Friday, April 20, 2012

TOPKAPI: Go Schmo!

I first saw United Artists/Filmways’ Topkapi with my older siblings on one of our local New York TV stations during my grade school days in the Bronx, where Topkapi’s director/producer Jules Dassin happened to have spent much of his own youth. They liked it, but I must confess that at the time, Topkapi’s inimitable leading lady Melina Mercouri kinda freaked me out!  Of course, at the time I didn’t realize Mercouri was an international star. All I knew about her was that she was a blonde lady with dark kohl-rimmed eyes, who spoke in a low, growling voice and had a predatory look. (At the time, Mom had taught me what “predatory” meant, and I was pretty darn proud to have learned how to memorize it right away!) She had a witchy look and a booming laugh that sounded scary to me at the time as she exulted, “That’s the way it can be done!”

But what a difference a decade makes!  When I watched Topkapi again in my teens, what I’d thought was witchy was now bewitching. I ended up loving it for Manos Hadjdakis’ zesty music; the colorful locations in Istanbul (not Constantinople), as well as Paris, France at the Boulogne-Billancourt Studios; and of course, its great cast of confident, breezy, likable bon vivants (more about them in a moment)!  In fact, the only problem I had with Topkapi in later viewings was that the strobe effect of the rays and blinking lights in the opening credits initially triggered my migraines! Luckily, we figured out how to fine-tune the TV, and the problem was solved. (Reading fellow blogger Vulnavia Morbius’ take on Topkapi in her own excellent Krell Laboratories blog from last year, I see she is apparently lucky enough to have no problems with Topkapi’s opening light effects, lucky gal that she is!  But I digress….)

As The New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther said in the opening lines of his 1964 Topkapi review, “Imagine Jules Dassin’s Rififi done in the spirit and style of his comical Never on Sunday and you have a good idea of the nature of his latest film, Topkapi (pronounced top-cappy)….”   If Dassin’s landmark 1954 thriller Rififi is the dark side of the caper film, then his 1964 follow-up Topkapi was Rififi on the sunnier, funnier, more stylishly playful side of the street with its witty, suspenseful screenplay by Monja Danischewsky (his screenwriting credits include Ealing Studios’ Whisky Galore! and Rockets Galore!, a.k.a. Mad Little Island), loosely adapted from Eric Ambler’s novel The Light of Day.

The first character we meet is our dazzling leading lady (Mercouri), who calls herself Elizabeth Lipp because it’s “convenient.”  She introduces herself to us viewers in a most kaleidoscopic fashion, her voice and attitude smokier than a five-alarm fire. Elizabeth explains that we’re in Istanbul, Turkey, in the Seraglio’s Topkapi Palace Museum. Many moons ago, before the museum became a tourist attraction, the joint was the home of Sultan Mahmud I and his many wives. When Elizabeth literally beckons us viewers to follow her, we’re intrigued before we start!  But our gal isn’t really greedy; of all the museum’s treasures, Elizabeth is only interested in a particular golden dagger adorned with “the four greatest emeralds the world has ever known,” bringing new meaning to the phrase “the wearing of the green.” For the record, Elizabeth seems especially keen on the rectangular emerald. As she leans against the glass, “a strange feeling comes over me,” she moans, almost orgasmically. Director of Photography Henri Alekan (Roman Holiday; the 1946 version of Beauty and the Beast; Wings of Desire) truly makes Mercouri look like she’s making sweet love to the camera!

Babe in Toyland!
Elizabeth leaves Turkey for Paris, where we meet her former flame: suave, Swiss Walter Harper (Maximilian Schell, Oscar-winner for Judgment at Nuremberg; Oscar-nominee for The Man in the Glass Booth and Julia; and scene-stealer in one of my favorite Adrien Brody films, The Brothers Bloom). Oh, did I mention that Walter happens to be holding a gun to a man’s back at the time? Luckily for his nervous mark, Walter pleasantly lets the guy leave with his life. Elizabeth has been watching, and the pair is more than happy to pick up where they left off, both romance-wise and theft-wise—and why not, with their great chemistry? Here’s one of my favorite bits of dialogue:

Elizabeth:“Do you mind that I am a nymphomaniac?”
Walter: “It’s your most endearing quality.”
Elizabeth: “Don’t waste it, use it.” (Couple time ensues.)

"I wish I may, I wish I might,
steal the jewels I wish tonight!"
Walter is on board with Elizabeth’s dagger heist plan, on one condition: he’ll only work with amateurs who have no pesky police records that might tip off John Law and trip up our happy thieves. The recruits include:

  • Englishman Cedric Page, eccentric but genial inventor and whimsical master of all things mechanical, including security systems. He’s played with mischievous delight by the great Robert Morley from The African Queen; Hot Millions (more about that shortly, too); Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe; and Theatre of Blood, among others;
  • Muscular Hans Fischer (Indiana-born character actor Jess Hahn, who mostly performed in foreign films) to help with heavy lifting and the like;
  • Giulio the Human Fly (French actor/writer/songwriter/acrobat Gilles Ségal), the mute acrobat who actually steals the dagger as he’s lowered from the museum ceiling to outfox the floor-mounted alarm. Word has it Ségal’s stunts inspired the trickwire stunts for both the original TV series and the Tom Cruise movie versions of Mission: Impossible..

