Topkapi

Here, hold this
★★★
☆
Released: 
1964
Director: 
Jules Dassin
Starring: 
Melina Mercouri, Peter Ustinov, Maximilian Schell, Robert Morley
The Setup: 
Big jewel heist.
Discussion: 

So it’s last night, me and my friend want to watch something good but not too heavy, I had recently watched the original Thomas Crown Affair, and both me and this friend had been to Turkey together, so I became quite keen to see Topkapi. The movie begins quite oddly with the sound of a woman laughing as we see these jewel-like colors [in that oversaturated early 60s kind of color], then, circles with her face appear in a circle going around a sort of casino wheel. This is Melina Mercouri, who is the wife of the director, and apparently is attempting to be some sort of randy Greek Catherine Deneuve. We’ll swing back to this topic later to let you know how that turned out. She recruits this handsome Turk Joseph, then is at the Topkapi museum, where she delivers a bunch of exposition directly into the camera about how she wants to steal this emerald that is in their collection. You will notice that there are all sorts of colors all over the screen, which normalize at our first sight of the jewel.

Anyway, her code name is Elizabeth Lipp. She enlists the help of Maximilian Schell as Walter, who is some sort of thief she has worked with before. Those, like myself, who were only familiar with Mr. Schell through his work in later cinematic treasures such as The Black Hole, will be stupefied by how fucking handsome he is. It’s a little ridiculous. He decides that he’s going to do the entire job with amateurs—I don’t think I caught exactly why. Anyway, soon enough they are looking for a “schmo,” who they find in Peter Ustinov’s Simpson, a fat pathetic schlub struggling to make a buck any way he can. They give him a hundred bucks to drive a car into Turkey.

Now, let’s talk tone. The music is light and wacky, that whole thing with the colors, and these goofy titles—not to mention Ms. Mercouri—and I turned to my friend and said “I was not expecting this tone.” He asked what I expected and I said “I thought it was supposed to be kind of 60s sophisticated.” My friend then uttered the name of Around the World in 80 Days, and reader, my heart was chilled. You know when you insist on watching a movie and it turn out to be a total disaster and it’s too late to go back to the store and your friend is sitting there hating it and hating you? Well, luckily this isn’t that movie. This movie turns out to be quite good. But, there were a few moments there, and even now, I can’t quite fathom what was going on with the tone.

SPOILERS > > >
So Simpson is stopped at the border and they find a rifle and some grenades hidden in his car. This is not a surprise—except to him. The Turkish police question him, realize he’s too dumb to be an assassin, and then decide to force him to work for them, and report on what his employers want. Now, Peter Ustinov is being used broadly and doing idiotic things that are most often accompanied by the kind of doodley music you’d have on an old Disney special when the raccoon gets into the wine or whatever. This can keep one from realizing right away that he is actually acting quite brilliantly, providing an expert and hilarious characterization of a total doofus. So Turkish police force him to continue to drive it, so he comes along to the villa where Elizabeth and Walter and the rest of the thieves are. There’s also a strong man [don’t get your hopes up] and a strapping young acrobat. The presence of Simpson throws a wrench into Walter’s plans, which causes him to revise on the spot, which is interesting, but you at home might have cause to observe that for high-class international jewel thieves, these people make some pretty dumb mistakes. They didn’t think the police would search the car? They thought the police would find some stuff, but not others? You just have to buy it. They also rather indiscreetly hold conversations next to wide-open doors. The idiot Simpson thinks they’re Russian spies, and reports so to the Turkish police.

Anyway, the strong man hurts his hand, leaving them with no one to hold the acrobat while he’s suspended above the jewel—we’ve had some exposition about how the lightest touch on the floor will cause the alarm to sound—then Walter has the idea of bringing Simpson in to do the work. They test Simpson by making him pull a couch with Melina Mercouri on it, and she does this seductive encouraging speech in her voice, which sounds like what one would imagine an evil cartoon iguana talking like. She, by the way, is said to be a nymphomaniac. Simpson does it, and please watch his hilarious little dance [around 100:39] when he finishes. So they bring him in on the plan. He is stupefied, and watch how Ustinov brings a hilarious freshness to the tired trope of someone telling him to shut his amazed mouth, and him dutifully doing it.

