Topkapi (1964): Dassin’s Star-Driven Heist Movie, with Melina Mercouri, Maximillian Schell, and Peter Ustinov

Produced and directed by exiled American director Jules Dassin, Topkapi is heist movie, boasting an international cast and colorful locations.

Topkapi
Topkapi 01(1964).jpeg

Original film poster

Grade: B (*** out of *****)

It is based on Eric Ambler’s novel The Light of Day, adapted to the screen by Monja Danischewsky.

The ensemble-driven film stars Melina Mercouri, Peter Ustinov, Maximilian Schell, Robert Morley and Akim Tamiroff.

The music score was by Manos Hadjidakis, the cinematography by Henri Alekan, and the costume design by Theoni V. Aldredge.

Elizabeth Lipp (Melina Mercouri) visits Istanbul, where she sees a traveling fair with replicas of treasures from the Topkapı Palace, getting fascinated by the emerald-encrusted dagger. Leaving Turkey, she recruits her ex-lover, Swiss master-criminal Walter Harper (Maximilian Schell), to plan theft of the dagger.

They engage Cedric Page (Robert Morley), a mechanical master; Giulio, “The Human Fly” (Gilles Ségal), a mute acrobat; and burly Hans (Jess Hahn), who has the muscle needed for the job.

Harper and Lipp hire small-time hustler Arthur Simon Simpson (Peter Ustinov) to drive a car into Turkey to transport hidden explosives for use in the burglary.

Simpson, knowing nothing of Harper’s and Lipp’s plans, is arrested at the border when Turkish Customs find the firearms. Turkish police assume that the weapons would be used for assassination.

Turkish Major Tufan decides to use Simpson as a spy on Harper and Lipp. While traveling with the gang, Simpson leaves cryptic notes for his police handlers, but his intelligence is worthless as Simpson is ignorant of the plan.

Hans’ hands are injured in a scuffle with drunken cook Gerven (Akim Tamiroff), and Simpson is engaged as a substitute, confessing that the police are watching them. Knowing they face arrest if they try to escape Turkey, or use their equipment, Harper improvises a new plan in which they will give the police the slip, and steal the dagger without using weapons. Then they’ll “surrender” to the police, claiming to have found explosives in their car.

Harper arranges to give the police the slip. That evening, Harper, Simpson, and Giulio, after attending a competition of Turkish wrestling, steal the dagger and leave a replica in its place. Unnoticed by the thieves, during the robbery a bird flies through the window they entered by and is trapped inside the room when the window is closed.

The gang deliver the dagger to Joseph (Joe Dassin), proprietor of the traveling fair to smuggle it out of the country. They then go to the police to “reveal” their discovery of weapons in the car.

Before the police release Simpson and the others, the trapped bird in the Topkapı triggers the alarm, alerting the police officers. Major Tufan confronts the thieves, displaying Simpson’s last note, which contains information linking all of them to the theft. Tufan than informs them that “a little bird told me.”

In a Turkish prison, Lipp tells the gang about the Russian Imperial Crown Jewels in the Kremlin.

The end title sequence shows them walking in the snow in a Russian city (having escaped from jail?).

Ambler’s novel is different from the movie, with the story narrated by Simpson (named Arthur Abdel Simpson in the book. Simpson in the book is blackmailed into driving the car to Istanbul after Harper catches him trying to steal travelers’ checks. The book uses flashbacks to Simpson’s England schooldays, which help explain his character.

Dassin originally planned to cast Peter Sellers as Simpson, but Sellers refused to work with Maximilian Schell, and he was replaced by Ustinov.

Peter Ustinov won his second Best Supporting Actor for portraying Simpson; the first was for Spartacus, in 1960.

Appearing in supporting roles were the athletic Gilles Ségal as the “human fly,” who later inspired ‘trickwire’ stunts used for the Mission Impossible TV show and movie

Joe Dassin who plays Joseph, the man who runs the traveling fair display, was director Dassin’s son.

The film was shot on location in Istanbul, Turkey, in Kavala, Greece, and in Paris at the Boulogne-Billancourt Studios.

Structurally, Topkapi is shapeless, switching almost arbitrarily from one character to another, and from one locale to the next. Dassin had made some great films, both in the U.S. and in France (Riffifi) and it’s hard to tell whether it’s the melange of actors of different nationalities (and accents when they speak English) which presented an obstacles to a more taut direction and faster pacing; the movie is sluggish.

Far from being a good movie, artistically, Topkapi is enjoyable in a way that other mediocre movies, such as the 1960 Ocean’s Eleven, are.

 

Cast
Melina Mercouri as Elizabeth Lipp
Peter Ustinov as Arthur Simon Simpson
Maximilian Schell as Walter Harper
Robert Morley as Cedric Page
Jess Hahn as Hans Fisher
Akim Tamiroff as Gerven, the cook
Gilles Ségal as Giulio
Titos Vandis as Harback
Joe Dassin as Joseph
Ege Ernart [tr] as Major Ali Tufan
Senih Orkan as first shadow
Ahmet Danyal Topatan as second shadow
Despo Diamantidou as Voula

 

Credits:

Directed by Jules Dassin
Produced by Jules Dassin
Written by Monja Danischewsky, based on The Light of Day 1962 novel by Eric Ambler
Music by Manos Hadjidakis
Cinematography Henri Alekan
Edited by Roger Dwyre

Production company: Filmways

Distributed by United Artists

Release date: September 2, 1964

Running time: 120 min
Box office $7,000,000