Thursday, October 09, 2014

Reviewed: TOPKAPI (1964)

I have a potent childhood memory of seeing the trailer for Jules Dassin's TOPKAPI at my neighborhood theater, where I remember being similarly impressed by the otherworldly sights offered by the coming attractions for BLACK ORPHEUS and ATOMIC AGENT. With TOPKAPI, the trailer presented me with my first ever glimpses of Istanbul, that great Turkish city so memorably celebrated in Alain Robbe-Grillet's L'IMMORTELLE and various Jess Franco films - I was impressed by the dreamlike conflation of its crabbed wooden dwellings, its domed temples, its turbanned throngs and the deep blue of the Bosphorous, whose dense gelid complexion is like that of no other sea.

I didn't actually get around to seeing TOPKAPI until last night; it's newly available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber ($29.95) as part of their new Studio Classics line, licensed from MGM. It is a handsome presentation - 1.66:1, 1920x1080p - and the colors, which are important to the storytelling, are as rich as my childhood memory of its trailer, which is also included. Though it is mostly forgotten now, TOPKAPI was pretty big for an international production as the time of its first release in 1964; for some reason, it was not considered as a foreign film - the National Board of Review included it on their list of the year's top ten films; screenwriter Monja Danischewsky was nominated by the Writers Guild of America for their WGA Award for "Best Written American Comedy" (it seems anything but an American film!), and Peter Ustinov won his second Oscar (after SPARTACUS) for his supporting role as the timid "schmoe" Arthur Simpson, a performance he seems to have patterned in part on Bert Lahr's Cowardly Lion in MGM's THE WIZARD OF OZ.

A brilliante heist thriller based on Eric Ambler's Edgar Award-winning 1962 novel THE LIGHT OF DAY, TOPKAPI turned out to be one of those films whose far-reaching influence was explained to me as I watched it, as were the reasons why time has not been particularly kind to it. The opening titles are kaleidoscopic, a procession of spinning colors that reminded me immediately of the main titles of Mario Bava's DANGER: DIABOLIK (1967), another heist picture that was - I suddenly understood - showing its respect for this one. But what a more interesting film TOPKAPI would have been with Marisa Mell in Melina Mercouri's role! (Interesting echo of her initials there.) I have to assume that Mercouri is an acquired taste that I have somehow never acquired; I find her thick accent, gravelly voice, and hard features pretty much the antithesis of sexy, though the same act somehow worked for Eartha Kitt. But Jules Dassin - who was enamored with her, had guided her to an Academy Award-nominated lead performance in 1962's NEVER ON SUNDAY, and would marry her in 1966 - saw something in her that I, at least, do not. I could almost say the same for everyone else in the picture, because I count Maximilian Schell and Peter Ustinov among those actors for whom I've always felt no more than a watered-down liking, based in part on their being continually attracted to films that held no more than watered-down appeal for me. They are both on their best behavior here, however; I found them both likeable if not particularly compelling.

The story concerns the wish of criminal diva and self-described "nymphomaniac" Elizabeth Lipp (Mercouri) to own the jewel-encrusted dagger displayed as part of a stuffed sultan's wardrobe on display inside Istanbul's Topkapi Museum. She is particularly adoring of its handle, which sports four of the largest and most perfect emeralds in existence. (In a key scene, Mercouri becomes the centerpiece of a brain trust meeting by wearing an eye-commanding emerald green dress, replete with emerald-lacquered finger- and toenails.) After introductory scenes in which she breaks the fourth wall in the most annoying way ("Hey, Melina!" calls out an offscreen voice, "What are you doing?"), Mercouri's character uses her personal appeal to attract and hold a group of diverse men to steal the dagger for her, though she has already used her craft skills to execute a perfect replica of the piece. She recruits a former lover, Walter Harper (Schell). to mastermind the theft, which he conceives to do using only the help of a crew of amateurs, because using professional thieves would attract too much attention. Since the floor of the museum is tricked out to signal an alarm with the slightest amount of weight applied to it, the theft must somehow be conducted weightlessly, which is eventually done with the help of a circus acrobat and trapeze artist, Giulio the Human Fly (Gilles Segal). In short, using wires, he lowers himself into the room and intends to swap Elizabeth's replica with the actual treasure.

To render my most important criticism of the film, it is necessary to spoil the end result of its masterfully executed heist sequence - so stop reading this paragraph now, if you haven't yet seen the picture. There comes a point during the robbery, just as he lifts the precious dagger, that Giulio loses his balance, just before placing the false dagger inside the display case. Most viewers will be holding their breath by this point, and thus highly attentive to every small detail, so as he clutches both daggers to his chest, it's natural for the viewer to think "Oh no! He's going to mix up the fake dagger with the real one and all this will be for naught!" This would have led to a well-telegraphed but appropriately ironic ending for the film - our thieving heroes could have been let off the hook when their dagger was found to be inauthentic (think THE GREAT ESCAPE's tunnel diggers emerging on the very cusp of German soil) - but that is not how it plays out. Instead, as Giulio makes his escape through a high window, a bird flies unseen into the display room. In time, it eventually settles down on the floor, tripping the museum's alarm. The only problem is that the bird doesn't trigger the alarm until the thieves have voluntarily gone to police headquarters about another matter, which posits them in the best possible place to be at the moment the alarm goes off! They have an alibi. Nevertheless, the film then cuts immediately away to the entire group in prison, doing time. It is one of the most senseless and appalling cheats I have ever seen in a lifetime of watching movies.

The only explanation I can think of is that Dassin must have shot the film the way the footage suggests - that the thief accidentally absconded with the false dagger, a fact then slowly discovered by the would-be thieves in the aftermath of their efforts - but that the resulting film didn't test well, either with studio executives or test audiences, perhaps because they felt cheated or because they were concerned that letting the criminal gang elude punishment even for a foiled heist would seem highly immoral. It would be interesting to know how Eric Ambler navigated the story's final third.

If TOPKAPI ultimately breaks its trust with the viewer, its rollicking trek to that point of betrayal is diverting enough to make the film commendable. Every heist picture to follow was influenced to some degree by its example, and that influence is particularly obvious in the classic television series MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE and its later feature film franchise. Along for the ride are Robert Morley, Jess Hahn and Akim Tamiroff (as an openly homosexual lush), and the exotic location photography is the work of Henri Alekan, beloved for his exquisite work on Cocteau's BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and Clouzot's THE WAGES OF FEAR.

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