Then—how ‘bout a time out for some Turkish oil wrestling? I’m on board. The gang goes out to take in the wrestling, and we get some very good coverage of the event. This may in itself be worth renting the movie to see. It also brings the simmering homo vibe—we have been admiring the acrobat’s body and have not mentioned the drunk Greek cook’s loving kisses all over Simpson—to the fore, and we see the macho police chiefs get so involved in watching the oiled musclemen [get your hopes up] that they don’t want to go pursue the crooks. The homo vibe doesn’t necessarily go anywhere, but it is definitely present. I think it’s just part of the generally European sensibility.

So it’s time for the heist. They get to the roof of the Topkapi palace, and Simpson refuses to walk along the perilous ledges at night, so they have to move into position right away. The director does a good job of showing the distance to evoke how high they are, without having it felt like its shoved in your face. This is also part of the interesting way the plot unravels in several small ways and Walter is forced to brilliantly improvise.

Finally dark falls, and they enact the plan. Here’s the deal: through a series of ropes, they’re going to lower the acrobat—held by Simpson—from the ceiling to get the jewel. I won’t go into the mechanics of it all, but it’s well done. Now, I knew that the CIA heist in Mission: Impossible was inspired by this scene, what I didn’t realize is that so many elements were directly appropriated. Certain shots are outright replicated, and I have to say it made the Mission: Impossible scene, which I had previously thought ingenious, seem a little less lustrous in my eyes. Even the famous shot of Tom Cruise falling and stopping inches above the floor was taken wholesale, as well as shots that frame the action against the pattern of the ceiling. Ah well.

The heist goes off well, with a few hiccups. There’s a good moment where the acrobat loses his balance and possibly mixes up the dagger with the fake one they’re going to replace it with, which seems like it’s going to be a big plot element—but isn’t. I think a fabulous ending would have been for them to complete the heist, get caught, have it look like curtains for them—and then have to be released at the last minute because they actually took the wrong dagger, and only have a fake. But no. It ends in a way that will surprise you, and I’m not going to tell you what it is.
< < < SPOILERS END

So it ends up being quite good, if not as great as it could have been, due to the jarring tonal changes. But I think I’m not fully on board with the movie’s light sensibility. Peter Ustinov—who won an Oscar for this role—is great. Schell is also very good, and I really like the way he improvises when challenges come up, and talks soothingly to Walter when he’s freaking out because of the heights and his nervousness.

Now for the matter of Melina Mercouri. She’s presented as though she’s this deliriously attractive Greek [or something] corollary to Catherine Deneuve, but ugh! She’s a hag! She’s like—you know your mom’s friend that smelled like nasty rose perfume and would give you a big hug where you could watch the skin on her boobs crinkle like newspaper up close? She’s like that. And go easy on the eye liner, for God’s sake! So the whole aspect of her being this hot sexy nymphomaniac jewel thief was, suffice to say, wholly lost on me. One of the things people mention in the second breath about this movie [after mentioning the heist] is that she is the wife of the director. Is this because they, too, feel that she is not right? I may never know.

So there ya go, very good but not great, marked by bizarre tonal shifts but a bang-up heist that still raises the pulse. I have heard [I have to confirm this] that they are making a sequel to the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair that will be a remake of this movie. If they do, great idea. Brosnan will be good in the Schell role and the introduction of a Simpson character [if they keep him, which they’d better] will make it a real story instead of just something pulled out of their asses for a sequel. We’ll see.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, the Melina Mercouri mystery notwithstanding, this is still very much worth seeing.

RELATED MOVIES:
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE features a whole blowout heist that was a revision of the heist in this movie.