US (1964) Dir. Jules Dassin
Crime capers are a stalwart of cinema, presenting an interesting dichotomy – whether they would inspire criminals to formulate even wilder heists, or if they were designed to inform the police on what to look out for to thwart them. I’m sure both parties would find them valuable, but can a film have that much influence? Case in point, Topkapi.
Elizabeth Lipp (Melina Mercouri), a pseudonymous criminal visiting Istanbul, stops off at the Topkapi museum and is taken by the emerald-encrusted dagger of Sultan Mahmud I. She turns to Swiss ex-boyfriend Walter Harper (Maximilian Schell) to help steal the dagger. Recruiting English engineer Cedric Page (Robert Morley), mute acrobat Giulio (Gilles Ségal), and strong man Hans (Jess Hahn), the group come together in Greece but need a fall guy.
They choose small-time hustler Arthur Simpson (Peter Ustinov) to drive a car across the borders but it stopped by police, who find the weapons. Clueless to Harper’s plans, Simpson agrees to be a spy for the police, reporting via secret notes so the police can catch the gang red handed. But when Hans is injured, Simpsons is drafted in as his replacement and double-crosses the police. Can the job still be pulled off?
Based on the novel The Light of Day by Eric Ambler, Topkapi is American director Jules Dassin trying to repeat the success of his French language 1955 classic Rififi considered one of the most influential heist films ever. A victim of the McCarthy-era Hollywood blacklisting, Dassin moved to France to continue his filmmaking career, although he did make English films distributed by American companies like United Artists did here.
Filming in France, Greece, and Turkey not only circumvented the petty politics back in Hollywood but also offers a legit continental feel to the film, allowing it to stand out from similar fare of the period. The multi-language dialogue adds further authenticity, not to mention the leading lady’s Greek accent providing a bonus exotic flavour. Naturally, this would be replicated in its wake by Hollywood, but there is so much more to Topkapi’s influence o the heist film genre.
Anyone who thinks Tom Cruise being lowered from the ceiling in Mission: Impossible in 1996 was inventive will be aghast to learn it happened here 32 years earlier, and that was without CGI and hi-tech gear. The actual heist itself is a wonderfully constructed, heart-stopping set piece of nervous tension and (literal) suspense that filmmakers today could still learn from, but first let’s look at how we got there.
With her blonde hair, chic wardrobe, and overt vampiness, Elizabeth is the femme fatale of the story and its token female but is not just window dressing. She and the others in the group aren’t mean or vicious people, just greedy and opportunistic and for whom a “normal” life has no reward. Elizabeth knows what she wants and how to get it, and whilst the history between her and Walter is barely discussed, we can assume it is her feminine allure he can’t resist.
In the context of this story, that seems to be the foundation of Elizabeth’s character but her whole worth, though were this a modern day remake, her agency I am sure would be much greater. But this was 1964 so we’re stuck with it. Anyway, with Walter’s sales patter and Elizabeth’s charm, getting the like of Cedric on board is easy, though as a pure bred Englishman, Cedric seems a little too “polite” to succumb to any female flirting, if you catch my drift.
Simpson on the other hand is motivated purely by money. A clearly erudite yet unlucky grifter, his delusion of grandeur and gift of the gab is exactly what Walter is looking for in having him drive the car full of explosives and guns from Greece to Turkey. It is not explained however, what would happen to the plan if the border police caught Simpson and confiscated the gear, as this would have meant it couldn’t go, making it a waste of time and resources.
Luckily, this oversight is null and void once the clueless Simpsons is allowed to continue as a police spy, with the Turkish police telling the car’s recipient Cedric that only the registered driver or Simpson can drive it in Turkey. Quick to temper muscle man Hans’ accident affords Simpson entry into the group beyond driver, where his honesty about being a spy doesn’t derail the plan, instead brings it forward with a few amendments.
Regardless of being over 50 years old, the meticulous thinking behind the plan is still astounding to this day, and the precision execution by the characters and the cast is to be admired. As ever within this genre, the audience is asked to be wholly supportive of people on the wrong side of the law, this moral anomaly a result of compelling storytelling from screenwriter Monja Danischewsky and Dassin’s masterful direction.
Just as he did in Rififi, Dassin has two key scenes dialogue free, one being the job itself, a masterclass in editing and shot composition in creating a tense, febrile atmosphere where the high stakes of something being a millimetre off course is nerve-shreddingly palpable. But there is much more to the planning, with many moving parts both on and off site that are crucial to its success.
Originally, Peter Sellers was Dassin’s first choice to play Simpson but he refused to work with Maximilian Schell, so he went with Peter Ustinov who totally owns this film, earning a second Oscar for this role. Everyone else is good, although fellow Brit Robert Morley is underused whilst Human Fly Gilles Ségal is physically impressive.
Heist movies present and future will have elements in its DNA that can be traced back to Topkapi and Dassin’s other works in this milieu whether they are aware of it or not. Don’t let the ‘60s aesthetic put you off, fans of the genre owe it to themselves to check this classic out.