Adventure in Istanbul: Topkapi (1964)

TOPKAPI (1964)

Today (Dec. 8) is Maximilian Schell’s birthday. The handsome Swiss actor is one of my favorite screen performers and he would have been 85 today if he hadn’t passed away in 2014 after abruptly contracting pneumonia. To celebrate the occasion, I thought I’d take a look at one of my favorite Maximilian Schell films; the stylish and highly entertaining caper, Topkapi (1964) directed by Jules Dassin (Brute Force [1947], The Naked City [1948]). If you’re searching for an enjoyable way to pass a few hours, this playful, frothy cocktail of a film is sure to warm your spirits. Topkapi is currently streaming on FilmStruck and available on DVD and Blu-ray from Kino Lorber. You can also occasionally catch it playing on TCM.

TOPKAPI (1964)

Director Jules Dassin made a name for himself in Hollywood helming hard-hitting noir films but during the height of the post-war ‘Red Scare,’ he was blacklisted while shooting Night and the City (1950). Dassin eventually started working abroad gaining popularity as well as critical acclaim in Europe and America following the release of his gritty economical black-and-white heist film Rififi (1955). The success of Rififi, which involves a group of thieves who concoct a clever plan to rob a jewelry shop in Paris, inspired Dassin to return to the heist genre 9-years later with considerably different results.

In Topkapi, Dassin abandons the gritty Parisian city streets seen in Rififi for the colorful and exotic boulevards of Turkey and the breezy seaports of Greece. The mood of the film is much lighter and instead of a dangerous group of violent conmen running the show, the ambitious gang in Topkapi includes a flamboyant nymphomaniac (Melina Mercouri), a suave master criminal (Maximilian Schell), a bumbling grifter suffering from vertigo (Peter Ustinov), a mechanically minded gadget maker (Robert Morley), a mute circus acrobat (Gilles Ségal) and a no-nonsense muscle man (Jess Hahn). This unlikely band of comical thieves have their eyes on a dazzling emerald-encrusted dagger displayed at the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul but pocketing the unique treasure won’t be easy.

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This was Dassin’s first color film and one of the highpoints is the creative and picturesque camerawork employed by the director along with cinematographer Henri Alekan. Istanbul develops its own distinct personality thanks to Alekan’s camera as we survey the daily hustle and bustle of the city’s diverse inhabitants. From high-end hotels, to street fairs, sport matches, market places and the luxurious Topkapi Palace, the setting is shimmering and squirming with life. Occasionally the atmosphere is reminiscent of a documentary or travel record, evoking a book of fading picture postcards that are begging to be rediscovered. In addition, Alekan uses filters to create a kaleidoscope of colors in and outside of the beckoning Palace; beginning with a psychedelic title sequence and the effect is hypnotizing. Alekan became a camera operator in the 1930s, and in the 1940s he began developing his skills as a cinematographer. Other films he worked on besides Topkapi include René Clément ’s Battle of the Rails (1946), Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946), Julien Duvivier’s Anna Karenina (1948) and Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987), which are all currently streaming on FilmStruck.

Besides, Henri Alekan’s breathtaking cinematography, this fun and surprisingly sophisticated film has a lot going for it, including an elaborately staged robbery sequence that rivals a similar plot device in Rififi and inspired Brian De Palma during the making of Mission Impossible (1996). There are also some standout performances particularly from Melina Mercouri, Maximilian Schell and Peter Ustinov who share a strange kind of off-kilter chemistry.

When Jules Dassin was originally casting the film he wanted Peter Sellers to play Peter Ustinov’s role but Sellers declined. Stories about his reasons for not taking the role differ but some say Sellers was reluctant to work with Schell due to the Swiss actor’s unruly temperament. Others claim Sellers was bothered by the fact that Schell had once worked with Sophia Loren and the two may have had a romantic relationship. At the time, Sellers was obsessed with Loren (they met in 1960 during the making of The Millionairess) and this obsession, though unreciprocated, may have contributed to the break-up of his marriage. Whatever the reason, Sellers loss was Peter Ustinov’s gain. Topkapi earned Ustinov international acclaim and an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1964.

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Melina Mercouri’s role as the seductive comic book style femme fatale has been dismissed by some critics who assert that she was too old and outlandish for the part. Nevertheless, I find her throaty cigarette-scarred voice and chic sixties wardrobe (designed by Theoni V. Aldredge) bewitching. Mercouri and director Jules Dassin had a long affair that led to marriage in 1967 and the two remained together until her death in 1994 from lung cancer. During that time the duo made nine films together including He Who Must Die (1957), The Law (1959), Never on Sunday (1960), Phaedra (1962), 10:30 P.M. Summer (1966) and A Dream of Passion (1978), while developing a unique working relationship that helped make Mercouri one of the most beloved actresses in Greece.

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As for Maximilian Schell, the elegant, dark and handsome actor has rarely looked as alluring as he does in Topkapi. Dassin, along with cinematographer Henri Alekan, liberated the actor’s striking good looks from the static dramas he was so often cast in, allowing him to transform into a fascinating international man of mystery. Schell is Bond-like in his appeal while crisscrossing the Aegean coast, smoothly cracking jokes, sipping drinks and coolly romancing a scorching Melina Mercouri. I can’t help but wish he’d starred in his own series of spy films or crime pictures where he was allowed to regularly play debonair secret agents or cultured cat burglars. Thankfully, we have the delightful Topkapi to remind us how effortlessly charming Schell could be.

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3 Responses Adventure in Istanbul: Topkapi (1964)
Posted By Doug : December 8, 2016 6:00 am

“Melina Mercouri’s role as the seductive comic book style femme fatale has been dismissed by some critics who assert that she was too old and outlandish for the part.”
This is just a guess, but those ‘critics’ were probably youngsters who hadn’t yet realized that ladies can be beautiful in their thirties, forties and beyond. Their opinion of Melina Mercouri in this film looking back from their later years would probably be very different.
Ustinov on a zipline? I need to watch this movie!

Posted By swac44 : December 8, 2016 8:32 am

Love this film, it made me want to visit Istanbul (along with From Russia With Love), but haven’t been able to make that happen yet. I gave a copy of the DVD to my sister and her husband though, after they returned home from a Mediterranean cruise, they were delighted to see many of the places they visited highlighted in Topkapi.

They also happen to have a daughter named Melina, who was amused to finally find someone famous who shared the same name. (And I also think Ms. Mercouri is terrific here.)

Posted By kingrat : December 9, 2016 11:28 pm

I’m a fan of TOPKAPI and am delighted to see your appreciation of it. About Mercouri: to me the problem is that she looks so much like a drag queen in this movie.

But whether Melina’s character is a real girl or not, the movie is a lot of fun. Peter Ustinov really has the main role; I believe he’s said to have remarked that he wondered who he was supporting. He’s in top form.

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