Saturday, May 2, 2009


Connecticut-born, HUAC blacklisted, director-in-exile Jules Dassin of “Brute Force” fame pokes fun at his earlier crime caper movie “Rififi” (French-1955) with “Topkapi,” a leisurely, light-hearted lark about an elaborate crime set in Constantinople in the early 1960s loosely based on an Eric Ambler’s novel “Light of Day.” “Topkapi” (**** out of ****) qualifies as one of the top ten heist capers of all time. Mind you, the filmmakers had to abide by the censorship rules of the day which dictated that crime could not pay. Adroitly, they skirt the issue so that realism never intrudes too serious on their amoral shenanigans. The actual heist itself is a breath-taking. Naturally, later filmmakers would imitate it.

Larcenous Elizabeth Lipp (Melina Mercouri of “Never On Sunday”) must steal a priceless sultan’s jewel-encrusted dagger from the Topkapi Palace museum in Istanbul. She induces a former lover, Walter Harper (Maximilian Schell of “Avalanche Express”), to plot the operation. A Swiss native who’s the epitome of efficiency and urbanity, Walter lays down several ground rules that he forces Elizabeth to accept. He demands that their accomplices all be amateurs without criminal records. Since they have no criminal records, they should be able to elude the world’s best policemen. He stipulates the three cardinal rules of thief. First, plot meticulously. Second, execute cleanly. Third, don’t get caught before, during, or afterward. Indeed, Walter doesn’t want anybody with a criminal record as a participant.

The first conspirator that Walter recruits is portly Cedric Page (Robert Morley of “Beat the Devil”) who is a genius with all things mechanical. He creates all sorts of toys in his studio, including a cute, little mechanical dog that walks and barks. He has a facsimile of a parrot that records voices and plays them back. He explains to Elizabeth and Walter that the museum boasts a complex alarm system. If you so much as bounce a ping-pong ball on the museum floor, it will trigger their sophisticated alarm system. Clearly, stealing the dagger cannot be accomplished with the usual smash and grab tactics of conventional crime thriller.

Instead, Walter concocts an intricate plan for entering the museum without touching off the alarms and he brings in a strong man, Hans Fisher (Jess Hahn of “Bad Man’s River”), and an aerial artist Giulio the Human Fly (Gilles Ségal of “Without Apparent Motive”), who work together in tandem. Rather than enter the museum in the obvious, ordinary way, the thieves plan to ascend from the roof. Next, Walter pulls in a con artist, Arthur Simon Simpson (Peter Ustinov), a small potatoes thief who takes advantage of tourists and looks for schmucks. Elizabeth and Walter hire him to take a Lincoln convertible across the border to Istanbul and leave the keys for a Mrs. Plimpton. Arthur is likeable enough because he is a bumbling thief. He is so cretinous that he doesn’t even realize that his Egyptian passport has expired so that when he tries to pass through customs, the Turks detain him, point out his expired passport, and then thoroughly search his automobile and discover a dismantled rifle and several grenades.

Initially, they accuse Arthur of being a terrorist, but he convinces them that he hasn’t a terrorist bone in his ample torso. The authorities accept his explanation that he is just ferrying the car across the border, but they still insist that he is part of a terrorist plot to kill their leaders in an important day not far off called Army Day. The Turkish authorities agree to release Arthur as long as he serves as their informant. They instruct him in how to pass messages to them without his bosses knowing about his perfidy. They tell him to hide his messages in a cigarette package that is empty and throw it away as litter and their agents shadowing him in a Volkswagen will retrieve them. Reluctantly, in over his head more than he could have imagined, Arthur has to go along with their plan.

The beauty of Danischewsky’s screenplay is the way she creates obstacles that not only the thieves but also the authorities encounter. Once Arthur delivers the car, he has no reason to continue as part of Walter’s well-thought out scenario. The authorities refuse to let Cedric drive the car because he is neither the owner nor does he have a driver’s license. Only the owner or a qualified driver, the police explain, can drive the car in Turkey. Cedric calls on Arthur and Walter has a new knot in his plan that he doesn’t like but must unravel for the success of the heist. The authorities are constantly on the tails of our thieves. Plans go further awry when Jess tries to get tough with Arthur and Arthur slams Jess’s hands in an iron grate, ruining them. Originally, the heist called for Jess to use his enormous strength to hold the ropes that they planned to use to suspend Giulio from the roof of the museum. The suspense escalates when Arthur accidentally reveals that the Turks suspect them of being terrorists, not thieves. Furthermore, the Turks—who keep them under constant surveillance—have taken many photos of them, only to learn that none of these people have a criminal dossier!

Dassin’s wife Melina Mercouri toplines a top-drawer cast, including a hilarious Peter Ustinov who received not only the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, but also copped the Golden Laurel award, along with similar Best Supporting Actor Golden Globe nomination. Scenic and suspenseful and shot on actual locations, this spine-tingling tale about several intrepid thieves is a delight to watch, unless you are afflicted with attention-deficit-syndrome. Like its intricate crime, “Topkapi” spins out a lot of plot in “Battle of the Sexes” scenarist Monja Danischewsky’s screenplay that adds one character to Ambler’s original story and shuffles the others in order of priority. Nevertheless, you’ll quickly understand why Peter Ustinov walks off with top acting honors. He ushers in hilarity and bolsters the suspense with is dizzy antics.

Director Jules Dassin paces “Topkapi” for maximum suspense right up to the last five minutes when you still aren’t sure what’s going to transpire. Masterful entertainment with a delightful score by Manos Hadjidakis.

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