Saturday 14 April 2018

Movie Review: Topkapi (1964)

A heist thriller with strong comic elements, Topkapi features plenty of exotic style and a memorably eccentric cast of characters.

Professional thieves Elizabeth Lipp (Melina Mercouri) and Walter Harper (Maximilian Schell) team up to plot the theft of a priceless dagger encrusted with emeralds from the Topkapi museum in Istanbul. To reduce the ability of international police authorities to track the thieves, Harper decides to recruit a crew of amateurs for the job. Security expert and toymaker Cedric Page (Robert Morley), mute gymnast Giulio (Gilles S├ęgal) and strong man Hans (Jess Hahn) join the team.

Harper and Elizabeth also hire small-time hustler Arthur Simpson (Peter Ustinov) to drive a car full of hidden weapons and equipment from Greece to Turkey. At the border the hidden cache is uncovered, the Turkish police wrongly surmise that an assassination plot is unfolding and Simpson is pressed into service as an unwilling informant. He weasles his way into Harper's crew, where Gerven the Cook (Akim Tamiroff) also proves to be a disruptive influence.

Despite massive plot holes and some jerky transitions, Topkapi has an irresistible joie de vivre. Directed by Jules Dassin with a sly eye on snazzy visuals and an abundance of smooth style, the film uses an economy of words, relying instead on a bumbling motley crew that threatens to succeed despite itself. Both the thieves and Turkish authorities are experts at getting in the way of their own progress, and the film cleverly celebrates how far a plot can proceed when none of the pieces fit.

Indicative of where Dassin wants to take the film is the character of Arthur Simon Simpson. A sweaty and good-for-nothing tourist swindler, he moves from the margins of the story to somehow find himself in the middle of the action, an unwilling tipster for the Turks and a last-minute stand-in strong man for the thieves, except that he is not that strong and is terrified of heights while his singular heist role requires him to operate on a roof.

Peter Ustinov deservedly won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for bringing Simpson to life, in a film where all the performers support the eccentric action. The rest of the characters fade in and out of prominence. The instigator Elizabeth Lipp gradually disappears from the film, the mastermind Walter Harper has a marginal presence throughout, and tinkerer Cedric Page has just a couple of highlight scenes.

Topkapi is famous for a final hour featuring minimal dialogue. First the thieves give the Turkish police the slip at a bustling local festival featuring oiled-up professional street wrestlers, then the heist unfolds at a leisurely pace. The ingenious acrobatics of infiltrating an alarmed room from above without touching the walls or the floor set the standard for clever heists infused with silent tension and no shortage of canny humour.

Elsewhere Dassin injects large amounts of local colour and flavour, bringing the Istanbul streets to life with an explosion of hectic, noisy and vivid activity. Topkapi is as much about a theft as it is about the jet-set having fun in the sun, with either untold riches or imprisonment awaiting at the end of the frolic.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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