassin’s darker Rififi, no one dies and the end results are well-played for comic relief at every opportunity. I’d call this the perfect rainy day flick or a film to watch when you need a lift and a few laughs along with that lift.
Oh, by the way, this post is part of the:
Hosted by Moon In Gemini (Hi, Debbie!). Oh, and your wallet? It’s now missing somehow and I didn’t do it, pal. You must have lost it while watching those oiled-up wrestling men or something.