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 photogenic setting and a sense of fun that make it quite different from Dassin's groundbreaking Rififi eight years earlier.
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. 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,
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 must 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 do."
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. When people work together to accomplish a risky goal, 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 new work with the original picture and sound elements might have come up with major improvements, the DVD is a disappointment.
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 title."
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 begin 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
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson