I always anticipate a wonderful and interesting movie when I watch a film directed by Jules Dassin. In “Topkapi,” a film released in 1964, Dassin takes on the caper film genre. Maximilion Schell leads a team of robbers that includes Melina Mercouri and Peter Ustinov. They plan to steal a priceless jeweled dagger from the Topkapi Palace Museum in Instanbul. The dagger lays across the chest of a manikin enclosed in a glass case. Naturally, the security system includes a highly sensitive floor that can detect the minutest amount of weight and sound a very loud alarm.
The English language movie, filmed entirely in Istanbul, Turkey, features several characters with heavy accents, such as Mercouri. She plays Elizabeth Lipp, the highly sexual girlfriend of Walter Harper (Schell). I rewound the DVD a few times during the film because I couldn’t quite get Mercouri’s spoken lines. Luckily, the actors playing the Turkish authorities speak slower, allowing more comprehension. Mercouri becomes more understandable as the film plays on as we get used to her special brand of visual flair and persuasiveness.
Peter Ustinov won an Oscar for best supporting actor for his wonderful and thorough portrayal of a petty con man named Arthur Simon Simpson. Walter and Elizabeth travel to Greece, where Simpson works selling fake artifacts to unsuspecting tourists. They’ve outfitted a Lincoln Continental convertible with smoke bombs and a gun needed for the museum heist, and they want Simpson to drive the car to Istanbul. I don’t know why the thieves couldn’t get their supplies in Turkey, but then there would be no reason for the Simpson character.
The border agents find the weapons in the Continental at the Turkish border, assume they’re the property of a terrorist group, and demand Simpson’s help in capturing them. Next, we see funny sequences of Simpson working undercover in Walter’s villa; naturally, he misunderstands the heist team’s real motives and inadvertently gives false leads to the police.
The heist at the Topkapi Palace Museum includes an acrobatic descent via rope from the museum ceiling. This sequence, like the heist in Dassin’s previous caper film, “Rififi (1955),” plays with very little or no sound. But unlike the gritty Rififi, Topkapi portrays a beautiful and exotic Istanbul, full of wonderful markets, colorful customs and a busy and interesting street life. Dassin takes his time in a long sequence at an Istanbul stadium that includes contests between scores of wrestlers. From Topkapi, I learned a lot about the beauty of Istanbul and Turkish culture.