Jules Dassin, “Topkapi” (1964)
His heist film “Rififi” proved to be such a classic that it ended up being spoofed as well as imitated so US director Jules Dassin hit back with his own “Rififi” spoof … and “Topkapi” is the result. The plot isn’t too complicated, several of its intricacies are very hokey and the characters themselves are a bit questionable in their motivations and reasons for doing things – why on earth would a seasoned professional thief decide to use an amateur bumbler in a heist job? – but “Topkapi” turns out to be a lot of fun to watch, with great locations in Turkey that provide beautiful settings and showcase a rich culture, and a light-hearted attitude.
Our tale begins with Elizabeth Lipp (Melina Mercouri) who lusts after an emerald-studded dagger kept under heavy security at Topkapi Museum and who persuades former lover Walter Harper (Maximilian Schell) to steal it for her. Harper assembles his team of experts, including a gadget maker (Robert Morley), an acrobat and a strongman. He hires bumbling expat Brit Arthur Simpson (Peter Ustinov) to drive a car – that happens to be packed with explosives and firearms to be used in the burglary – from Greece into Turkey. Border guards discover the ammunition and turn Simpson over to Turkish intelligence. The agents believe Simpson is part of an assassination plot and persuade Simpson to spy on Lipp and Harper.
An incident that leaves the strongman unable to carry out his part in the burglary forces Harper and Lipp to rope in Simpson as replacement and at this point Simpson confesses that he is working for Turkish intelligence. Through an elaborate (and mostly wordless) ruse in which the gang attend a carnival that features Turkish wrestling (and lots of homosexual sub-text), the gang manages to throw the Turkish spies off their trail and winds its way to Topkapi Museum. There, they prepare to steal the dagger … but in an inspired moment that’s almost Hitchcockian, a bird flies into the building through a window unnoticed …
The film starts to sag about the halfway point after the team of crooks comes together and perhaps that whole carnival sequence takes too long and is fussy at times, slowing down the film’s momentum. The two Turkish agents make a good comedy team with their gestures but after several minutes the slapstick loses some of its freshness and sparkle. What really saves the film is Ustinov as a klutz who sometimes is too dumb for words and at other times seems to let on that his dumb-bumbler act is just that … an act that might hide a more savvy and cunning nature. The heist scene itself borrows directly from “Rififi” in its detail and the silence in which it is conducted.
Mercouri seems miscast for a role that probably should have gone to a younger and less knowing actress – at this point, I must mention that Mercouri was married to Jules Dassin so perhaps she needed the work – but she does a decent enough job with her material and gives Lipp a cultured veneer along with a voracious appetite for men and jewels. Schell is clearly overpowered by Mercouri and Ustinov but carries on with a solid if not very nuanced performance. Other actors flesh out their roles in distinctly individual ways: Robert Morley stands out for the pompous style he gives his character. Viewers have to pinch themselves constantly that these people are all basically grubby thieves. Probably the best acting, apart from Ustinov’s, comes from the minor actors who play the Turkish investigators and spies.
As in “Rififi”, the thieves are caught out by their own actions and greed and get their just desserts. Do the thieves learn their lesson? Unfortunately they don’t seem to, as they traipse off to Russia together, which might say something about Dassin’s view of human nature and of people obsessed by material greed.
Having lived through and been hounded into exile by the McCarthyist movement for holding leftist views, Dassin might have been expected to make a more sober picture so the joy of life, the colour, the rich Turkish culture and the cheerfulness that shine through “Topkapi” are a surprise.