Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
This is shaping up to be a big season for caper films (Heist, the remake of Ocean's 11)
so Jules Dassin's Topkapi seemed wholly appropriate. It's one of the classics of the genre,
yet not much appreciated or even known now. Not exactly action-packed, it has a carload of interesting
characters, a very photogenic setting, and a sense of fun, which makes it quite different from
Dassin's groundbreaking Rififi eight years
Like an Earth Mother for thieves, international adventuress Elizabeth Lipp
(Melina Mercouri) hires Swiss mastermind Walter Harper (Maximilian Schell) to collect a number
of professionals to help her crack Istanbul's fabulous Topkapi museum, there to steal a legendary
jewel-encrusted dagger of inestimable value. Stuffy Englishman Cedric Page
(Robert Morley) is an expert on alarm systems; Hans (Jess Hahn) and Giulio (Gilles Segal) are
an acrobatic team, and ne'er-do-well Arthur Simon Simpson (Peter Ustinov) is tapped as a patsy
to get some guns across the Greek border. Their plan is hardly foolproof, as they have to outwit
a sensitive alarm system, and find a way of escaping through a fierce security corps. Worse,
their every move is being carefully observed by the local police, because Simpson has been caught
at the border and forced to turn against them!
Topkapi's tone is immediately set by the sparkling rhythms of Manos Hadjidakis' musical score.
The opening is a fantasy of Elizabeth's lust for the emeralds on the sultan's dagger, and the caper
that follows takes the form of an enjoyable lark instead of the tense meatgrinder of Rififi.
Jules Dassin's career arc comes full circle with this excuse to billboard his famous and beloved
Ms. Mercouri in a light thriller.
Dassin was more comfortable with short subjects like The TellTale
Heart than MGM pap like The Canterville Ghost, and broke out with the docu-noir The Naked City.
His bitter anti-establishment Noirs Brute Force and Night and the City finished his
Hollywood career; blacklisted, he knocked around in Europe for a few years before the smash hit
Rififi. His dramas stayed heavy and grim until Never On Sunday's sunny philosphy (and
Hadjidakis' music, frankly) put him on top again; and with Melina Mercouri an overnight international
star, what was left to do but celebrate her exuberant personality?
It has to be understood what a beloved force of nature Mercouri was, because otherwise you might
wonder what this exotic but slightly overaged Greek lady with the harsh looks is doing in such a big
production. Mercouri became almost a symbol of her country for the next three decades, entering
politics as a Greek minister. She was 45 when Never On Sunday came out, an age when most actresses
are being forcibly retired.
Instead of the hard-luck noirish thrills of Rififi, we get a light-comedy caper that has a
lot of fun with the subgenre. The extended sequence with Gilles Segal lowered by ropes into the
alarm-rigged treasure room is a beaut, copied many times over in pictures like Mission
Impossible. As has been noted before, the Classic Caper always has an ingenious Plan, and
criminals with specialized talents to carry it out. If the mechanics of the heist are all the film
has to offer, the result tends not to be very memorable.
This makes some non-crime films into Caper
pictures as well, not just hardcore pictures like Five Against the House, The Asphalt Jungle, Criss Cross,
Seven Thieves, Ocean's Eleven, and Assault on a Queen. The Great Escape has its foul-up,
when an escape tunnel turns out to be several yards shorter than planned, and the prisoners have to
sneak one by one past sentries. Dead Heat on a Merry-Go Round's ironic twist ending seems
to be a criticism of the Caper genre: if James Coburn had just followed his heart instead of his greed,
he'd be many times richer, and legally, too. Good Caper ettiquite is the double mantra in William Holden's
half of The Bridge on the River Kwai: "Expect the unexpected.""There's always one more thing to
The Caper is sort of a microcosm of the
struggle in life to achieve happiness through materialism. As in life, the people involved make all the
difference. Only when things go wrong unexpectedly, at the worst possible times, are the thieves
truly tested. Following the perfect plan is no fun in itself, it's what you do when you have to make
last-minute adjustments, that proves your mettle.
In Topkapi, the hasty change of plans happens when muscleman Jess Hahn's fingers are broken,
and sad-sack conman Peter Ustinov must take his place, even though he's only barely strong enough, and
has a bad fear of heights. This gives the heist a needed wrinkle of suspense. Ustinov's Arthur Simpson
doesn't exactly inspire confidence, and it is up to the resourceful Maximillian Schell to keep
him on task. There is one moment when Ustinov is yanked off his feet by a rope he was supposed to
hold taut, that makes anyone watching the film jump in surprise. Ustinov received a best supporting
Oscar for his amusing performance here; he's got a well-rounded character to play that's frankly
not all that superior, so perhaps the Academy was rewarding him for his acting & directing
(the great Billy Budd) in general. 2
Naysayers will point out that Topkapi is at least 20% travelogue, including a particularly
bizarre wrestling match between 100 or so oiled Turks in a giant stadium. But those who like it will
respond to the affection that grows between its characters. Whenever people work together to accomplish
any goal whose outcome is in question, it brings out the best in everyone. Caper films are about
teamwork and cooperation, concepts hard to come by nowadays. The movie Startup.com takes on
a much clearer pattern if you think of it as a Caper film. The plan was good, but the wimpy, selfish,
and egotistical entrepreneurs fell apart even as the scheme (to create a successful web business out of
thin air) succeeded. 1
MGM Home Entertainment's DVD of Topkapi is okay, but kind of a disappointment. This may be a
new transfer, but Savant thinks it's identical to the ten-year old laser version, and only looks
better due to the higher resolution. The color doesn't quite gleam as it should. I'd say that the
film is worn, due to the nicks and scratches in the colorful twinkly titles, but Savant's never seen
a better copy, so the flaws might be built-in to the title negative. European opticals back then
were never particularly great.
Topkapi's wonderful soundtrack sounds a tad distorted and thin,
which also might be how the original played. But since it's possible that some new work with the
original picture and sound elements might have come up with major improvements, the DVD is a
There's a lot to be said for the abundance of titles in MGM's accelerated release
schedule, and every month brings new surprises in the form of crisp new masterings ... and then you
get a few Topkapis, where you just repeat the same litany you said watching the laser ten
years earlier: 'Gee, maybe someday they'll fix this
An amusing trailer is included. It's partly hosted by Melina Mercouri, directly addressing the
camera in scenes not in the movie. It has several other alternate shots, but no new scenes.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: December 13, 2001
1. Okay, okay, so the whole web investment picture collapsed
around them too. As a classic Caper film, Startup.com would be a story about safecrackers
on the Titanic, thinking that when they get the goods, their problems are over.
The personality argument still holds; the Startup.com troubles begins when there's real
booty to be divided up. Most Capers go to pieces in the payoff, not the crime itself.
2. I say this because of the scenes between Ustinov and the great
Akim Tamiroff. Tamiroff mugs, Ustinov sulks and reacts, and nothing happens. There just isn't the
kind of chemistry that happens with Ustinov and almost anyone else in any other picture, like Charles Laughton in Spartacus.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2001 Glenn Erickson
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