Monday, September 22, 2008

Topkapi (1964)

Excellent Adaptation of Eric Ambler Book

The 1964 movie Topkapi was based on British novelist Eric Ambler's 1962 best seller "The Light of Day". I am often wary of watching movies of books I have liked but director Jules Dassin has done a terrific job. He has taken one of Ambler's more lighthearted, almost whimsical, suspense novels and turned it successfully into a lighthearted, funny suspense movie.

The plot is straightforward. Elizabeth Lipp and Walter Harper (wonderfully played by Melina Mercouri and Maximillian Schell) plan to pull off the heist of a lifetime. They want to steal a priceless, jewel-encrusted knife and scabbard from the famed Topkapi palace/museum in Istanbul. Harper realizes that if they are successful the world's police will go after every known jewel thief in the world. Harper and Lipp decide to recruit non-professionals with useful skills to pull of an ingeniously planned heist. To that end they recruit Arthur Simpson. Simpson is something of a part-time con man. Part English and part Egyptian Simpson makes a living hustling tourists in Greece.

As the plot develops Dassin takes us on a grand tour of Istanbul as it looked in the early 1960s. Dassin and his cinematographers do a great job conveying the sights and sounds of the city. Although the movie is played for laughs in some respects the planning and execution of the robbery makes for great viewing. The robbery itself is bold and audacious and Dassin and the cast do a great job in creating a feeling of tense anticipation as the movie reaches its climactic moments. It should not be a surprise that the creator of the TV series Mission Impossible was inspired by Topkapi. It may be a surprise to find out that there was a museum robbery in New York six months after Topkapi whose planning and execution was based on the film.

(pictures from another source)

The acting throughout is excellent. Peter Ustinov won a Best Supporting Actor Academy award for his portrayal of Simpson. Mercouri was both funny and flirtatious and carried off her role flawlessly. The great character actor Akim Tamiroff also did a great job playing a the always drunk, raging chef to the jewel thieves.

Topkapi is a fun, lighthearted movie. It is well worth seeing. By L. Fleisig

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