Objects in the rear-view mirror may be
more cowardly than they appear!
I needed this today?!
Now all the gang needs is a patsy to throw the police off the scent. Enter bumbling jack-of-all-trades and small-time would-be con man Arthur Simon Simpson, succinctly described by Walter as “a historian, guide, and schmo.” Arthur is played endearingly and effortlessly by Team Bartilucci fave Peter Ustinov, one of the funniest and most versatile men who ever graced stage, screen (big and small), and comedy albums. Ustinov not only won the second of his two Best Supporting Actor Oscars for Topkapi (he’d previously won for Spartacus in 1961)  but he and Ira Wallach also received Oscar nominations in 1968 for their hilarious screenplay for the clever caper comedy Hot Millions. And of course, let’s not forget Ustinov’s turns in Logan’s Run; the animated Grendel Grendel Grendel (another Team B. fave); and several delightful whodunits based on Dame Agatha Christie’s mysteries about the beloved detective Hercule Poirot, among many others.  As you’ve probably noticed, we could cheerfully blather away about all things Ustinov in a blog post all about the great man himself, but we’ll do our best to pull ourselves together and focus on Topkapi!

Gerven knows how to
make guests feel welcome! 
Melina coaxes Max out of his Schell!
Laughter is the best medicine
for jewel heists! Who knew?
Now then, where were we? Ah yes, Elizabeth and Walter need a schmo for their heist plan. Even the tourists don’t take Arthur seriously—especially those who he’s tried to expose to local night life—sidestepping him as if he had dog poop permanently stuck to his shoe. In short, Arthur is perfect for our thieves’ purposes!  They hire him to drive a white luxury Lincoln convertible into Turkey which, as the B-52’s sang, seats about twenty. Little does Arthur realize the car’s full of hidden explosives and firearms for the upcoming robbery, and he’s been set up as the poor patsy driver in case there’s trouble at the border!  Arthur’s role in the scheme almost literally blows up in his face, especially when Turkish Customs officials see that Arthur’s passport has long since expired (maybe Arthur and Oscar Homolka’s Prof. Gurkakoff from Ball of Fire can trade expired-drivers’ license anedotes). The car is searched, the firearms are confiscated, and Arthur becomes the catch of the day: Grilled Simpson!  The Turkish Secret Police, led by  the sinister yet undeniably cool-looking Major Ali Tufan (Turkish actor Ege Ernart) and his colleague Harback (character actor Tito Vandis, billed here as “Titos Wandis.” His many roles include The Exorcist; Never on Sunday with Mercouri; and Team B.’s favorite among his roles, the lovesick shepherd from Woody Allen’s Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex* [*but were afraid to ask]).  Major Tufan and Harback are sure our gang is plotting an assassination at an upcoming military parade, and they recruit Arthur to spy on our lovable rogues, under threat of death! The joke’s on them, as Arthur is as much of a bumbling spy as he is a bumbling con man, trying to  pass along useless intel in cigarette packs. Too bad Arthur doesn’t seem to have gotten the hang of thorough toilet-flushing. And we’re not even in the Topkapi Museum yet!  But as they say, getting there is half the fun—heck, it’s all the fun, especially with a suspenseful climactic robbery sequence that rivals Dassin’s own Rififi! Akim Tamiroff (his roles ranged from Preston Sturges’ The Great McGinty and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek to Touch of Evil and other Orson Welles films, and so much more!), is another scene-stealer as Gerven, a drunken cook who unwittingly throws a new monkey wrench in the works. I can say no more for fear of giving away any more of Topkapi’s sparkling surprises (and we don’t just mean emeralds), but I will say it includes my favorite usage of the phrase “A little bird told me.”

Joseph Dassin, Jules' son:
proof that nepotism can be a wonderful thing! 
Fun Facts: In Ustinov in Focus by Tony Thomas, Ustinov admitted, "I have a special affection for Topkapi. The character is so absurd. I love the idea of a man who aims low and misses. Simpson is the kind of man who wears blazers a little too consistently, the kind with military presumptions, who has to belong to a cricket club. He's a man who hovers between the more reprehensible columns of The News of the World and oblivion." Also, Joseph Dassin, singer/songwriter son of director/producer Jules Dassin, plays Josef, dashing proprietor of the traveling fair display that’ll spirit the dagger out of the country. It proves that nepotism can be a wonderful thing! 

Would it surprise anyone to hear that soon after its theatrical success, Topkapi inspired a real-life theft in my hometown? Three men broke into New York City’s  American Museum of Natural History and escaped with the famous Star of India, the De Long Ruby, and other priceless treasures. They were eventually caught, and admitted in custody that they had seen Topkapi prior to their robbery. See, life sometimes does imitate art!

Arthur has vertigo! When did this become a Hitchcock movie?

The Annual 43-Man Squamish Tournament begins!
As Elizabeth Lipp, Melina Mercouri can join our Red Hat Society anytime!

Nobody's here but us thieves!
I got me a Lincoln, it seats about twenty....

By DorianTB
New Page 1